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Thursday, December 17, 2009

SALF-gate? 49,000 questions for Education Secretary Arne Duncan

Posted by The Dean of Cincinnati

Photo courtesy of here.

“One of the most erudite, prolific and acidic critics of national education policy.” That’s how the Washington Post memorialized Gerald Bracey shortly after his death in late October. One of his regular targets was President Obama’s basketball buddy, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. In an eerie parting shot from waaaay off-court, Bracey just slam-dunked Duncan.

At the time of his death. Bracey was about to publish an article about the Save-A-Life Foundation’s (SALF) relationship with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) when Duncan was in charge. “The Skeleton in Arne Duncan’s Closet” was supposed to appear on Halloween in Bracey’s Huffington Post column, but the HuffPost couldn’t get their act together. Picking up the ball, some of Bracey’s colleagues co-published it on their blogs a couple weeks ago. Since then, the story’s been turning up around the ‘net from OpenLeft to The Free Republic. That’s about as wide a political point spread as it gets and Bracey’s tale from the crypt - literally - certainly has something for everyone.

According to Bracey, here’s the loudest rattle coming from Duncan’s dungeon. Between 2004-06, Duncan’s office directly signed off on $49,000 for SALF to provide first-aid training classes in the Chicago Schools. Trouble is, when it comes to records proving that the training ever happened, CPS seems to have slightly more than zilch.

Per Bracey, it’s tough for Duncan to claim he was out of the loop:

During his years as CPS big dog, Arne Duncan was apparently close to (SALF president Carol) Spizzirri. He was a featured speaker at a 2003 SALF conference and a 2006 press statement has him receiving a SALF “Sponsorship Award” from Spizzirri, his second such prize. Duncan is quoted saying, “Carol is one of my heroes. I really appreciate the partnership.” Duncan even appeared as an animated pitchman on SALF’s website, cheerily hyping kids on the program: “Hi, friend, I’m Arne Duncan…Ask your school teacher today if the ‘SALF-Town’ heroes can visit you!”

Bracey was picking up the trail ABC7 I-Team reporter Chuck Goudie began clearing three years ago:


Per the video clip, Goudie reported that SALF claimed to have trained 67,000 Chicago schools students in just one year, but Duncan himself admitted that “doesn’t seem likely.” Goudie reported that CPS paid SALF big bucks for the program, but he didn’t follow the money trail. That’s where Bracey was going:


After Goudie’s reports, Spizzirri filed a defamation suit against three people who criticized SALF (including Dr. Heimlich’s son), claiming the criticisms cost it 11 contracts, including CPS. But the lawsuit resulted in only more scrutiny. For example, in response to a subpoena from the defendants’ lawyer for all their SALF records, CPS produced a grand total of 19 invoices from 2000-2007 totaling $12,855.

Three more invoices from 2004/2005—which CPS failed to provide to the defendants’ attorney—have since turned up via a public records request. The first 19 invoices produced by the subpoena appear to have gone through regular CPS payroll. But the three later invoices, totaling $49,000, were processed and signed off by CEO Arne Duncan’s office. One includes this handwritten notation: “per AD per Ann Whalen 9-14-05.” Whalen was Duncan’s personal assistant. She now works for him in Washington.

As a defendant in SALF’s ridiculous lawsuit (which they dropped), I’d like to know why CPS’s legal department didn’t produce those three invoices. Was it an oversight or did they fail to comply with a federal subpoena?

For now, let’s just take a closer look at the three invoices.

The first one, dated March 24, 2004 for $24,500, says “approved by “Nellie V. Balach, Manager, Office of CEO.” The description column says, “Commitment from Chicago Public Schools for training elementary school students in life supporting first aid skills which will take place in approximately 15 schools with approximately 2400 students.”

