One of Mayor Emanuel's inner circle has been interviewed by the FBI in connection with the SUPES Academy investigation. Credit: Mark Van Scyoc/shutterstock.com

Governor Bruce Rauner, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Public Education Fund–the non-profit organization that paid to pilot the initiative at the center of an ongoing federal investigation into the circumstances surrounding a controversial $20 million contract–all sought to distance themselves from the situation on Monday.

The Chicago Public Education Fund, a non-profit that Rauner and Emanuel have both been involved with, originally gave SUPES Academy $380,000 to provide coaching to network chiefs and deputies. In a statement issued Monday, the Fund acknowledged that they had been contacted by federal investigators, but said they have been informed that it was “solely as a witness” and not as a target.

In 2013, SUPES received a $20 million no-bid contract for principal training that is the focus of the federal probe that has targeted Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who is now on leave from the CEO position. She has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

A source tells Catalyst Chicago that in 2011 and 2012, Byrd-Bennett was paid through the SUPES contract with the Fund to provide coaching for then-Chief Education Officer Noemi Donoso, whose position Byrd-Bennett eventually took over.

The Fund is a politically connected group made up of Chicago’s civic elite. The 15-year-old organization has funded a variety of projects, from a consultant who helped to write a CPS action plan to staff time at the University of Chicago to help develop the current teacher evaluation system called REACH.

In May of 2012, when CPS hired Byrd-Bennett to be the chief education officer, it was widely reported that she had been in Chicago for 10 months doing “executive coaching” and was being paid by the Fund. At the time, the Fund did not refute that, but now officials say that the Fund never paid Byrd-Bennett directly.

The Fund was asked by CPS leaders to continue to pay SUPES, but it declined, according to the statement from Fund Executive Director Heather Anichini. Anichini would not say whether the Fund ‘s decision to end SUPES’ funding was connected to quality, the contract itself, or something else.

“We work differently than other philanthropies,” Anichini said. “We set very clear expectations for what we want those programs or opportunities to provide for teachers and principals. In cases where those expectations are being met, we continue to work with those organizations.”

Since then, the Fund has had no involvement with SUPES, according to the statement.

Then, by October 2012, SUPES got its first no-bid contract with CPS for $2 million. In June of 2013, they were awarded the $20.5 million that raised suspicions and led to a Catalyst article that spurred an investigation by the inspector general.

Board of Education Vice President Jesse Ruiz, who is a lawyer, was appointed interim CEO. Ruiz sent out a memo to staff this weekend saying that he is asking for a third-party to review the process for awarding single-source bids.

At a luncheon on Monday, Rauner at first said that the Fund did not pay for SUPES. Once corrected, he said the Fund did “what the mayor or what the schools leadership wanted to do.”

“It was a little bit more of a support group rather than a truly independent group,” he said. “And that was a source of frustration to me over time.”

Anichini later said she disagreed with Rauner’s perspective and that the Fund operates independently of CPS.

Emanuel said his administration played no role in the contract given to SUPES. Emanuel says he supports Ruiz having the procurement process reviewed. He also said he thinks that Board President David Vitale is doing a good job. Both Ruiz and Vitale voted to award the contract to SUPES.

Also on Monday, several groups made up of parents and activists held a press conference at City Hall to call on Emanuel to remove Vitale and board member Deborah Quazzo. Quazzo is a partner in a firm that invests in educational technology companies that are reportedly doing more business with CPS since she came on the board. Vitale was board president for the Academy of Urban School Leadership before assuming the role at CPS. AUSL has a number of contracts to manage schools.

“We want a school board with integrity,” said Jeannie Biggs, a CPS parent of three and a board member of Raise Your Hand. “A school board that we can trust and that includes leaders who have the best interests of our children at heart. We do not have that right now.”

 

 

Sarah Karp

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

Melissa Sanchez

Melissa Sanchez is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at msanchez@chicagoreporter.com and follow her on Twitter at @msanchezMIA.

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