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THE WATCHDOGS: CPS CEO tied to second firm in feds' probe

Embattled Chicago schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett worked for a second contractor under investigation in a federal probe that’s rocked the Chicago Public Schools, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.

Byrd-Bennett — now on leave as a result of the federal probe — came to CPS after working for SUPES Academy, a Wilmette company that got a $20.5 million, no-bid contract to train Chicago school principals in 2013, shortly after Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed her to head the city school system.

But Byrd-Bennett also worked as a consultant for Synesi Associates, the Sun-Times has learned.

Like SUPES, Synesi has done business with CPS. Federal investigators have subpoenaed district records relating to Synesi and SUPES.

Both companies are owned by Gary Solomon, a former Niles West High School teacher and dean, and his former student Thomas Vranas.

According to a resume she submitted to CPS, Byrd-Bennett was a “senior adviser for the design and implementation of a school turnaround with Synesi” between her departure from a top position with Detroit’s public school district in 2011 and her arrival in Chicago the following year.

During that same period, Byrd-Bennett said on her resume, she also was “senior advisor and master teacher for the SUPES Leadership Academy for Superintendents and Principals.”

PROACT Search, a third Solomon-Vranas venture mentioned in a federal subpoena delivered to CPS, had listed Byrd-Bennett as a “senior associate” in bid documents submitted to a school district in Connecticut in 2012. But Byrd-Bennett denied working for PROACT, a spokeswoman for CPS told Catalyst Chicago in 2013, when the education magazine revealed her ties to SUPES and the company’s CPS deal.

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Byrd-Bennett isn’t the only high-ranking CPS official with ties to SUPES, records show. Tracy Martin — a $170,000-a-year top administrator under Byrd-Bennett — worked for SUPES as “vice president of program development” beginning in 2011, according to her resume on file with CPS.

Martin and Byrd-Bennett are two of four CPS officials named in the subpoena U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon issued April 14 demanding CPS documents related to SUPES, Synesi and PROACT.

Martin was hired to work for CPS in November 2012, about a month after Emanuel elevated Byrd-Bennett to the city’s top school post, replacing his first schools chief, Jean-Claude Brizard. Martin initially oversaw a pet project of Byrd-Bennett’s called the Office of Strategic School Support Services, or OS4, which manages federal grants for struggling neighborhood schools.

Synesi worked for CPS as the “turnaround partner” at one of those schools, records show.

Neither Martin, who now oversees a group of CPS principals, nor Byrd-Bennett responded to interview requests.

Federal investigators demanded that CPS officials turn over “all employment records and personnel files” for Byrd-Bennett, Martin and two other high-ranking school officials — Sherry Ulery, the CEO’s $175,000-a-year chief of staff, and Rosemary Herpel, a $140,000-a-year “executive director of leadership development” in the district’s human resources office.

Ulery and Herpel are among witnesses who have been subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury in the case.

Like Martin, Ulery and Herpel followed Byrd-Bennett to Chicago after working with her elsewhere, are part of her inner circle at CPS and also are close friends with her, according to records and interviews.

The documents Fardon’s office subpoenaed include “recommendations, references, resumes” and statements of personal financial interests for all four women.

“CPS is cooperating fully with this matter and has made it clear to employees who have been contacted by authorities that they should do the same,” schools spokesman Bill McCaffrey said Friday.

He said school officials are turning over the subpoenaed information “as it becomes available.”

On April 22, the Chicago Board of Education approved spending $250,000 to hire the law firm Schiff Hardin LLP to represent the board and employees contacted by investigators. The lawyers will provide counsel to Martin, Ulery and Herpel but not to Byrd-Bennett, McCaffrey said.

No one has been charged in the ongoing federal probe, which came to light after authorities served the subpoenas last month at CPS and raided Byrd-Bennett’s homes in Chicago and Ohio, where her family still lives.

Word of the investigation prompted Byrd-Bennett to go on a paid leave in mid-April from her $250,000-a-year job as Emanuel’s schools chief. And her interim replacement, attorney and Board of Ed Vice President Jesse Ruiz, said CPS will cut short its lucrative contract with SUPES.

A spokesman for the owners of SUPES and Synesi declined to comment.

Byrd-Bennett and Martin previously worked together at the public school systems in Detroit and Cleveland. Ulery, Byrd-Bennett’s chief of staff, also worked with her in Detroit and Cleveland. Herpel, who runs the SUPES program for CPS, worked with Byrd-Bennett at the Detroit schools, too.

Martin, a Cleveland native, and Ulery, also from Ohio, already were at the Cleveland district when Byrd-Bennett was appointed to the top job there in 1998. They both had high-level jobs there when Byrd-Bennett left Ohio in 2006.

By the end of that year, Byrd-Bennett was in Washington, D.C., leading a principal-training group called New Leaders for New Schools. She stayed in D.C. until 2009.

Martin and Ulery also worked in Washington during roughly the same time — for the public schools there under the leadership of a former city administrator named Robert Bobb.

In May 2009, after Bobb moved to Detroit to become the financially troubled city’s emergency manager, he signed Byrd-Bennett to an $18,000-a-month deal as chief academic and accountability auditor consultant.

Martin joined Byrd-Bennett in Detroit as her chief of staff for academics, making nearly $16,000 a month. Ulery was hired as the $15,000-a-month chief of teaching and learning. And Herpel got an $11,000-a-month consulting post.

The former president of the Detroit teachers’ union, Keith Johnson, said he found Byrd-Bennett and her team to be “very cooperative and collaborative.”

But Johnson said some in Detroit resented Byrd-Bennett and her team for spending only three days a week in Detroit. He said Byrd-Bennett, Ulery and Martin all stayed at the same downtown hotel.

Byrd-Bennett’s tenure in Detroit ended in June 2011, and, after working for SUPES, she came to CPS in early 2012. She was elevated to CEO later that year.

Weeks before Byrd-Bennett got the top CPS job — but after she had started working here — Ulery and Herpel also were hired to work at the Chicago schools.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has worked with Byrd-Bennett and Martin and praises them.

“They’re competent, they’re smart and they’re polished,” Lewis said.

Lewis wasn’t surprised Byrd-Bennett imported so many people she knew well to work with her again here.

“To come to a brand new job in the middle of all the crises that were going on in 2012 and not have your peeps with you — especially when you don’t know the city?” Lewis said, referring to the teachers strike in the summer of 2012. “You need to have your people you know and you can trust who are not trying to stab you in your back.”

Contributing: Kim Janssen