This story was produced with the Better Government Association, a Chicago nonprofit newsroom focused on government accountability.
A campaign contributor to Mayor Lori Lightfoot landed a $1.6 million no-bid deal with Chicago Public Schools after the mayor personally vouched for him, then delivered computers that in some cases didn’t meet district purchasing standards or work for virtual learning.
District officials said they bought the used computers in April to meet an “urgent need” as schools scrambled to get devices to students and the district’s traditional vendors faced backlogs. Yet more than a third are still sitting in a district warehouse as backups, a Chalkbeat/Better Government Association investigation has found.
Mark Aistrope, the CEO of Chicago-based Meeting Tomorrow, who contributed nearly $30,000 to Lightfoot’s mayoral bid, emailed the mayor in late March, saying his company could quickly provide tens of thousands of computers to the school district when it needed them most.
Early the next morning, Lightfoot wrote CPS CEO Janice Jackson to put in a good word.
“Mark is a really good guy,” Lightfoot wrote atop Aistrope’s email, which she forwarded to Jackson. “I met him during my campaign and he is truly genuine and very generous. If he can help you, he will.”
A little more than three weeks later, the school district reached the deal with Aistrope’s computer rental firm. Officials acknowledged erring by ordering and distributing a small number of laptops without cameras — an oversight discovered after a Chalkbeat/BGA inquiry that CPS officials said they are now working to correct.
The purchase was a small part of a massive $31 million effort to quickly hand out tens of thousands of laptops and tablets for online learning after the coronavirus shut down school buildings and the sudden demand for computers led to severe shortages. CPS said the overwhelming majority of the Meeting Tomorrow devices were in good condition, and officials at some charter schools said they helped alleviate a pressing need and worked well.
You can read the full email here:
Still, the Meeting Tomorrow deal raises questions about Chicago’s high-stakes school technology expansion, unfolding as the district’s governing board allows millions to be spent without prior board vetting or competitive bidding in order to respond nimbly to a once-in-a-century pandemic. The district has used federal emergency dollars to partly fund its response, and a second stimulus package for schools may come in 2021.
The CPS-Meeting Tomorrow deal also offers a glimpse into the relationship between Lightfoot’s office — which has steered some coronavirus-response business to companies with political ties — and the district, where Jackson serves at the mayor’s pleasure.
Lightfoot declined to be interviewed for this report. In an emailed statement, her office defended the all-hands-on-deck response to the COVID-19 crisis.
“People of good will across Chicago have reached out to be helpful,” the statement said, “and the city has pointed them in the right direction — including to Chicago Public Schools in order to support our students.”
The statement did not address why Lightfoot emailed the head of CPS on behalf of a campaign contributor. The deal that followed the mayor’s email to Jackson ultimately helped Aistrope’s company ward off layoffs and find its footing amid the pandemic, he has said in an interview.
An expert said the transaction deserves further investigation.
“In my experience, emergency purchases pose a higher risk that the district’s going to pay a higher price for inferior product,” said James Sullivan, who was the CPS inspector general until 2014 when he retired from the job. “Based on the facts I know, I think this purchase warrants a deeper review.”
Reaching out to Lightfoot
In an August interview, Aistrope told Chalkbeat and the BGA that Meeting Tomorrow was decimated by event cancellations last spring when the coronavirus first hit. Then, he said, he saw a media report about CPS’ efforts to buy devices for students.
At the time, the district was grappling with the abrupt shift to remote learning as school buildings statewide closed. CPS scrambled to bridge the gaping digital divide in the city, where many low-income students did not have access to the technology suddenly needed to log on to school.
Aistrope had contributed nearly $30,000 in cash and in-kind donations to Lightfoot, who also visited his company’s headquarters on Election Day in February 2019, photos posted on Meeting Tomorrow’s Facebook page show. He said he never considered using the connection to win city business.
“I never, ever wanted to take advantage of this or have the appearance of this,” he said in August. “My expectation was never to do business with the city.”
