Feds investigating $20 million SUPES contract, Byrd-Bennett ties

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One of Mayor Emanuel's inner circle has been interviewed by the FBI in connection with the SUPES Academy investigation.

Mark Van Scyoc/shutterstock.com

One of Mayor Emanuel's inner circle has been interviewed by the FBI in connection with the SUPES Academy investigation.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett

Barbara Byrd-Bennett

Federal authorities are investigating a “matter” at CPS that sources tell Catalyst Chicago involves CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and the $20 million no-bid contract given to SUPES Academy.

The CPS inspector general has been investigating Byrd-Bennett and the controversial SUPES contract since 2013. Inspector General Nick Schuler declined to comment Wednesday on whether the investigation is ongoing or on the inquiries from the federal government.

The inspector general’s investigation was spurred by a Catalyst investigation that detailed Byrd-Bennett’s connection with the for-profit, Wilmette-based SUPES Academy. Byrd-Bennett had worked as a coach for SUPES until she was hired at CPS and there’s some evidence that she continued to consult with related companies after she was on CPS’ payroll. In June 2013, the School Board quietly awarded SUPES the $20 million contract, which was the largest no-bid contract in the district's recent history, according to Catalyst’s review of board reports.

Wendy Katten of the parent group Raise Your Hand called it “frustrating” that the board ignored the apparent conflict of interest.

“When this came out, it should have been addressed immediately. This is why there is so little trust in the district,” she said. “We went to the board and asked them to end this contract and redirect the money to schools. It shouldn’t have to lead to a federal investigation to get action.”

Katten said the issue isn’t just one of ethics, but of how CPS chooses to spend its limited cash. “Those are valuable resources that are being taken away from our schools,” she added.

Byrd-Bennett’s three-year, $250,000 annual contract is up this year.

Byrd-Bennett’s contract was supposed to automatically renew for an additional year after its June 30thexpiration unless the board notified her otherwise by March 1. Catalyst has been asking CPS since March whether Byrd-Bennett’s contract would, indeed, be renewed automatically. As of Tuesday morning, a CPS spokesman said he was still looking into whether she planned to stay on.

 When Mayor Rahm Emanuel was asked by reporters at City Hall about whether he had confidence in Byrd-Bennett, he said he “couldn’t answer that question,” according to the Chicago Tribune.

CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said Wednesday that Byrd-Bennett is still actively working at CPS.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Chicago declined to comment, as did an FBI spokesperson.

Bitter complaints about poor quality

Byrd-Bennett did not answer Catalyst’s questions about the contract in the summer of 2013. But in a follow-up story in October she said the intent of the SUPES contract was to provide comprehensive principal professional development. Yet for the past three years, principals--who were at first required to attend the trainings--have complained bitterly about the content, stating that the sessions were too basic and were led by administrators from other districts who knew nothing about the problems principals face in Chicago.

Eventually, CPS leaders said the trainings were not mandatory, but that principals would be responsible for the knowledge provided during them.

Board member Carlos Azcoitia was out-of-town in July 2013 and did not vote on the original contract with SUPES. However, once he learned of it, the National Louis University professor questioned the $20 million size of the contract. Even if the federal investigation does not yield anything, Azcoitia does not think that Byrd-Bennett should have gone forward with the SUPES contract.

Yet he says that Byrd-Bennett has “had positive experience in other areas.”

Leaders of other local universities also questioned why they did not have the opportunity to bid on the contract and also said they were not familiar with SUPES.

The owners of SUPES Academy—Gary Solomon and Tom Vranas—also run a superintendent search firm called ProAct, as well as a company called Synesi Associates, which helps districts improve failing schools. Catalyst found a number of situations in which superintendents worked as coaches and/or trainers for SUPES, while their school districts simultaneously had contracts with the company.

Solomon and Vranas did not return phone messages.

Solomon has refused to disclose how much superintendents are paid to do training, but sources say it is thousands of dollars for each one. One of them, Baltimore County superintendent Dallas Dance, was found by an ethics panel to have violated his district’s rules by working as a coach for company while the Baltimore County school district was also doing business with them.

Photo: FBI logo/Shutterstock.com

  • Northside

    this is why it make me sick that downstate rused to judge teachers with new laws. they should be making laws to CONTROL CPS…..does this mean she will have her rating lowered to Unsatisfactory?? get 90′ days to return to a “Proficient Rating” I bet not!!

    • Concerned Neighbor

      Right on!

  • Concerned Parent

    Time to say good-bye BBB – please take your hacks with you like the network 10 chief – tired of hearing her say how she knows you over and over.

  • Concerned Parent

    what a waste of money that could have gone to our childgren – did Harm-Rahm know she did this? Any principal with integrity should boycott going to Stupes!

  • Concerned Parent

    The Board is responsible for this – time to resign – BBB and the Board!

