There is no charter chain in Chicago with stronger political connections than UNO, whose founder Juan Rangel served as a campaign co-chair for the election of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Rangel is widely viewed as a leading figure–if not THE leading figure–in the Hispanic community, the guy whose blessing delivers votes. 

Naturally, he runs one of the largest charter chains in the city, and the state and local school budget supplies his every need.

Unfortunately, investigators learned that the $98 million grant that the legislature gave him to build  new charter schools was going to relatives of high-level officials at UNO. Governor Pat Quinn temporarily suspended payment on the balance the state had promised to UNO, giving Rangel time to clean up his operation. Rangel fired the high-level officials who had given multimillion dollar contracts to family members, and the grants were restored.

But then the SEC came in and launched an investigation about whether UNO had violated federal laws as it raised millions of dollars from private lenders using state bonds. 

Now, Governor Quinn has frozen the remaining $15 million of UNO’s $98 million grant for new school construction.

Will Juan Rangel’s political connections save UNO once again?

As the Chicago Sun-Times reports:

“UNO officials had hoped to build two more schools with the remaining $15 million and with another $35.2 million they asked state lawmakers to provide earlier this year.

Last month, Chicago businessman Martin Cabrera Jr. — whose appointment as UNO chairman was cited by Quinn as an important reform — resigned.

The governor has attended UNO events, including the ground-breaking for the UNO Soccer Academy High School, and signed the legislation awarding the grant to UNO. Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) sponsored the grant, which is believed to be the largest government subsidy in the country for charter schools.

UNO also has close ties to Ald. Edward Burke, a major Quinn fund-raiser. The alderman had urged the governor to reverse the initial suspension of the grant.

The new high school is in Burke’s 14th Ward, and his daughter-in-law has worked for UNO. Contractors with close Burke ties also have done work for the charter operator.

Founded in the 1980s as a Hispanic community activist group, UNO went into the charter business in the late 1990s, and its network has grown to include 16 schools across Chicago with more than 7,600 students.

While the massive state grant and more than $70 million in private loans have helped the charter network expand rapidly, most of its operating budget — as well as the money to repay the loans — comes from the Chicago Public Schools, which gives UNO tens of millions of dollars a year.”