“Triple B” is gone, but the questions linger on.
I’m referring to Chicago’s now-departed public schools CEO, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who took the job in 2012 and soon after steered three no-bid contracts for principal training, including one for $20.5 million— the largest non-competitive CPS contract in years—to SUPES Academy, where she used to work.
We learned about it first in Sarah Karp’s exclusive stories for Catalyst Chicago, an independent publication that’s been covering city schools for years.
Sarah’s now a senior investigator at the Better Government Association, and she recently helped me sort out this sordid mess, including the reforms it cries out for.
The first red flag is Byrd-Bennett’s orchestration of a deal with a former employer without public discussion.
That occurred because the CPS review process is done in secret, so we don’t know who’s making decisions, or why.
CPS says the secrecy is “to protect the evaluation process” from vendors “seeking an advantage,” but backroom deals invite more serious transgressions so let’s open the door.
Board president David Vitale initially told Sarah CPS considered other consultants to provide professional development for all 400-plus principals, and concluded the only one with enough capacity was SUPES, a small for-profit firm based in Wilmette.
That’s odd because several local universities have been providing principal training for years, and they’re more prominent than SUPES.
The choice is less surprising after reading a Chicago Tribune story about SUPES’ CEO Gary Solomon’s attempt to convince City Hall his company was uniquely qualified because of its past recruitment of top CPS leaders and guidance in shaping district policy.
Those activities, and the past relationship, don’t entitle a consultant to a no-bid contract for a different service—principal training—so this looks like a clout-heavy “sweetheart deal” that may explain another missed cue: The Chicago Public Education Fund, a private foundation that partners with CPS, gave SUPES a contract for $380,000, but rejected a CPS request to continue SUPES funding.
That implies the foundation wasn’t happy with SUPES—something CPS should have considered before awarding no-bid contracts.
Board president Vitale eventually supported an investigation by the CPS inspector general, which led to the federal probe that hastened Byrd-Bennett’s exit and the appointment of Jesse Ruiz—a prominent Chicago lawyer, education expert and board vice president—as interim CEO.
Ruiz quickly cancelled the SUPES contract, put the brakes on additional no-bids, and announced an audit of the no-bid process, but CPS still hasn’t selected an audit firm.
When they do—and that should be ASAP—the first question is why the CPS board, including Ruiz, unanimously approved the contract.
Looks like they flunked Oversight and Accountability 101, which is one reason Mayor Emanuel is starting to overhaul the board.
We’ll eventually find out if the federal investigation results in criminal charges—let those chips fall where they may—but we shouldn’t have to wait much longer for CPS to choose an audit firm that can pinpoint all the administrative and bureaucratic bungles that contributed to this fiasco.
That should also produce recommendations for making the no-bid process transparent, accountable, and limited to time-sensitive emergencies only a contractor with unique qualifications can handle.
Sarah, the rest of us at the BGA, and Chicago taxpayers are looking forward to the answers, and more importantly, the much needed reforms.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @andyshawbga.