State rejected consulting company tied to man at center of CPS criminal probe

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For help with multimillion-dollar federal grants, four struggling Chicago Public Schools partnered with an education consulting company tied to the man at the center of a federal criminal investigation of CPS — but the state found the company unqualified for the work.

The man, Gary Solomon, co-owns SUPES Academy, which received a $20.5 million no-bid contract in 2013. That contract raised questions at the time. It later sparked a federal investigation and prompted CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who pushed the contract despite previously working for SUPES, to take a leave of absence.

Solomon also co-owns Synesi Associates, which sought to be partners in 2013 with four CPS high schools seeking multimillion-dollar federal “transformation” grants. But the Illinois State Board of Education, which administered the grants, did not find Synesi Associates qualified for the work. None of the four schools that used Synesi received the grants, but that failure was due to the overall poor quality of their entire applications and cannot be directly tied to Synesi, state officials said.

Those schools partnered up with Synesi under a CPS department overseen by a top Byrd-Bennett lieutenant, Tracy Martin, who also had previously worked for SUPES. Byrd-Bennett also worked for Synesi before coming to CPS.

Chicago Public Schools spokesman Bill McCaffrey refused to answer questions about Synesi — including whether it was chosen by the schools, by Martin or by someone else — citing the ongoing investigation. Federal subpoenas sent to CPS sought records pertaining to Martin and Byrd-Bennett, Solomon and his business partner and their three companies, including Synesi.

Martin referred questions to McCaffrey. Byrd-Bennett did not respond to an emailed message.

No one has been accused of any wrongdoing.

Though CPS touted Synesi’s past work in other urban districts, the Illinois State Board of Education found that Synesi failed at a fundamental level to show how it would actually help the schools improve if they were awarded the money, according to records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Scorers from the state board docked points across many categories for lack of detail about Synesi’s role in each school’s transformation.

“How can one tell what effect the vendor made, when we have little information about what exactly they did? No contextual information is provided,” one wrote, chiding Synesi for skimping on detail about its school improvement strategy in other cities.

“No indication of a daily work experience that garnered results,” is how another state scorer summed up a segment of the review, awarding just 362 points out of a possible 580.

In another graded section of its application, Synesi got just 5 points out of a possible 40, the records show.

Then the state wondered why Synesi was pitching services from sister firms SUPES and PROACT Search as part of its recruitment strategy, saying the company provided “no evidence of effectiveness, experience in education or staff qualifications. . . . Unclear what role they would play.”

Synesi spokesman Dennis Culloton said the company was chosen by CPS to be a lead partner for the grants after a procurement process.

“Despite Synesi’s best efforts in its application, the firm was not selected by the state as a lead partner,” Culloton said. “No CPS school lost out on grant money because of Synesi’s failure to win the State Board bid.”

In April 2013, grant applications were submitted for Carver Military Academy, Corliss, Farragut and what then was called Marine Math and Science Academy, now the Marine Leadership Academy at Ames. Each planned to pay Synesi $270,000 per year for its help, according to the schools’ proposals. None of the principals answered Sun-Times questions.

The Chicago Board of Education approved Synesi in July as a possible partner for “school improvement services,” but the company still needed state approval. That same month, the ISBE announced grant recipients. None of the Synesi schools won but two other CPS schools who had different partners were awarded the grants.

In August, ISBE evaluated Synesi’s qualifications separately and found it didn’t score enough points to become a lead partner, ISBE spokesman Matt Vanover said.

Culloton said Synesi had begun working before being approved because ISBE’s process was delayed and CPS “was eager to move forward with the school improvement work.”

“At the direction of CPS” the company had begun to help schools work on their improvement plans, he said, and was paid about $135,000.

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