The corruption investigation that led to disgraced former Chicago schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett pleading guilty to wire fraud has had fallout across the nation.
Byrd-Bennett, 66, could face a prison sentence of more than seven years after pleading guilty Oct. 13 and admitting she rigged $23 million of CPS contracts for The SUPES Academy and a sister company, Synesi Associates, in anticipation of getting a 10 percent kickback.
Byrd-Bennett previously was a paid consultant for SUPES, which provides training for school principals and other educators.
She has said she would cooperate with prosecutors in the case, in which Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, the two companies’ owners, have pleaded not guilty.
According to interviews and records reviewed by the Better Government Association and Catalyst-Chicago:
- SUPES gave a paid consulting position to Baltimore County, Maryland, schools Supt. Dallas Dance in 2013, months after his school board awarded the company a $875,000 no-bid contract. Following the initial news reports about Byrd-Bennett and SUPES, the Baltimore County schools’ ethics commission investigated and determined that Dance had violated district policy by not getting permission from his school board before accepting the consulting work — which involved training CPS principals.
- Also prompted by news coverage regarding Byrd-Bennett, school board members in Iowa City, Iowa, have questioned Supt. Stephen Murley’s ties to SUPES. The Iowa City school board brought in Synesi to do a $60,000 “operations review” in October 2011 following a bidding process of sorts. The next year, Murley started working for SUPES, also training CPS principals. Murley says the arrangement poses no conflict of interest for him because his district permits him to do “speaking engagements.”
- In St. Louis, the school board awarded a $125,000 contract for principal training to SUPES in 2012 through a bidding process. Soon after, St. Louis schools Supt. Kelvin Adams started doing consulting work for SUPES in Chicago, working on principal training for CPS. Earlier, in 2011, the St. Louis district had awarded a $16,500 no-bid deal to Synesi, the SUPES sister company. After being asked by a reporter about the deals and Adams’ consulting work, Rick Sullivan, the St. Louis school board president, has now asked an independent attorney to review the district’s contracts with the companies. But Sullivan says he believes Adams is a man of “integrity” and didn’t do anything wrong.
Does it lead to a give and take? Does it lead to a certain kind of coziness with these companies that does not serve the school district well?
-Samuel E. Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, at Columbia University
Other school districts that hired SUPES and had officials consulting for the company include:
- Huntsville, Alabama, where the school system gave a $300,000 no-bid contract to SUPES in 2011 — two years before a top district official was hired by the firm as a consultant to CPS and Rochester, N.Y.
- Prince George’s County, Maryland, where the school system awarded a $175,000 contract to SUPES in 2012 before two district officials were hired as CPS consultants by SUPES.
- Washoe County, Nevada, where the school system awarded a $300,000 contract to SUPES in 2011 before a top school official was hired as a CPS consultant by the firm.
How much the school officials were paid as consultants in those districts isn’t clear except in Huntsville, where a schools spokeswoman says SUPES paid the district official more than $26,000.
In each case, the school officials from those six out-of-state districts who worked on the side as consultants for SUPES worked for the company as part of its no-bid CPS deal engineered by Byrd-Bennett. None has been accused of any crime.
But the ties are still troubling and should raise questions for students and taxpayers alike, says Samuel E. Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, at Columbia University.
“Does this sidetrack superintendents so they take their eyes off the ball?” he says. “Does it lead to a give and take? Does it lead to a certain kind of coziness with these companies that does not serve the school district well?”
Unlike with those out-of-state districts and despite Byrd-Bennett’s admitted arrangement with SUPES, CPS’ ethics policy bars its employees from having any financial interest in a company that has a contract with the district.
Morton Sherman of the American Association of School Superintendents says he doesn’t see anything wrong with top school administrators working for private companies after leaving their posts. But Sherman says school officials should not work for a company while still in a leadership position with a school district, particularly if that company has a contract with the district.
“I would be very wary about that,” Sherman says.