Take 5: More on SUPES, school transitions, community college CEO pay

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Anthony Masciopinto (left) and Shelly Kulwin, lawyers representing Gary Solomon, gave a statement to the press Wednesday afternoon after their client pleaded not guilty to the charges against him.

Photo by Kalyn Belsha

Anthony Masciopinto (left) and Shelly Kulwin, lawyers representing Gary Solomon, gave a statement to the press Wednesday afternoon after their client pleaded not guilty to the charges against him.

The two men who headed SUPES Academy, the principal-training company at the center of a federal corruption case, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to the charges against them — just one day after former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett admitted to steering contracts to their company in exchange for the promise of future kickbacks.

Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, who co-owned SUPES and a related company, Synesi Associates, are free on release during their prosecution, but cannot travel outside the continental United States. Both men are facing charges of multiple counts of fraud and bribery of a government official, and one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States. Their now-defunct companies, SUPES and Synesi, also were charged as “corporate defendants” with several counts of fraud. Lawyers entered “not guilty” pleas on behalf of the companies.

Federal prosecutors say they expect the discovery phase to move quickly and to be “voluminous,” including bank records and emails. A lawyer for Solomon said Wednesday that his client had cooperated with federal authorities and didn’t anticipate going to trial — which could indicate he will eventually plead guilty, the Tribune reports.

When questioned by reporters this week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he didn’t know Solomon and had “no relationship” with him. “The U.S. attorney just finished five months of review. Didn’t talk to me about anything, ” Emanuel said, according to the Sun-Times. “And I don’t believe that mayors should get involved in contracts, which is why I did not.” (A lawyer for Solomon also said his client had no relationship with the mayor.)

In an interview with Chicago magazine conducted after the indictment was released, former CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard — who led CPS before Byrd-Bennett, and is now an education consultant in Washington, D.C. — reiterated that Solomon called him to encourage him to apply for the CPS CEO opening. “My response was, ‘Chicago would never hire an educator.’ Solomon said, ‘They really want to talk to you. Will you talk to them?’ So I talked to [Emanuel],” Brizard said.

On a related note, the Detroit News is reporting that Byrd-Bennett is now facing scrutiny for her tenure in Detroit. According to the newspaper, Synesi was awarded close to $1.5 million in contracts with Detroit Public Schools while Byrd-Bennett worked for the district.

2. Roosevelt University finances … The Chicago Tribune’s Heather Gillers takes a close look at the finances of Roosevelt University in the South Loop – and it’s not a pretty picture. The private university has to make big cuts in order to pay back the loan principal for the shiny $123 million  campus it built just three years ago in the hopes of attracting more traditional college-aged students.

To justify the building – a pet project of former President Charles Middleton, who retired in June – school officials predicted that higher enrollment and higher tuition prices would bring in an additional $40 million in tuition dollars by 2014. But enrollment has fallen short of projections – there are fewer students today than the year construction began –and the university was able to bring in only an additional $5 million.

Gillers notes that the school is using 11 percent of its operating budget to cover debt payments – almost double the amount that a financially stable institution would pay.

And there are other problems. Only 30 percent of full-time freshmen enrolled in 2008 earned a bachelor’s degree by 2014 – the lowest rate in a decade, preliminary data from the National Center for Education Statistics revealed.

In a separate story, the Tribune says that many Roosevelt students have organized to call for more transparency in the financial aid process and more guidance for students. Some say they were given unreasonable financial aid estimates when they arrived and given little support on questions about tuition.

Roosevelt’s new president, Ali Malekzadeh, apologized for financial aid problems and said more administrators will be hired in the financial aid department. But still, he says the new construction was “absolutely” the right move and “a major selling point for any university.” He plans to improve the school’s finances by cutting spending on administration and in other areas that have not yet been determined.

3. While we’re on higher ed … A recent analysis by the Better Government Association revealed that Chicago-area community college leaders earn salaries that are often much higher than their peers across the country. While the average annual salary for top national administrators is $194,000, those in Chicago and its suburbs are raking in an average of $240,872.

