MEDIA WATCH: Chicago magazine raises key questions about the integrity of the members of the Chicago Board of Education while catching up on the SUPES - CELA - SYNESI - CPEF etc., etc., etc. scandal

At least most reports on the corruption scandals involving Barbara Byrd Bennett and members of her inner circle of six-figure bureaucrats are noting that the seven members of the Chicago Board of Education voted in favor of the SUPES (CELA, etc.) Board Reports. Some are even beginning to notice that the Board members voted for SUPES (and dozens of other equally corrupt privatization schemes) while covering up any (if any) internal Board discussions of the proposed no-bid contracts. And so, the taxpayers are paying Barbara Byrd Bennett her quarter million dollars a year salary while she works on her defense while on a "paid leave of absence."

Barbara Byrd Bennett. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.But what about the Board members themselves? Why were they still in power and preening at their April 22, 2015 meeting, when they are all in almost as deep as Barbara Byrd Bennett? After all, there are few actions of "Chief Executive Officer" can take without approval by the members of the Board of that entity -- even if that Board is the notoriously mendacious and secretive seven-member Chicago Board of Education. Basically, this story is really several stories, and it's only a question of how deeply our brothers and sisters in the corporate media will dig before they are called off the scandals -- just as they held back on reporting on the SUPES investigations by the feds until after Rahm Emanuel was safely re-elected on April 7. (If you believe that the April 14 revelation of the feds' SUPES investigation was an explosion of new information, don't bother reading past this point; your versions of reality are hopelessly hopeless... Rahm's re-election was the key, and so the "public" didn't learn about the feds' investigation until after Rahm's re-election was safely in the bad, and then suddenly...

The SUPES - BBB scandal!

While it's something of an honor to have most of Chicago's corporate media noting facts that long ago were reported in Substance, we've given up waiting for any sourcing on the current BIG STORY about the city's public schools. Despite the facts -- and a six-year history of lies about that "Billion Dollar Deficit" -- there is only so much fact that the official party line of corporate Chicago can take. Hence, we are still hearing the ancient refrain about that "Billion Dollars Deficit." And we are hearing that as a "fact" (again) while about a dozen reporters have now been freed to check out and report the latest scandals involving Barbara Byrd Bennett, the sleazies from Winnetka (not just Tim Cawley and Bruce Rauner, but their buddies in all those corporate "school reform" contractors that have been popping up faster than a lettering company can add another name to a corporate headquarters door and window), and a limousine load of Byrd Bennett's cronies from Ohio and Michigan.

And so some really good reporting is coming out, slowly -- ever so slowly -- from even the most august of establishment publications.

Most recently, anyone should be pleased with the following from Chicago magazine:


The CPS No-Bid Investigation Spreads to CPEF, Once Chaired By Bruce Rauner

The principal-training consultants who received the $20 million contract, the focus of a federal investigation, got seed funding from the Chicago Public Education Fundwhose board is a whos-who of Chicago power brokers. (PUBLISHED APRIL 20, 2015, AT 12:49 P.M., Chicago magazine).

When I was writing a profile of Bruce Rauner last summer, his friends and admirers gushed over his dedication to creating and nurturing charters and improving Chicago Public Schools. CPEFthe Chicago Public Education Fundcame up time again as the nonprofit that allowed Rauner, who joined CPEFs board in 2001, served as CPEF chairman, and is now an emeritus member, to pursue his passion for education reform. CPEF board member Susan Crown told me that the future governor was incredibly dedicated to CPEF. Put everything he had into it.

Now CPEF has been drawn into the latest CPS controversyone that goes straight to the top.

The focus in early reporting from the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times was on Rahm Emanuel-appointed CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who is being investigated by the U.S. Attorneys office regarding a no-bid $20.5 million contract awarded in June 2013 to a Wilmette-based for-profit company called SUPES Academy. Hardly a household name, SUPES was hired to provide training to CPS principals.

What made the story so damaging to B-Three, as Rahm calls Byrd-Bennett, is that until she joined CPS as a coach and a consultant in 2012, quickly becoming CPSs Chief Education Officer and then CEO, BBB had worked for SUPES. According to Sarah Karp, who writes for Catalyst, an education watchdog, BBB was still listed as working as a senior associate for a superintendent search firm called PROACT Searchwith the same ownership as SUPESfour months after joining CPS. (BBB denied at the time that she had ever workeded for PROACT.)

