Updated 10/08/15 – 2:20 p.m.
CHICAGO (STMW) — The former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, will plead guilty to charges in an indictment released Thursday that alleged she steered more than $23 million in no-bid contracts from CPS to her former employer, authorities said Thursday.
U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon made the announcement at a news conference Thursday.
Fardon said Byrd-Bennett and others “entered into a scheme to secretly profit from schools.”
Byrd-Bennett—Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s handpicked choice—becomes CPS’ first CEO to face criminal charges in connection with her job. Federal authorities have been investigating the contract—the largest no-bid CPS deal in recent memory—for more than a year, authorities said.
Receiving the contract in 2013 to train principals was The SUPES Academy, owned by former Niles Township High School dean Gary Solomon and his former student Thomas Vranas. It generated controversy at the time because SUPES was not known for training principals while many other, respected organizations did that very job. The deal continued to draw criticism as some educators questioned the quality of SUPES’ training.
Solomon and Vranas were also charged, as were SUPES and another company it owned.
In return for steering the contract to SUPES, Byrd-Bennett was guaranteed a percentage of the contract’s money once she left her position at CPS and returned to SUPES. The cash would be come in the form of a signing bonus and be paid even if Byrd-Bennett only worked for SUPES for a day, according to an email from Solomon.
In a statement, Emanuel said: “I am saddened and disappointed to learn about the criminal activity that led to today’s indictment of Barbara Byrd-Bennett. Our students, parents, teachers and principals deserve better. Together, we have made significant educational strides at CPS with rising graduation rates, test scores and attendance and our commitment to building on that progress remains as strong as ever.”
After the federal investigation became public, Solomon’s controversial past and current success within CPS came to light. He had been forced out as a suburban high school administrator after making racist and sexually harassing remarks. Despite that, he later played a key role in getting Byrd-Bennett her top job with CPS.
Solomon left Niles Downtown School District 219 under a cloud in 2001 after he was accused by administrators of “immoral and unprofessional” conduct, including allegations he kissed a female student, covered up students’ drug and alcohol use, and sent “sexually suggestive, predatory” emails to students, court records show.
Years later, he and Vranas founded SUPES Academy to train school leaders, and the two other education consulting companies in the northern suburbs. They recently sold parts of all three.
SUPES Academy employed Byrd-Bennett as a training coach before she landed at CPS. Previously, she had run school districts in Cleveland and Detroit. SUPES also was brought in to coach CPS network chiefs through a pilot program under Byrd-Bennett’s predecessor, Jean-Claude Brizard, but the program was discontinued after a year.
Brizard has called Solomon “instrumental” in getting Byrd-Bennett to CPS, first as a coach for CPS official Noemi Donoso, then as Donoso’s replacement, then as Brizard’s successor.
Emanuel elevated Byrd-Bennett to CEO in October 2012, about a month after the historic Chicago Teachers strike whose resolution she helped broker as the district’s second-in-command. A former teacher and principal, Byrd-Bennett forged a bond with CTU President Karen Lewis when she helped negotiate an end to the strike. Sources told the Sun-Times that Board President David Vitale managed her contract and was “very, very supportive” of her promotion.
She championed the shutdown of 50 neighborhood schools in May 2013, saying the district couldn’t afford to keep them open as enrollment dropped. A month later, she asked the Board of Education to approve the SUPES $20.5 million deal that had gone though CPS’ “sole-source” or no-bid process. With no public discussion, the six board members who were there voted for the contract, including Jesse Ruiz, who served briefly as Byrd-Bennett’s temporary replacement after she left.
Complaints about the training’s quality quickly rolled in from principals. Leading education experts also said they’d never heard of the north suburban company, according to Catalyst Chicago magazine, which reported on the conflict of interest in its July 2013 issue.
By December 2012, CPS’ inspector general was investigating the contract.
In April this year, federal agents delivered subpoenas to CPS for records about the Solomon companies, as well as records of “financial benefits, gifts, honoraria, meals and reimbursements” concerning Solomon and Vranas.
They also requested employment records for Byrd-Bennett, Martin, and two close Byrd-Bennett associates, Sherry Ulery and Rosemary Herpel. Martin was the $170,000-a-year head of a special network that Byrd-Bennett created at CPS to oversee struggling neighborhood schools.
Ulery, her $175,000-a-year chief of staff, and Herpel, a $140,000-a-year “executive director of leadership development” in CPS’ HR department, were also called before a federal grand jury.
Two days after those subpoenas came to light, Byrd-Bennett left CPS on paid leave. Her homes in Chicago and outside Cleveland had been searched by the FBI, sources have told the Sun-Times.
She resigned from CPS on May 29. Her aides also since have left CPS.
(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire © Chicago Sun-Times 2015. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)