It might have seemed an odd choice when Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner reached across party lines earlier this year to get Democrat Paul Vallas appointed to a $200,000-a-year post at financially troubled Chicago State University.
Vallas, after all, had run for lieutenant governor with then-Gov. Pat Quinn on the Democratic slate that Rauner defeated in 2014.
But Vallas and Rauner go back years before that election, and Vallas once even offered Rauner a chance to invest in his education consulting company, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.
Nearly seven years ago — when Rauner wasn’t yet a politician, just a wealthy private investor with an interest in public education and a friend in the mayor’s office — Vallas corresponded with and met with him, offering to help create what he described as an “ambitious new school district” in Chicago.
In three letters to Rauner in 2010 and 2011, Vallas offered to work with Rauner and city officials. Vallas said that school “buildings would be provided to the charters at no cost.”
“Concerning our potential partnership, I would welcome the opportunity to contract with you to assist with your school reform efforts in Chicago,” Vallas wrote to Rauner in February 2011, when Vallas was the top schools official in New Orleans.
Vallas — who’d head the Chicago Public Schools under Mayor Richard M. Daley from 1995 until 2001 — also asked Rauner to invest in his education consulting company, the Vallas Group, according to copies of the correspondence obtained by the Sun-Times.
“You once told me that if I ever decided to launch a domestic education business, you would be willing to invest,” Vallas told Rauner. “Based on my research and years in the education field, I firmly believe this is a can’t miss.”
Under the 15-month contract Vallas signed with Chicago State on April 24, the public university on the city’s Far South Side allows him to continue his private work with the Vallas Group.
Vallas and Hud Englehart, the governor’s spokesman, say Rauner never invested in the Vallas Group.
And Vallas says nothing came of the plans he and Rauner discussed for the Chicago schools.
“My offers to assist CPS directly in 2011 and 2012 were rebuffed, as leadership chose to follow Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s vision for the district,” Vallas said Friday, referring to the former Chicago schools chief now in federal prison in a bribery scheme.
Englehart declined to comment on the letters from Rauner to Vallas.
In a written statement, Vallas said, “The governor and I for years have, from time to time, engaged in conversations about various ideas for improving education for public school students of all ages.”
In a September 2011 letter to Rauner, Vallas said the Vallas Group had “the immediate need” for an investor for a $150,000 project, according to the “privileged and confidential” proposal from the company to Rauner.
On Friday, Vallas said, “Mr. Rauner did not then, or ever, contribute to that project or any others involving me, other than to always offer his encouragement and support for my drive to improve student outcomes.
Vallas said he hasn’t worked on any outside consulting jobs since starting at Chicago State but might “should a worthy project present itself.”
“High-performing individuals with decades of specialized experience and knowledge do not limit their ability to contribute to the greater good,” Vallas said.
According to Vallas’ contract with Chicago State, he owns 75 percent of the Vallas Group, and at the time the deal was signed, the firm was working at the Rochester, N.Y., school system, the Philadelphia Housing Authority and a charter school in Buffalo, N.Y.
The Rev. Marshall Hatch — president of the Chicago State board, who signed the contract with Vallas in April — said he doesn’t expect Vallas to stay at Chicago State once his contract runs out next year.
“I don’t see that happening,” Hatch said. “He was brought in to bring some energy. I think it’s worked out decently.”
The discussions between Rauner and Vallas in 2010 and 2011 came at the time Rahm Emanuel was on his way to succeeding Daley as mayor. Rauner and Emanuel were friends then, and, in his letters to Rauner, Vallas seemed to assume Rauner would have influence with the new city administration.
On Feb. 20, 2011 — two days before Emanuel was elected —Vallas gave Rauner a list of potential CPS superintendents. None was hired.
Vallas told Rauner he was on his way out in New Orleans and said he faced criticism there for his moonlighting with the Vallas Group.
“Although the ‘powers that be’ keep insisting that I extend my tenure in New Orleans, the media and school reform opponents are enjoying beating the drums about my activities outside the district,” Vallas wrote.
“My fatal flaw is that I am overly loyal to my own detriment, but of course I am Greek and in Greek mythology all of the heroes have tragic flaws that are ultimately their undoing. In an effort to avoid that, however, I am anxious to conclude my business and severe [sic] my ties with the [New Orleans school district].”
Vallas told Rauner he would be the best person to lead his efforts to reform the Chicago schools.
“I don’t think you could find anyone more qualified to evaluate and assess the strengths and weaknesses of the school system and to work with you to design a comprehensive plan to improve the schools academically and to address its financial problems,” Vallas wrote.
In September 2011, Vallas again wrote to Rauner, saying he would be happy to work “in support of the mayor” and his first schools chief, Jean-Claude Brizard.
Rauner and Emanuel have since had a dramatic falling-out.
And as Quinn’s running mate in 2014, Vallas said he and Rauner “disagree fundamentally on charters,” which are privately run but largely government-funded.