Why fund an obscure for-profit firm when the city is so rich in universities, several of which have programs to train principals?

Issued so far are subpoenas for grand jury appearances to aides close to BBBthree of whom she had worked with previously in other cities and brought to Chicago for six-figure jobsseeking records pertaining to financial benefits, gifts, honoraria, meals and reimbursements from SUPES.

Over the last few days came reports that CPEFits board loaded with wealthy friends and donors to both Rahm Emanuel and Rauner, and also with advocates of charter schools and Teach For America, both targets of the Chicago Teachers Unionwas also in the headlights. The feds demanded CPS records pertaining to CPEF, which according to the Tribunehad provided the seed money to launch the SUPES training program for principals, called Chicago Executive Leadership Academy (CELA).

Were there better options than SUPES?

Why CPEF funded SUPES is, at this point, anyones guess. True, one of CPEFs published goals is to create better principals through training. Everyone [at CPEF], Susan Crown told me, is interested in quality principals and how to get better leadership. CPEFs website describes its goal as build[ing] a critical mass of great public schools in Chicago by investing in talented principals.

But there should have been some warning flags about SUPES, not only BBBs prior relationship with the company (which was no secret) but also the background of one of the companys owners, Gary Solomon. A former dean and teacher at Niles West, Solomon, the Tribune reported in 2001, accepted a settlement with Niles Township High School District 219 after being accused of sending sexually explicit e-mail messages to female students before he left his position in 1999. The $50,000 settlement included the stipulation that Solomon could never again work in the District.

Solomon asidehe denied the allegations and was never criminally chargedwhy fund an obscure for-profit firm when the city is so rich in universities, several of which have programs to train principals?

Had anyone at CPS or CPEF ever heard of the University of Illinois or the University of Chicago? Catalysts Sarah Karp quotes UIC professor Steven Tozer as touting his schools training program for urban principals, adding that the school might have bid on the contract had it known about it and that he had never heard of SUPES until the deal had already been done.

University of Chicago professor Timothy Knowles is a CPEF board member. His CPEF biography describes him as serving as chairman of the U of Cs Urban Education Institute, which develop[s] urban teachers and leaders through its Urban Teacher Education Program.

In fact, CPEF itself sponsors a program called the Chicago Principals Fellowshipin partnership with Northwestern Universitys School for Education and Social Policy and its Kellogg School. CPEFs website promises the program will, by the end of the 201617 school year serve the top 10 percent of CPSs principals. It currently serves 2025 of CPSs most talented principals, putting its fellows through a rigorous executive leadership program A large majority of the principals lead schools with a student population that is both predominantly low-income and minority.

Sound more promising than SUPES?

The SUPES training program garnered consistently negative evaluations from participating CPS principals. Back in December 2013, Catalysts Sarah Karp wrote that almost from the start, principals grumbled that the training was too elementary and a waste of their time. She quotes from principal evaluations of the sessions: One question asks what the principal found to be least useful about the session; one attendee wrote All of CELA.

Also, much of the coaching is done via e-mail and by SUPES trainers who have no experience working in poor, urban schools. (In CPEFs own just-released report, it noted as Takeaway 01 that principals want tailored, streamlined professional development opportunities and tools that respond to their schools individual needs.)

The feds reportedly searched BBBs houses in Chicago and a Cleveland suburb. (She was CEO of the Cleveland schools from 1998 to 2006 and chief academic and accountability officer of the Detroit Public Schools from 2009 to 2011.)

Its important to note that no one at CPS or at CPEF has been charged with any wrongdoing.

As I write, the story is starting to seep into the offices of the mayor of Chicago and the governor of Illinois. Rahm is now stuck not only with the stain of having appointed BBB but also with having to convince House Speaker Madigan and Senate President Cullerton to hand over more millions to CPS to help it meet, at least partway, its $9.5 billion pension obligation and its $1.1 billion deficit for the budget year starting July 1. Arguing for legislative relief from a General Assembly suspicious of all things Chicago, and especially its school system, is an exponentially tougher one to make in the wake of the news that CPS handed over $20.5 million for mediocre principal training to a company from which its chief once drew a paycheck.