$24.5K paid by office of Chicago Public School CEO Arne Duncan to Save-A-Life Foundation, 3/24/04


The results must have pleased Duncan because in September 2005, a year and a half later, he approved another $24,500 also signed by Ms. Balach with the same description: “Commitment from Chicago Public Schools for training elementary school students in life supporting first aid skills which will take place in approximately 15 schools with approximately 2400 students.” One invoice also says, “This is for the 2005-2006 school year.” As Bracey noted, Ann Whalen signed/initialed for her boss “AD.”

$24.5K paid from office of Chicago Public School CEO Arne Duncan to Save-A-Life Foundation, 9/6+28/05


So was SALF paid to train 2400 students per year, or were 2400 students at 15 schools (36,000) supposed to be trained each year? The question’s irrelevent because CPS doesn’t seem to have records supporting either scenario. As Bracey noted, in response to the subpoeana for all SALF-related records, CPS produced nothing except these 19 invoices from 2000-2007. From 2004-2006, there are but three invoices, showing - get this - 76 people who received training:

19 invoices from 2000-07 paid by Chicago Public Schools to the Save-A-Life Foundation


There’s nothing wrong with the Chicago Schools CEO taking a special interest in an extracurricular program, and maybe he signed off on the $49K in good faith. But Duncan’s plausible deniability ended November 16, 2006. That’s when Duncan himself expressed doubts about SALF’s training claims in the first of what turned out to be four ABC I-Team reports. Given his chummy relationship with an organization that used him as a cartoon pitchman, if only to avoid the appearance of impropriety, Duncan should have turned the matter over to CPS’s Inspector General. To my knowledge, he didn’t lift a finger.

Best case scenario? CPS bureaucrat-in-chief Duncan buried the problem. Now Bracey’s Ghost is asking if $49,000 in Illinois tax dollars that crossed his desk was yet another Chicago Schools “miracle”? USA Today, July 12, 2009:

New research from a Chicago civic group takes direct aim at the city’s “abysmal” public high school performance - and puts a new spin on the academic gains made during the seven years that Arne Duncan led the Chicago schools before he was named U.S. Education secretary. The Civic Committee of The Commercial Club of Chicago, a supporter of Duncan and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s push for more control of city schools, issued the report June 30. It says city schools have made little progress since 2003. Its key findings stand in stark contrast to assertions President Obama made in December when he nominated Duncan as Education secretary.

As Secretary of Education, Duncan’s shooting hoops with billions in federal dollars. Before we trust him with that free throw, it’s fair to ask him to clear up haunting questions about his one-on-one with the Save-A-Life Foundation.

P.S. If you know Arianna Huffington, you might inform her that one of her most eminent columnists passed away two months ago:


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  1. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) says:


    This is actually groud breaking stuff, but beware ...

    if you package this correctly ...

    Glenn Beck may have you on his show.

    Seriously, you need to give some backgroud on this.

    To the casual reader, you are rambling about nothing (Imagine that coming from me).

    But on the contrary, this is very important stuff.

    Stuff that can only be linked back to your site when the big story breaks.

    And this is a real possibility regarding this story.

  2. anon says:

    A former Save-A-Life Foundation employee maintains a website in which she maintains that she’s being railroaded by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Cook County Prosecutor Anita Alvarez in a bogus criminal indictment. Check it out:

  3. anon says:
  4. Twinks Tvet says:

    Mr. Scott Ryan: Glenn Beck may have you on his show.

    Actually (as The Dean observed) this mess has something for everyone, from Beck to Amy Goodman. But:

    - Are the hysterical teabaggers (and their masters) even rational enough to figure out this will give them Arne (as close as it gets to a Barack proxy) on a silver platter?

    - Does the ambivalent left hate President Carpetbagger enough to want to clean house by sending Arne back to Chicago?

    - Is there a MSM reporter/blogger motivated enough - gasp - to actually ask current Chicago Public Schools CEO Ron Huberman for a statement on how many kids received training from Save-A-Life and to file a FOIA asking CPS for all records associated with the $49K?

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