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Feds reportedly investigating Barbara Byrd Bennett over controversial no-bid 'SUPES' contract to train principals....

It was only a week after Rahm Emanuel won re-election and suddenly Chicago's news media were filling up with stories that the federal government is investigating Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd Bennett, reportedly because of the controversial no-bid "SUPES" contract to train principals. By late afternoon on April 15, 2015, several reporters were catching up to the story, which was originally published by Catalyst two years ago and which seemed to be ignored since despite regular protests by principals that the so-called 'training' was insulting, inane, and inaccurate.

At five p.m. on April 15, 2015, Catalyst updating its previous reporting with a lengthy story. Catalyst originally broke the story about the SUPES contract in 2013, when Byrd Bennett proposed the contract the the members of the Board of Education voted unanimously to approve the deal, despite the conflicts of interest. A growing number of complaints from principals during the past two years about the quality and content of the SUPES training (and reports that most principals were eight boycotting the events or walking out) were ignored by the Board and the CPS Inspector General's office.

CATALYST STORY FROM APRIL 15, 2015, LATE AFTERNOON...

While Chicago Public Schools General Counsel James Bebley (left) looks on, Barbara Byrd Bennett, Chief Executive Officer of the nation's third largest school system, speaks during the March 25, 2015 meeting of the Board of Education. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.CRAIN'S CHICAGO BUSINESS REPORTED IN MID-AFTERNOON:

Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett is the subject of a federal criminal probe into possible contract irregularities, sources close to CPS and City Hall are reporting.

CPS so far is declining to comment on the involvement of Ms. Byrd-Bennett, who would supervise contract awarding in her capacity as the system's chief executive. But earlier in the day Board of Education President David Vitale released a statement saying CPS was "cooperating" with federal agents in their investigation of possible "misconduct" within the system.

Earlier: What are the feds probing at CPS?

One top CPS source says Byrd-Bennett has said she has done nothing wrong, but the investigation is continuing.

News of the probe comes at a time when CPS faces a hole of more than $1 billion in its budget for the 2015-16 school year. It also comes just a week after Mayor Rahm Emanuel was re-elected to a new term.

4:45 P.M. UPDATE: Catalyst Chicago also is reporting that Byrd-Bennett is under investigation, and has some details on what the probe is about.

Citing sources, the education journal says the feds are reviewing a $20 million no-bid contract Byrd-Bennett awarded under controversial circumstances to a principal-training academy for which she once worked.

The report also says CPS Inspector General Nick Schuler has been reviewing the matter for some time. IGs and federal prosecutors often end up working together on corruption cases.

CATALYST STORY UPDATE:

By Sarah Karp and Melissa Sanchez

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

The 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 generals investigation was spurred by a Catalyst investigation that detailed Byrd-Bennetts connection with the for-profit Wilmette-based SUPES Academy. Byrd-Bennett has worked as a coach for SUPES until she was hired at CPS, and theres 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 districts recent history, according to Catalysts 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 the schools. It shouldnt have to lead to a federal investigation to get action.

Katten said the issue isnt 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-Bennetts three-year $250,000 annual contract is up this year.

When Mayor Rahm Emanuel was asked by reporters at CityHall about whether he had confidence in Byrd-Bennett, he said he couldnt answer that question, according to the Chicago Tribune.

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

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorneys Office in Chicago declined to comment, as did an FBI spokesman.

BITTER COMPLAINTS ABOUT POOR QUALITY

Byrd Bennett did not answer Catalysts questions about the contract in the summer of 2013. But in a follow-up story in October, she said the intent of the USPEA contract was to provide comprehensive principal professional development. Yet for the past here years, principal who were 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 Nstional 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 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 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 districts rules by working as a coach for the company while the Baltimore County school district was also doing business with them.

(posted at www.catalyst-chicago.org on April 15, 2015)



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