A board of finance titans

This script could have been written by CTU President Karen Lewis, or her acting replacement, Jesse Sharkey, or by Rahms opponent in the second round of the mayors race, Jesus Chuy Garcia.

Remember all the talk during the April 7 mayoral runoff of the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent? It would be difficult to assemble a board that screams 1 percent louder than CPEFsfrom the schools its members attended to jobs held to marriages made.

Among CPEFs board members:

Ken Griffin, CEO of Citadel, hedge fund genius, and widely reported to be the richest man in Illinois.

Penny Pritzker, billionaire heir to the Pritizker fortune, former member of the CPS board, now an emeritus member of the CPEF board, which she once headed as chair.

Susan Crown, principal of the family business Henry Crown and Company and chairman of the Susan Crown Exchange, a social investment organization with a focus on education.

Mellody Hobson, president, Ariel Investments and wife of billionaire George Lucas.

Helen Zell, philanthropist, executive director, Zell Family Foundation, and wife of real estate billionaire Sam Zell.

Jana R. Schreuder, Northern Trust Company COOthe first woman in that positionand a past Teach for American advisory board member.

There are educators on CPEFs board. They include:

Tony Smith, Rauners just-appointed superintendent of Illinois schools, formerly head of the school district in Oakland, California, although never a classroom teacher and a long-time advocate of charter schools.

Timothy Knowles, Director of the University of Chicagos Urban Labs, chairman of the Urban Education Institute. Knowles is also a former deputy superintendent of the Boston Public Schools and the founding director of Teach for America in New York City.

Laura Bilicic, former classroom teacher, the co-founder and former head of a New York City private school for children with significant learning challenges.

Penny Bender Sebring, a former high school teacher and current senior Research Associate at the University of Chicago and co-director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

That CPEFs board is much heavier with finance titans than educators shouldnt surprise anyone. CPEF is designed to mimic a private equity or a venture capital firm in the way it raises moneyits funds range from $10-25 millionand spends it. CPEFs current board chairman, Brian Simmons, a managing partner at Shorehill Capital, told me when I interviewed him about his friendship with Bruce Rauner (their sons were classmates at the Latin School), many elements of CPEF are like private equity. But CPEF is not-for-profit. [We invest] in organizations that help improve educational outcomes. He mentioned specifically CPEFs role in raising money to bring Teach for America to Chicago. (CPEFs President and CEO, Heather Anichini, is a TFA alum.)

Of the seven members of the CPS board, twoDavid Vitale and Deborah Quazzohave served on CPEFs board. Those happen to be the two who have been most raked over CTUs coals for alleged poor judgment and conflicts of interest. Vitale, named board chairman by Rahm Emanuel in 2011, is the former vice chairman of First Chicago, NBD Corporation and president of the First National Bank of Chicago and CEO of the Chicago Board of Trade. Complaints about him, as reported in the Tribune, note his risky, money-losing use of auction-rate securities, nearly all of it paired with complex derivative contracts called interest rate swaps in a bid to lower borrowing costs. Quazzo, a former investment banker turned venture capitalist, now partner of GSV Advisors, has been harshly criticized for investing in companies that do business with CPS. She has staunchly defended herself as not personally making a dime off her CPS service, butcalls for her to resign have persisted.

The aforementioned subpoenas are dated April 13 and 14, a week after Rahm won reelection. Had the scandal hit pre-April 7, Garcia might be measuring curtains for his Fifth Floor office.

Its surprising that Garcia didnt bone up on the subject and raise it during the campaign. Catalyst first reported the story in July 2013for going on two years, Catalyst has been mostly alone in chasing this storyat which point the citys Inspector General launched an investigation.

In a report dated June 11, 2014, Catalyst noted that CPS officials seem to be forging ahead with the second year of a principal professional development contract with the SUPES Academy, despite lingering questions about the quality of the training and the relationship between CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and the founders of the for-profit business, for whom she previously worked as a consultant.

