How the School Board Spends Money (5-9-1922)

William Hale Thompson—otherwise known as Big Bill—was in his seventh year as mayor of Chicago. While he was celebrated as a builder of great public works, his administration was not noted for its honesty.

On this date, the Chicago Board of Education was under scrutiny. Mayor Thompson’s appointees formed a majority on the board, and had been involved in one controversy after another. Now a special grand jury was looking into examples of their waste and fiscal mismanagement.

Mayor Thompson

Mayor Thompson

State’s Attorney Robert Crowe conducted the investigation. The state’s attorney loved any kind of publicity—reporters said the most dangerous spot in the city was getting between Crowe and a news camera. Many thought Crowe was positioning himself to challenge Big Bill in next year’s primary.

Still, the probe was turning up all sorts of things.

State's Attorney Crowe

State’s Attorney Crowe

The board had recently purchased a thousand phonographs from a clout-heavy wholesaler for $157 each. The wholesaler had paid $40 for each machine and pocketed over $100,000. In other deals, the board bought $133 potato-peelers and $133 electric hand-driers. Principals reported receiving mahogany tables they had not asked for, and window shades that were not needed. At some schools, working clocks were smashed so that new ones could be ordered. Once again, the trail led to politically-connected suppliers.

The revelations didn’t seem to be altering the board’s methods. Mayor Thompson’s loyal majority was planning to ram through $1,032,000 in no-bid contracts for cleaning, decorating, and general repair. The reform minority could only fume.

One of the reformers had protested that the public might not be happy over the expensive mark-ups the board was paying for textbooks. He was told: “To hell with the public!  We’re at the trough now, and we’re going to feed.”

In the end, nobody was punished. The school board scandal did force Thompson to drop out of the 1923 mayoral race. But he came back for one more term in 1927, and it was more of the same. As for State’s Attorney Crowe, he ran into some scandals of his own, and was eventually voted out of office.


For 366 stories like this—one for every day of a leap year—buy a copy of my book, On This Day in Chicago History

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