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
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

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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