Aistrope said that when he saw the school district needed computers, he contacted a deputy mayor, Samir Mayekar, whom he said he met through a mayoral initiative to spur entrepreneurship and philanthropy in under-resourced parts of the city.
“I had reached out to Samir, and they copied his chief of staff, and they quickly, the same night, forwarded it over to whoever the secretary of education person in the mayor’s administration (is), who then immediately forwarded it over to … the COO (chief operating officer) of Chicago Public Schools, and the CIO (chief information officer),” Aistrope said in August.
But emails later obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show Aistrope actually contacted Lightfoot directly.
Late in the evening on March 30, Aistrope wrote the mayor to say he had seen news about the district handing out devices to students and said his company had more than 12,000 laptops and iPads in its Albany Park warehouse.
“And I believe I can get 30,000 ChromeBooks and approx 3,000-4,000 additional PC laptops within the next 7 days,” he wrote, adding that he could arrange to have them shipped directly to students’ homes. “Please let me know if I can help with this or anything else during this time.”
Mayekar and Lightfoot’s chief of staff, Maurice Classen, were copied on the note from Aistrope.
“Mark, you’re always so incredible!” Lightfoot responded less than an hour later. “I cannot thank you enough. You’re the best.”
Early the next morning, Lightfoot forwarded the email thread to Jackson topped by her message of support for Aistrope.
After Chalkbeat and the BGA obtained the emails and reached back out to Aistrope about the discrepancy, Aistrope declined a follow-up interview and instead responded to questions in a statement through a public relations consultant.
Asked why he had not mentioned his contact with Lightfoot in an earlier interview, Aistrope’s statement said: “I didn’t know who would respond the fastest, and knowing that time was of the essence, I was just trying to get someone’s attention so we could help.”
In addition to reaching out to Jackson, Lightfoot also followed up with Aistrope by copying Sybil Madison, deputy mayor for education and human services, on the emails. She asked Madison to connect Aistrope with district officials, which records show Madison did.
After Jackson received the email thread from the mayor, Jackson forwarded Lightfoot’s recommendation to key members of her staff: Chief Information Officer Phillip DiBartolo, Chief Operating Officer Arnaldo Rivera, and Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade.
Officials, including DiBartolo’s second-in-command, Edward Wagner, exchanged six brief emails that day, but the details of those conversations remain secret because CPS redacted them, citing an exemption in state law for “predecisional intra-office communications.”
By that afternoon, Aistrope was meeting online with DiBartolo and Rivera, according to records and interviews.
Several weeks later, the district bought 5,066 used devices from the company, district purchase orders show.
In written responses to questions, CPS spokesman James Gherardi said the district had ordered as many computers from its established suppliers, CDW and Apple, as they could deliver on a tight timeline before turning to “secondary partners.”
“Given the urgent need and the lack of available devices through the normal supply chain, the district sought additional devices to bridge the gap that could be delivered in a timely manner,” Gherardi said in the response.
He said the mayor’s email did not factor in the decision. Meeting Tomorrow was the “only local vendor with readily available devices,” and its ability to help tag and deliver those laptops and tablets helped enormously, he said.
Gherardi’s written responses also said the school board’s emergency COVID-19 spending authorization, in which the board allowed the district to spend up to $75 million without prior board approval, let it cut the deal without a written contract or agreement.
Several technology experts who reviewed the district’s technology purchases earlier this year said the district generally got good prices and a sensible selection of computers.
But two of the experts interviewed for the earlier Chalkbeat/BGA report — Douglas Levin, president of EdTech Strategies, which consults with school districts, and Richard Culatta of the nonprofit International Society for Technology in Education — raised questions about the Meeting Tomorrow deal.
Both experts stressed the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic, but said it’s unusual to see a district buying a mishmash of roughly a dozen device models. Such a purchase can complicate maintenance and managing software applications, they said.
The experts also said the age of some of the devices — including 2017 iPads and an iPad Air model retired by Apple three years ago — means they are close to the end of their life cycles.