  • Concerned Parent

    Was there not a problem with a Supes ‘owner’ -he had to leave his school as due to issues there?

  • Concerned Parent

    A new-improved Rahm? Do the right thing here, get her to move on or go down with her. If you don’t act soon, it will stick to you good. Never forgotten.

  • Concerned Parent

    Does BBB have a financial interest in Supes? Is this similar to what Sun-Times reported about a CPS Board member recently with Think Through Math?

  • Concerned Parent

    Does Mr. Cawley have anything to do with this as he oversees spending?

  • Concerned Parent

    How can Rahm say today that he does not know if FBI talked to BBB when he talked to BBB about this yesterday as reported?

  • Concerned Parent

    Would Rauner have not mentioned CPS declaring bankruptcy yesterday-Rahm was there too -right? if we did not have this kind of $20 million waste? Look at BBB salary – first class trips to Ohio and taxpayers pay her pension – stop this!

  • Concerned Parent

    Rahm – Chicago Board of Education member Carlos Azcoiti-make him interim CEO while BBB-FBI investigation is going on.

    • Concerned Neighbor

      I believe he is a man of integrity. So two questions: 1) How likely is it Rahm would choose him? 2) How likely is it he take it even if offered?

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  • Rodney Estvan

    Really this is sad, the public face of CPS getting into this situation. Then one adds to this Governor Rauner’s comments on the need for a CPS bankruptcy that logically would indicate from his perspective providing any additional funding to CPS equating to shooting money down the rat hole we find this school district in a very bad spot.

    It seems impossible that David Vitale has not been aware of both the Catalyst story and the on going investigations. That raises some serious questions about his own judgement to. I have the feeling a significant shake up could be coming to the district.

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  • N.Eck

    Principals have been
    raising a red flag about the SUPES contract from day 1. Of course Rahm was aware this was
    happening. It made news in 2013 and both
    Rahm and Vitale defended this contract!
    Footage of the defense in 2013 was shown on Chicago Tonight this
    evening. This backroom deal was done the
    SAME YEAR 50 SCHOOLS WERE CLOSED TO “SAVE MONEY”. Just like the Aramark & Sodexo Magic custodial
    contracts Tim Cawley pushed and Vitale & Board approved. Who are or will be the beneficiaries of
    golden parachutes and kickbacks for those very expensive, Rahm-supported
    contracts to private vendors being enriched with taxpayer dollars??? Plus, I find the timing of this investigation’s
    announcement very suspicious.
    Surely this was coming down the pipeline before last week’s mayoral
    election. Its exposure got delayed by
    Rahm’s friends in high places. Rahm’s ad
    machine was distracting voters with issues like failure to remove a homeowner’s
    exemption from an inherited home when true fraud should have been the focus. The voters were duped.

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  • Concerned Parent

    A. Winkler from Talent, resigned some months ago-she was administering Supes for CPS -right? (Where did she land?). Word is Pat Taylor from Operations will resign in May.
    Is the FBI is looking into the Aramark contract too? They should!

  • Concerned Parent

    All these Supes ‘consultants’ paid to do this poor work. Is there no conflict of interest with their own boards of education? How do they have the time to do this vs being at their own schools/communities doing the work they were hired to do on their own tax-payers’ money. Some of these mentors just make an out of town phone call to their mentee and then are paid large amounts of money. Bet they even make these long-distance calls from their offices – on their tax-payers’ dime.

    • CPS admin

      The consultants have also had eyebrows raised in their hometowns, Dallas Dance, Heath Morrison, Joseph Wise. Solomon does the search and uses this curriculum that my sources say is inferior and boring powerpoints.

  • Concerned Parent

    Just curious – if FBI succeeds in this investigation and let’s say Aramark too – and it reaches to the top…if the mayor has to resign, who becomes mayor?

    • Concerned Neighbor

      A very funny question. Fat chance! But just for fun someone should find out.

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  • Toolonggone

    CPS is a façade for turn-around school. It’s not the same type of traditional district school system you see in your neighborhood.

  • REED

    What if Abraham Lincoln was as much of a self serving screw-up as Rahm? What if Eisenhower’s generals were as passively stupid – bovine, really – as our board of ed members? Doesn’t anybody on that board EVER stand up and say, “wait a minute!, what on earth are we up to here?” Are they THAT stupid? Are they THAT corrupt?

    • Concerned Neighbor

      They are all appointed by the mayor that the people of Chicago again voted for. Need you know more?

  • Hertz Clyde Dézir

    I applaud the courage of Catalyst Chicago for taking the time to address this situation that the general public would not know about any time soon. I can’t wait to read more as more details become available.

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  • Don Resnikoff

    Does anyone know what federal and local statutes might have been violated? That obviously is relevant to the question of what remedies or punishments could result from the investigation.

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