Federal investigators are looking into the inner circle of advisers Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett brought with her to Chicago, as well as a no-bid, $20.5 million principal-training contract to a company that once employed her, wide-ranging subpoenas released Friday show.
And as Byrd-Bennett stepped aside Friday pending the outcome of the federal probe, replaced by the Board of Education’s vice president Jesse Ruiz, sources told the Sun-Times that FBI agents have searched Byrd-Bennett’s homes in Chicago and a Cleveland suburb.
The deepening scandal — just days after Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s run-off re-election — sees Ruiz take over as CPS’s fifth leader since 2010.
Federal subpoenas released by CPS, dated April 13 and 14, extended to a close corps of Byrd-Bennett loyalists who worked with her in Cleveland and Detroit before taking six-figure jobs at CPS. 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 CPS’ HR department, are due before a federal grand jury on Tuesday.
Investigators have demanded to see records regarding “financial benefits, gifts, honoraria, meals and reimbursements” from Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, the owners of the SUPES Academy, which scored the $20.5 million no-bid contract in June 2013. Documents from Solomon and Vranas’ other north suburban companies Synesi Associates and PROACT Search are also sought.
Solomon and Vranas declined to comment through their spokesman, Dennis Culloton, who said both men are fully cooperating and stand by their work, training CPS principals.
Investigators also want to see employment records for Byrd-Bennett, Ulery, Herpel and Tracy Martin, the $170,000-a-year head of a special network Byrd-Bennett created at CPS to oversee struggling neighborhood schools with help from Synesi Associates. Ulery and Martin also worked under Byrd-Bennett in Cleveland and in Detroit, according to records.
Neither Martin nor Byrd-Bennett have been called before the grand jury, and no one has been accused of any wrongdoing. None of the women responded to emails seeking comment.
Also subpoenaed are records from the politically powerful Chicago Public Education Fund. Fund officials did not return messages left Friday afternoon for comment.
CPS released the subpoenas to reporters shortly before notifying the bond market about them in advance of next week’s plans to borrow another $296 million.
It now falls to Ruiz to avert another teachers strike, fend off bankruptcy at CPS and persuade the Illinois General Assembly to grant CPS the pension relief it needs.
CPS faces a $1.1 billion budget shortfall and a $9.5 billion pension crisis. The teachers’ contract expires this summer.
Ruiz, a partner at Drinker Biddle who often had to recuse himself from board votes because of his law firm’s connections, will not collect a CPS salary.
Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale pointed to the district’s need for help from Springfield as the reason Ruiz was chosen over board members and former principals Mahalia Hines and Carlos Azcoitia.
Despite his lack of classroom experience, Ruiz served from 2004 to 2011 as the state board of education chairman. He has also served on a U.S. Department of Education panel and on the district’s desegregation commission.
“I want to speak directly to every CPS parent, student, teacher and member of the CPS family,” Ruiz told reporters at CPS headquarters. “I want them to know they have my full commitment, focus and passion to ensure that we deliver on that promise to create a better future for all our students.”
Both Ruiz and Vitale defended their June 2013 votes to approve the no-bid three-year $20.5 million deal that raised eyebrows even before principals began complaining about the SUPES program’s poor quality. Hundreds of competitors — including many Chicago non-profits — offer similar services.
Ruiz and Vitale both said they were aware of Byrd-Bennett’s work for SUPES as a trainer.
“Many of us . . . engage with organizations which we no longer have a relationship with, which may still provide quality services to Chicago Public Schools,” he said.
Ruiz added after the press conference, that he voted for SUPES because “I thought it would be a prudent action to make.”
Neither would speculate on the future of Byrd-Bennett’s $250,000-a-year employment at CPS; her contract is set to expire at the end of June.
Byrd-Bennett this week hired defense attorney Michael Scudder, a former federal prosecutor and partner in the Chicago office of the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
Byrd-Bennett wrote a letter Friday morning to Vitale, asking to take a leave of absence.
“In light of the attention given to my position as chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools, I believe that my continuing as CEO at this time would be a distraction,” the letter read. “Although this is a very difficult decision personally, it is one I believe is in the best interests of the children of CPS that I am so fortunate to serve.”
Byrd-Bennett will be using her accumulated leave time while she is off, Ruiz said, but CPS officials refused to say how many days that is and what will happen if she’s off more days than she has.
The Chicago Teachers Union, normally critical of the district, held back from calling for Byrd-Bennett to quit but linked her legacy to her historic shuttering at the mayor’s behest of 50 neighborhood schools in 2013.
A former teacher and principal, Byrd-Bennett forged a bond with CTU President Karen Lewis when she helped negotiate an end to the 2012 teachers strike.
CTU vice president Jesse Sharkey said Byrd-Bennett was being “singled out” among “widespread practices by the mayor’s Board of Education appointees,” such as investments by board member Deborah Quazzo in companies doing business with CPS and Vitale’s ties to banks as he negotiates bond ratings.
“In a school district that seems to be all about privatization, private entities continue to play a major role in its operations,” Sharkey said, “and if Barbara is the first to fall, then perhaps there are many others who should follow.”
Contributing: Dan Mihalopoulos, Chris Fusco