While the company did not charge excessively for the computers, it does not appear to have offered the district bargain prices. It charged CPS $300 for three-year-old iPads, for example, slightly more than what the district paid Apple for new iPads, district purchase orders show.
It’s hard to make direct comparisons because the older iPads had cell service capacity, which typically drives prices up. Meeting Tomorrow’s ability to supply the machines quickly might have also fetched a premium amid the supply challenges, the experts said.
One expert, Hal Friedlander, head of the nonprofit Technology for Education Consortium and a former chief information officer of New York City public schools, said the deal seemed like a creative approach to circumventing the device shortages, and the computers should work well to meet student needs.
Not all the devices from Meeting Tomorrow met the district’s specifications.
Levin noted the 2017 iPads and the iPad Air devices sold by Aistrope are older models than the district requires. He said many of the laptops use older storage technology, which could make the computers run more slowly.
Records show DiBartolo emailed the CPS specifications to Aistrope before their virtual meeting. Gherardi said a majority of the computers CPS purchased from Aistrope were fully equipped and met technical specifications.
Accolades and complaints
In CPS’ written responses, Gherardi acknowledged the district erred by ordering a small number of laptops without cameras: 120 out of the more than 5,000 computers.
All those 120 devices went to the Englewood campus of charter school Urban Prep, the district said. Officials said they only discovered that error after Chalkbeat and the BGA raised questions about the purchase. CPS said it would replace the laptops before winter break. Urban Prep did not respond to requests for comment.
But one other charter network told Chalkbeat and the BGA about a similar issue with some of the laptops it received.
Three South Side campuses of Chicago International Charter School received 620 Meeting Tomorrow devices from CPS, records show. A spokeswoman for the network said about half of the roughly 200 laptops the school received from CPS did not have working cameras or microphones, and families returned some of the iPads because of faulty batteries or speakers.
The spokeswoman said the network has since received hundreds of new Chromebooks from the district, which has “more than made up” for the issues with the used devices.
Although CPS did not buy a warranty from Meeting Tomorrow, Aistrope said in his recent statement that the company has been troubleshooting issues when schools reach out. He said some problems are inevitable and that his company is addressing them “without charges or fees.” He also said his company replaced the devices’ missing webcams “immediately.”
The district said it was not aware of Meeting Tomorrow’s maintenance or troubleshooting efforts.
A number of district-run schools, including Zapata Academy, Willa Cather Elementary, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High School, Galileo Scholastic Academy, and Haley Elementary, also received shipments of anywhere from about a dozen to 55 Meeting Tomorrow devices. Some were given to teachers and some to students.
Another 1,750 went to a warehouse, according to a CPS log obtained by Chalkbeat and the BGA that details where new technology was distributed. Gherardi said all but 30 of those devices remain in the warehouse because they were “not needed for immediate use” and will be used to replace broken computers.
North Lawndale College Prep, which received 180 tablets from Meeting Tomorrow, is also keeping them as backups since by the time it received them it had lined up a private donation that enabled the school to buy new Chromebooks, officials at the school said.
Some charter school officials who received Meeting Tomorrow devices said the shipments helped during a challenging time, and the computers have worked well for students.
At Moving Everest, on the West Side, Michael Rogers, founder and executive director, said the 65 older-model iPads the school received are at an age when the school would normally replace them with new ones. Nevertheless, he said, the iPads, along with new Chromebooks the district provided, have had few issues.
Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy on the Southwest Side received 300 Lenovo ThinkPads from the district in June, Principal Elias Alonzo said. All 300 are being used by students this year without issues, he said.
Still, Sullivan, the district’s former inspector general, said the deal with Meeting Tomorrow raises questions: Did the district solicit offers from other vendors and sufficiently test the market before buying from the company? Did it pay reasonable prices? And did it have the option to return machines it has not used?
Exactly what role Lightfoot’s email to the district might have played can be tough to determine, he said.
“There are going to be a lot of CPS vendors that made contributions — that’s just the nature of the game,” Sullivan said.