CHICAGO (CBS) — Missing curriculum and missing textbooks are just some of the problems uncovered at Chicago Virtual Charter School. CBS 2 Morning Insider Lauren Victory dug deep into the taxpayer-funded school’s finances, to look into allegations of mismanagement and wasteful spending.
CFCS is the first public school of its kind in Chicago; a charter school offering a free and futuristic hybrid of learning: at home four days a week and in a classroom the fifth. It’s a good alternative for athletes and actors to practice and learn, and a different option for kids who have struggled with bullying or social issues at other schools.
But CVCS also is on the Chicago Public Schools’ watchlist. CPS promised to investigate after CBS 2 dug through the taxpayer-funded school’s expense reports and found questionable spending.
According to those reports, a woman named Angela Richardson-Bryant made zero dollars as board president one year but $135,000 as director of strategy the next.
The reports also listed $3,752 for flights back and forth to Chicago, because Richardson-Bryant moved to Atlanta. Her six-figure job came after that relocation.
“That’s a huge thing,” said one CVCS teacher who asked to remain anonymous.
“We can’t get answers about paying for field trips, paying for professional development, paying for clubs,” the teacher added. “But we know that money’s being spent to fly someone who doesn’t even live in the state up here.”
CPS was already eyeing CVCS, placing it on academic probation this school year.
Administrators tried to right the ship through a change in academic programming, but kids fell further behind after a disastrous and delayed change in educational materials.
The teacher who spoke anonymously to CBS 2 still believes in what could be at CVCS.
“I just keep hoping that this will turn around,” the teacher said.
However, many colleagues already gave up. Payroll records obtained by CBS 2 show at least 22 CVCS employees resigned over the past year.
After calling current and former educators to cross-reference all 22 departures, CBS 2 calculated a turnover rate of nearly 30 percent.
“I know, personally, of at least half a dozen that are looking [at leaving],” said the anonymous CVCS teacher.
A parent who also asked to remain anonymous might be part of the next exodus. She’s considering removing her child from CVCS.
“I hate that feeling,” she said.
Christina Nolan also is thinking of pulling her child out of CVCS, after having been a longtime supporter of the school.
“I’ve had six kids in the school over a course of seven years,” she said.
Parent after parent at CVCS told similar stories about their child falling behind in school, because of delays in getting educational materials.
This school year was supposed to focus on fixing things at CVCS, because it was already on academic probation. Administrators said part of their planned solution was to “restructure academic programming” by changing curriculum vendors.
Instead, teachers said the swap left them scrambling, and students without their coursework.
“This is a process that should take a year to a year-and-a-half to set up properly, to make the transition properly, but they chose instead to basically do it over the course of the summer,” the CVCS teacher said.
Nolan said her child now at CVCS was forced to wait at least three weeks for a computer needed for school, and also received math and language arts workbooks six weeks late.
“The kids were feeling very frustrated, too, and stressed out,” she said.
Bridget Gawenda’s son left CVCS in October.
“His whole math course was missing,” she said. “I did not really see light at the end of the tunnel.”
The person behind the decisions to change programming and switch curriculum vendors received a 15 percent raise this school year.
CVCS Chief Executive Officer Dr. Cheryl Pruitt’s $26,000 salary bump – to $176,000 a year – came while the school was on financial probation for not meeting CPS accountability requirements.
Pruitt made headlines last October, when she was arrested for allegedly double-billing the Gary Community Schools Corp for a three-day trip to a conference in Los Angeles in 2016.
CVCS parents worry further dysfunction will cause the school to be shut down.
“We don’t want to see the school close. The parents want it open,” Nolan said.
CVCS leaders don’t want the school to close either, responding to every allegation in a three-page, single-spaced document.
As for teachers leaving, the school said some have asked to return.
CVCS also blamed the hurried curriculum shift on “contract restrictions” by a previous vendor, and said paying for Richardson-Bryant’s flights between Chicago and Atlanta were “only fair given her contributions to the school community.”
“The CVCS Board believes that the cost would be far greater, if it attempted to navigate this new direction without Mrs. Bryant,” officials stated.
CPS promised to investigate those travel reimbursements after weeks of inquiries from CBS 2.
“We kind of feel like we’ve been forgotten by CPS, that there’s no oversight. So what would I like to see happen? I would like CPS to come in and take a very good look at what’s going on here,” Nolan said.
Pruitt invited CBS 2 to visit the school recently, but was unavailable for an interview because of an “allergic reaction” the day of the visit. About 13 hours before CBS 2 arrived, a warning was sent to parents about CBS working on a news story. The email included an acknowledgement, “we still have ways to go.”