Salaries ranged from $183,750, which went to Don Manning at South Suburban College in South Holland, to David Sam’s $279,191 at Elgin Community College. Sam’s annual compensation  totals $415,529 when benefits are added. They include an annuity contribution from the school, “retention” bonus, housing allowance, pension contribution, expense account, health care coverage, a leased vehicle, cellphone and laptop.

Earlier this year, the City Colleges of Chicago board gave chancellor Cheryl Hyman a $35,000 bonus, bringing her total compensation to more than $320,000.

“When it comes to hiring a new president, institutions of higher education can’t operate like Major League Baseball teams,” State Sen. Bill Cunningham told the BGA. “They have to focus on how much they can afford.”

While community college tuition in the Chicago-area has been on the rise – the average full-year tuition is $3,768, up from $2,764 in 2010 –  student enrollment dropped by about 15 percent between 2010 and 2014, according to the Illinois Community College Board.

4. Impact of student mobility … New research released by the American Psychological Association found that low-income CPS students who frequently change schools are at a greater risk for lower math scores, weaker cognitive skills and difficulty managing behavior in the earliest grades. Students who moved frequently during a five-year period scored an average of 10 points lower on math tests than classmates who moved less often. That’s equivalent to more than eight months behind.

The study, which is part of a Chicago School Readiness Project, followed about 380 students from Head Start classes through 4th grade in 173 schools in seven high-poverty neighborhoods. A majority of the students were black. Skills such as working memory, attention and impulsivity were evaluated in preschool and 3rd grade while early math skills were evaluated in Head Start classes and on a standardized 4th-grade math test.

On average, students moved 1.38 times between Head Start classes and 3rd grade. Just 14 percent of the students remained at the same school, while 10 percent moved three or four times. Reasons for such transitions could include district-level decisions, such as school closures,  families’ residential moves, and dissatisfaction with the quality of instruction.

“Although moving once or twice may not be extremely detrimental to the development of children who are already at risk, moving almost every year during elementary school increased the probability that students would face more difficulty in the long run,” said C. Cybele Raver, co-author of the study and professor of applied psychology at New York University, in a statement. She recommends policy changes at state, district and school levels that would prevent students from moving so frequently.

5. Top chefs in CPS …. For just a day, students at CPS schools will get the option of eating a lunch that’s prepared by top Chicago-area chefs. It’s the result of a six-year project called Pilot Light, which was dreamed up by a group of chefs who wanted to help schools serve healthier and tastier lunches. Chef Paul Kahan (of the restaurants Blackbird, Big Star and The Publican) and his chef friends thought it would be easy to just show up at inner-city schools and cook, according to an interesting story on WBEZ. “We thought that we could go in and do anything we want and just crush it,” he said.

It wasn’t that easy. CPS has a single school food contract — with Aramark for the past six years. “Only those companies — and not some idealistic chefs — get to decide what ends up on students’ plates,” the WBEZ story notes. In addition, cooking better meals is expensive. A tray of food costs about $1, an amount Kahan called “embarrassing.”

Eventually the chefs were able to offer occasional tastings at Disney II School in Old Irving Park and later at another five schools across the city. And thus today, an optional Pilot Light menu and lessons will be offered in every CPS school. The menu is “a very healthy chicken al pastor taco.” The recipes had to be tweaked because of the quantity – think: more than 390,000 students – and to comply with federal nutrition standards.

CPS food administrators and the regional director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be at Disney II in honor of the event, and to highlight the district’s previous work in improving school meals. In addition, lesson materials and a video shot by a “Sesame Street” producer that stars the chefs and students will all be available to teachers to download for free, DNAinfo reports.

On a somewhat related note, check out another story by WBEZ on how some health advocates and local teachers unions are protesting so-called “McTeacher’s Nights” where teachers work at local McDonald’s restaurants to raise money for their schools. Union leaders call it a way “to exploit cash-strapped schools to market its junk food brand,” while the company calls the McTeacher’s Nights “local community initiatives, not something managed at the national or global level.”

One last note … In case you missed it, check out this interesting read from The Atlantic on how neighborhood gentrification doesn’t necessarily improve neighborhood schools. Since gentrifying  parents tend to send their children out of the area to better-performing schools, some say neighborhood schools should be transformed to better compete. As discussion on a possible Ogden-Jenner merger continues, this is worth a look.