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Former CPS CEO Brizard: SUPES owner ‘instrumental’ in bringing Byrd-Bennett to district

Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard | Sun-Times files

The man whose company is at the center of a federal investigation of Chicago Public Schools was “instrumental” in bringing Barbara Byrd-Bennett into a high-ranking job at CPS and in her promotion as CEO there, according to former CPS chief Jean-Claude Brizard.

Gary Solomon, an owner of SUPES Academy, whose no-bid $20.5 million CPS contract is under investigation, played a significant role in recommending Byrd-Bennett for the job of chief education officer and later to replace Brizard as CEO in 2012, Brizard said in an interview Thursday.

“Gary was instrumental in bringing her name forward,” Brizard said.

The revelation from Brizard shows in the most detail yet how close Byrd-Bennett and Solomon were professionally. Byrd-Bennett worked for two of Solomon’s companies, including SUPES. She then joined CPS as a top official under Brizard and replaced him.

Byrd-Bennett first arrived at CPS as SUPES’ lead coach for high-ranking administrator Noemi Donoso, said Brizard, who left CPS in the wake of Chicago’s historic 2012 teachers strike.

Gary Solomon.
Gary Solomon.

But Solomon’s spokesman, Dennis Culloton, said that Brizard asked SUPES to provide Byrd-Bennett’s services.

“Brizard requested that Barbara Byrd-Bennett be assigned to him to mentor not only the network chiefs but also central office personnel, including mentoring for himself,” Culloton said.

Brizard disputed that account, saying he wanted Byrd-Bennett to coach only Donoso and principals’ bosses.

Solomon previously played a role in suggesting Brizard as CEO, Culloton said.

Culloton said a member of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s transition team contacted Solomon in 2011, shortly before the mayor was sworn in for his first term, and asked Solomon to suggest candidates for Chicago schools chief.

“He suggested J.C. Brizard and others in that conversation,” Culloton said.

Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. | Sun-Times file photo
Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. | Sun-Times file photo

In April, Byrd-Bennett stepped down on paid leave, days after the feds issued several subpoenas to CPS for records involving herself, three close aides and three companies owned by Solomon and his business partner, Thomas Vranas.

Byrd-Bennett did not respond to emails seeking comment. CPS declined to comment, citing the pending investigation.

Federal investigators have since interviewed many witnesses, including Emanuel’s former deputy for education, Beth Swanson.

Nancy DePodesta, Swanson’s lawyer, said her client was interviewed on April 24, adding that Swanson “provides background” and context due to the role she played in the Emanuel administration.

“She’s not a target. She’s not a subject. The chief of the public-corruption unit at the U.S. attorney’s office gave her a written, non-subject letter,” DePodesta said.

DePodesta refused to discuss what was covered by federal investigators in their interview with Swanson, which did not require a subpoena.

SUPES served CPS under Brizard as part of a privately funded pilot, but he said his “eyebrows went up” when he learned of the $20.5 million deal with the firm because the work wasn’t competitively bid.

Brizard is not the only former top CPS executive Solomon knew.

Paul Vallas. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times
Paul Vallas. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Paul Vallas, who was former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s first schools chief, said he met Solomon about 10 years ago, when Vallas led Philadelphia’s public schools.

Vallas said lawyers for the Philadelphia district sent Solomon a cease-and-desist letter because Solomon’s consulting company at the time boasted of holding “the exclusive rights to Paul Vallas’ model” for education reform. “He apologized and dropped it from his website,” Vallas said.

The website for Solomon’s company also said “our team” included former Chicago Board of Education President Gery Chico and his wife, Sunny Chico.

But Gery Chico said neither he nor his wife have ever worked with Solomon.

Another Solomon company, Synesi Associates, worked in Louisiana while Vallas was the top official in New Orleans. On the Synesi website, the company says it participated in “the successful implementation” of Vallas’ goals and led efforts that landed a $10 million grant from a private foundation.

Those assertions and other by Synesi are vast exaggerations, Vallas said.

“He played no role in policy development,” Vallas said of Solomon.

Culloton declined to reply to Vallas’ and Chico’s comments.

Contributing: Becky Schlikerman