And what about BBBs interim replacement, Board VP Jesse Ruiz, an attorney who has no classroom experience, but has served on the U.S. Department of Education Equity and Excellence Commission and as Chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education? Ruiz was part of the unanimous vote to approve the $20.5 million no-bid contract. And so was board chairman Vitale. (Ruiz was quoted in the Sun-Times as saying he voted yes because I thought it would be a prudent action to make.)

Ruiz, named CPS vice chairman by Rahm in 2011, said Saturday that hell kill the SUPES contract if any wrongdoing is found by the feds and that he is stopping all no-bid or sole-source contracts pending a review of the systems contract practices.

Whats next?

This might be a good time for the mayor to consider some new CPS board members and a new CPS CEO. How about, say, Wendy Katten, the mother of a CPS sixth-grader who heads the group Raise Your Hand? She told theSun-Times Lauren FitzPatrick on Saturday, We brought this to the current boards attention over and over at multiple meetings over the past two years. We dont want to wait for the feds to have to get involved for CPS to do the right thing, to act ethically.

Ruizs children attend the private University of Chicago Lab School, where Rahm also sends his children. At a City Club speech in June 2013, Karen Lewis observed that the elites know what good education looks like because they have secured it for their own children.

Once this mess gets sorted through, two arguments are more likely, I think, to gain traction: One is the call for an elected school board, adamantly opposed by both Rahm and Raunervoters in 37 wards by upwards of 83 percent called for one on an advisory referendum during the February election. The other is Gov. Rauners alarming suggestion just last week that perhaps the best path for CPS is bankruptcy, a plan that Rahm adamantly opposes.

Then theres that matter of negotiating a new teachers contract. The current one expires this June. BBBs $250,000-a-year contract also expires in June. Despite implementing the closing of 50 schools, mostly on the west and south sides, Byrd-Bennett forged a friendship with CTU head Karen Lewis. And it was BBB who stepped in and negotiated with Lewis to stop the teachers strike in 2012.

On vacation in Mexico when the story broke, Rahm hasnt had much to say so far.

SUPES rhymes with dupes; whether innocent dupes or guilty dupes remains to be seen. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: The Chicago Public Education Fund released this statement from CEO Heather Anichini on Tuesday morning.

The Chicago Public Education Fund is a nonprofit organization that has made more than $50 million in grants over the past 15 years, primarily to organizations working with teachers and principals in Chicagos public schools. In 2011, our organization made a $380,000 grant to SUPES Academy for a one-year pilot program to train CPS network chiefs and their deputies. Network chiefs are the CPS employees who supervise and manage school principals.

In 2012, following the completion of that pilot program, we declined a request by CPS leadership to provide a second year of funding for SUPES Academys training of principals. The Chicago Public Education Fund, its directors, and its staff have had no involvement with SUPES Academy since 2012.

We have been advised that our participation in the recent investigation regarding CPS and SUPES Academy is solely as a witness. We continue to cooperate in the ongoing federal investigation. Throughout this process, we remain focused on our commitment to the education of all of Chicagos students and to the educators in our schools.

[Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She is a regular blogger forThe Hill and The Huffington Post and has written several books, including Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Rod Blagojevich.]


May 5, 2015 at 1:56 PM

By: Rod Estvan

Crain's has an even better article

In my opinion this Crains article totally trashing CPS President David Vitale is far more significant than this Chicago magazine opinion piece

Rod Estvan

May 5, 2015 at 6:31 PM

By: George N. Schmidt

Crain's appreciation tomorrow morning

I agree about the Crain's piece. Most of today we spent going over the obscene travel expenses accumulated by Barbara Byrd Bennett (and all paid for by CPS) during the past two years. One thing to remember, though, is that all seven members of the Board (including the two who were replaced -- Pritzker and Sierra) went along with every one of these deals -- and many more we don't yet know about. The fact that their actions may be technically "legal" makes it all the worse. Like the bankers who got away with the "Synthetic Collateralized Deb Obligations leading to the 2008 collapse, these people have maneuvered to make legality itself the joke. Sadly, as they repeat again their "billion dollar deficit!!!" claim, the joke is on us...

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