A scandal ridden Chicago charter school operator must produce documents under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (the “FOIA”). The Circuit Court of Cook County ruled against UNO Charter School Network, Inc. (“UCSN”) and United Neighborhood Organization of Chicago (“UNO”), the private company that UCSN hired to manage its charter schools, and in favor of Chicago Sun-Times news reporter Dan Mihalopoulos, represented by FVLD.
The Chicago Sun-Times had published a series of investigative reports revealing politically connected UNO’s misuse of state funds to construct and manage local charter schools under a grant of $98 million awarded by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (“DCEO”) for charter school development. The Chicago Sun-Times reporting led the President of UCSN and UNO to resign from both Boards and triggered an investigation by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, which ultimately charged both organizations with misleading investors by concealing conflicts of interest.
UCSN had denied having responsive documents in its possession while UNO contended that it was a “private entity” beyond the FOIA’s reach. The Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor disagreed, however, and issued a binding opinion that both entities are subject to the FOIA. Among other factors, the Attorney General found that UCSN’s delegations of responsibility to UNO under their management services agreement encompassed “virtually all of the governance of the charter school” and that records concerning “the use of public funds to design and build charter schools are public records” subject to the FOIA.
UCSN sued for administrative review but the court found that financial experts and even the DCEO had treated UCSN and UNO as a single entity, further noting that both entities had common Boards, offices, and record-keeping systems. The decision, which favors transparency and accountability where local government delegate functions to private entities, should facilitate the public’s oversight of charter school operators.