Chicago Hope

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Crackerjack reporter Maribeth Vander Wheele used to take on corruption in the city's public schools in the newspaper. Now she's working on the inside.

Power walking down a deserted corridor at the Chicago public schools' massive headquarters, Maribeth Vander Weele suddenly notices a fresh tag on the wall, courtesy of the Latin Kings, one of the city's more notorious gangs. "That's new," she says, not breaking stride for even a nanosecond. "I'll have to get someone to paint over it." She'd probably do it herself--if she only had the time. And for Maribeth Vander Weele, time is of the essence. Since being named the district's chief of investigations one year ago, she has devoted practically all her waking hours to ridding the Chicago schools of corruption, fraud, and abuse. "This is a mission," says the former Chicago Sun-Times investigative reporter, who made a name for herself by exposing wrongdoing in the school system once dubbed "a terrible human tragedy" by former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett.

A petite woman with a sunny personality that belies the toughness within, Vander Weele, 36, spent five years at the Sun-Times, the scrappier of Chicago's two daily newspapers. She was like a one-woman Woodward and Bernstein, documenting a culture of corruption that had long been taken for granted by the bureaucrats at "Pershing Road," Chicagospeak for the school district's factory-like central office. (Sample headline: "Widespread Waste, Foul-Ups Uncovered at School Board.") "She was a tough, indefatigable reporter, primarily in the areas of corruption and waste," says Linda Lenz, the editor of Catalyst, a monthly newsletter that chronicles school reform in Chicago. Vander Weele, Lenz adds, was the first reporter at either daily to take an investigative approach to covering the school system. "That kind of reporting had never been done before."

Vander Weele saw herself as carrying on the tradition of people like Upton Sinclair, whose 1906 novel, The Jungle, about Chicago's meatpacking industry, shocked Congress into passing the nation's first pure food and drug act. She wasn't just a reporter; she was a crusader.And yet, sometimes Vander Weele wondered if her stories were really making a difference. "I would write these bombshell investigative stories, and there'd be no reaction," she says. "No reaction from City Hall. No reaction from anybody. I just assumed they were going into this hole somewhere. It was very frustrating. I'd look at my colleagues, and I'd think, 'If it were another issue, there would be this outrage.'"

Vander Weele's desire to change things for the better even influenced her dream world. "I would actually have nightmares of trying to--this sounds so weird and silly--of trying to protect children from gunfire," she says, "or going into a mansion and finding this hidden room with all these forgotten chil-dren and helping them through these passages."

Many newspaper reporters eventually come to the realization that their stories have about as much shelf life as the cheap paper they are printed on. Vander Weele felt that if she could only put everything she knew about the Chicago school system into a book, then her work might have some lasting influence. So, in 1993, she spent most of her evenings, weekends, and vacations researching and writing Reclaiming Our Schools: The Struggle for Chicago School Reform. The book, published by Loyola University Press, documented the sorry state of Chicago's schools and the efforts of reformers to do something about it, largely through the establishment of local school councils made up of principals, teachers, parents, and community members. "I had hoped the book would create a public outcry," Vander Weele says, "because that had been missing for so many years." Reclaiming Our Schools did garner positive reviews, but the response from the public was muted. "In fact, I only sold a few thousand copies of the book, to be honest with you," she says.

The outcry came from downstate in Springfield, where in 1995 the Republican-controlled Illinois legislature--fed up with the district's chronic failures--handed Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley emergency powers to run the city's schools for four years. Daley, in turn, named his budget director, Paul Vallas, as the chief executive officer (the old term, superintendent, was dropped), and his chief of staff, Gery Chico, as the president of a new five-member reform school board. With much fanfare, Daley promised a new beginning for the nation's third-largest school system. "Business as usual is over," he declared. "The special interests will have to move to the back of the line. The bureaucrats who stand in the way of change will be removed and their powers dissolved."

Vallas told Vander Weele, "You should consider going to work for the board of education." She replied, "I don't think they're serious about reform."

Vallas, it turns out, had met Vander Weele when he was still Daley's budget director. His father-in-law, who had read Reclaiming Our Schools, dragged Vallas to a lecture the reporter was giving in a Chicago suburb. Afterward, over coffee, Vallas--who had no idea that he was about to be put in charge of the school system--told Vander Weele, "You should consider going to work for the board of education." She replied, "I don't think they're serious about reform."

One month later, when Vallas got the top job, Vander Weele was among the first people he called about coming to work for him. He wanted her to join his management team as the director of school and community relations.

Naturally, Vander Weele had some doubts. "My key question," she says, "was, 'Is Paul Vallas serious?' Because I had been a critic of the system for many years, and I wanted to make sure this wasn't somebody trying to buy me off and silence my criticism." Convinced that Vallas' intentions were honorable, Vander Weele took the job. She said goodbye to her colleagues at the Sun-Times, packed up 42 boxes of documents, and moved to her new office at 1819 W. Pershing Road--the very place where, as she herself once put it, "tales of lavish spending, cronyism, and bureaucratic snafus were legendary."

"I was heartbroken," says veteran investigative reporter Charles Nicodemus, Vander Weele's mentor at the Sun-Times. "No paper can afford to lose talent, but no paper can ever afford to lose someone of Maribeth's talent. It was tragic that she got away."

Vallas wanted to clean house, and he wanted Vander Weele to lead the charge.

At Pershing Road, it soon became clear that Vander Weele's investigative talents were being squandered in the community-relations job. "I'm not a schmoozer," she says. "I'm not one who enjoys ceremonies or awards or those kinds of things. My interest has always been in the biggest problems in the system and getting them solved." To that end, Vallas in August 1995 named Vander Weele chief of investigations. Vallas wanted to clean house, and he wanted Vander Weele to lead the charge. "For too long," Vallas said at the time, "things have fallen through the cracks. We want to send a signal that all allegations of wrongdoing will be vigorously pursued and resolved."

In Chicago, such talk from the head of the school district was downright radical. As Vander Weele wrote in her book, the system, for "as long as anyone can remember, served primarily as a hiring hall for patronage workers and a fountain of lucrative contracts and then, almost as an afterthought, as a place to educate children." Corruption, it seemed, could be found at nearly every level of the 413,000-student district. A few years back, school board president D. Sharon Grant was investigated after allegations that she had steered contracts and arranged for extensive renovations of a board-owned property leased to her mother. She was later convicted of cheating on her taxes and sentenced to 21 months in prison. More recently, the district's director of school facilities, James Harney, was indicted on federal charges that he had accepted $200,000 in cash, a new Lincoln Continental, and jobs for three of his children in exchange for steering more than $20 million in school repair work to four Chicago firms. He, too, is now in prison.

When Vallas and his team took control, one of the first things they discovered was a warehouse filled with thousands of pieces of brand-new school furniture, including desks, chairs, even some pianos. An incredulous Ben Reyes, the district's chief operating officer, told a reporter, "We asked why, and the workers told us they were waiting for orders from someone to deliver it somewhere." Reyes complied, demanding that the furniture be distributed to schools immediately.

Vol. 16, Issue 08

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