Pedro Soto and Janice Jackson Reveal the CPS Double Standard on Accountability

On Thursday, it was reported that CEO Janice Jackson’s chief of staff, Pedro Soto, was charged with lying to the FBI about his role in an apparent bid-rigging and bribery scheme. Soto is alleged to have passed secret information to a company bidding for a $1 billion CPS custodial contract in 2016. Jackson responded by portraying Soto’s alleged crimes as a “betrayal of trust.” 

For many CPS principals, her response is deeply problematic for the following reason: When school-based employees act in bad faith and betray the trust of principals, Jackson’s administration punishes the principals for trusting those employees in the first place.

As president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, I have received multiple reports from our general counsel about occasions in which CPS accused principals of not exercising due diligence in hiring or volunteer practices, and then targeted those principals for disciplinary action even when those principals did not violate any CPS policy or procedure. School leaders have been dragged into disciplinary hearings for simply making positive statements about employees or volunteers who later turned out to have committed some offense. Officials in Janice Jackson’s Law Department have actually said on the record that school leaders “should have known better” with no evidence to back up their claims. They assert that despite the absence of clear rules against a principal's actions or inactions, they should have exercised some vague “common sense.”

If that is the district’s standard under Jackson, then Jackson “should have known” better than to bring this alleged criminal into her administration, and she should have had enough “common sense” not to promote him to a position with a $175,000 salary and then keep him in that position while he was under federal criminal investigation.

Fortunately, the principals represented by CPAA’s legal team in such cases have all kept their positions and some were able to avoid disciplinary action altogether. However, the mere fact that CPS attempts to discipline many school leaders for what they “should have known” is infuriating given the fact that district officials regularly escape accountability for far worse lapses.

One of the great unspoken but driving forces of today’s racial justice protests is the idea of unfairness. That is, the unfairness of how Black people are treated by the police and the courts is highlighted by the fact that police and courts do not treat white people the same way in similar circumstances. It is that stark contrast that drives the anger, resentment and frustrations of so many Americans.

In a similar way, the anger, resentment and frustrations of Chicago’s school leaders are elevated and heightened by unfairness. We know that central office officials regularly escape accountability for lapses, failures of judgment and procedural violations that often end the careers of school-based administrators. If a CPS principal hired and promoted someone like Pedro Soto and kept him at a school while he was under federal investigation, that principal would be disciplined or out of a job. Whatever your feelings are about the CEO,  this hypocrisy is real. Jackson’s accountably failure is just the latest example of the double standard that CPS principals have to live with every day of our professional lives.

If Jackson held herself to the same aggressive accountability standards she holds for principals, she would follow Soto out of the door after having been unwise enough to hire and promote a man who engaged in alleged bribery and bid-fixing, and reckless enough to retain him while he was under federal investigation. However, that’s not the CPS we live and work in. She won't hold herself accountable, and the Board won't hold her accountable, either.

It’s not Jackson’s trust that was betrayed. She was betrayed by her own judgment. In a statement, she wrote, "There is no place in our school district for anyone who would engage in these activities...." However, it was Jackson who gave Soto his place and his promotion in our district and in her office. After Soto resigned, she sent an email with the subject line “Zero tolerance for unethical behavior.” However, the reality is CPS tolerated Soto’s behavior for years andas was the case with Barbara Byrd-Bennetthe district did nothing until federal investigators stepped in.

Jackson either needs to hold herself accountable or extend the same grace to principals that she often extends to herself and her inner circle. She can’t have it both ways. Then again, this is Chicago. Our officials are used to having it both ways, and they will continue to do so as long as we let them get away with it.

For my part, I will continue to sound the alarm about this hypocrisy in order to hold the district accountable and give them pause the next time they think about going after an administrator for some trivial mistake. Such efforts would be far more effective if they were part of a larger collective action of administrators and our allies. We are patiently and deliberately building the relationships, trust and networks that would enable such collective action. Until then, I will continue to do everything in my power as CPAA president to advocate for Chicago's school leaders.