In June, Barbara Byrd-Bennett stepped aside as chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools in the wake of a federal investigation involving a lucrative deal given to her former employers.
But it wasn’t the first time Byrd-Bennett had handed her former bosses Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas a rich deal, records examined by the Chicago Sun-Times show.
In Detroit, where Byrd-Bennett was chief academic and accountability auditor before coming to Chicago, she gave them more than $3.4 million in contracts with that city’s school system, records show.
That included a $3.1 million deal the Detroit Public Schools gave Synesi Associates, a north suburban business owned by Solomon and Vranas, during the 2010-2011 school year to try to boost academic performance at five struggling schools and to seek federal “school improvement grants.”
Then, as she was set to leave Michigan to come to Chicago and work for two of Solomon and Vranas’ companies as a consultant, Byrd-Bennett again hired them, this time to find her replacement in Detroit.
Dennis Culloton, a spokesman for the two men, said Friday that they followed the rules that were in place in Detroit.
“The company obtained all the work it performed through proper procedures set up by the Detroit school system at that time,” Culloton said. “Synesi and PROACT stand behind the work company executives and consultants did for the troubled Detroit school system.“
Detroit Public Schools spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski would not say how much the companies ended up getting paid.
It was while working for Solomon and Vranas that Byrd-Bennett first came to CPS, in 2011, as a consultant, before being hired as chief academic officer for Chicago’s schools and then being promoted to chief executive officer — both after lobbying by Solomon on her behalf, the Sun-Times has previously reported.
The $3.4 million in deals from the Detroit schools is a fraction of the $20.5 million, no-bid contract that another of Solomon and Vranas’ companies, SUPES Academy, got from CPS at Byrd-Bennett’s urging — a deal that’s now under scrutiny by federal authorities.
The Chicago Board of Education unanimously approved that three-year contract to train school principals in June 2013. That was a month after voting to close 50 schools officials said CPS couldn’t afford to continue operating.
While the deal Solomon and Vranas got from Detroit’s school system under Byrd-Bennett was smaller than their deal in Chicago, so was that district’s enrollment —about 87,000 students in 2010, compared with 403,000 students in Chicago at the time SUPES was hired.
This April, federal authorities issued subpoenas to CPS for records involving SUPES, Synesi and another Solomon and Vranas company called PROACT Search. They also demanded CPS records regarding Byrd-Bennett and three top aides who also had worked with her elsewhere before she brought them to Chicago.
Byrd-Bennett and one of those aides, a $170,000-a-year central office administrator named Tracy Martin, both had worked for Solomon and Vranasi as consultants.
Solomon urged Mayor Rahm Emanuel to promote Byrd-Bennett to lead the school system in 2012 to replace Emanuel’s first schools chief, Jean-Claude Brizard, in the wake of a teachers strike, Brizard and Beth Swanson, the mayor’s former deputy chief of staff for education issues, have said.
Soon after Byrd-Bennett resigned from CPS effective June 1 amid the federal probe, Martin and other members of the inner circle who’d previously worked with her left.
No charges have been filed as a result of the federal investigation, which came to light when CPS announced in April it had been subpoenaed and Byrd-Bennett took a paid leave of absence.
CPS paid SUPES more than $12 million under that contract before interim schools CEO Jesse Ruiz ended the deal in April.
Byrd-Bennett worked in Detroit from March 2009 through June 2011. She was hired there by Robert Bobb, who’d been appointed emergency financial manager of that city’s troubled school system.
Among his first acts in Detroit, Bobb, who previously worked with her in Washington, D.C., signed a contract with Byrd-Bennett paying her $18,000 a month to work for a Detroit school system that was struggling academically and financially. He increased her pay to $21,000 a month her second year there.
Exactly when Byrd-Bennett first started working for any of Solomon’s and Vranas’ companies and when she met them aren’t clear. She has refused all interview requests. And her attorney, Michael Scudder, would not comment.
According to her resume, she started working as an independent contractor in 2011 for a number of firms, including SUPES and Synesi.
According to emails obtained from the Detroit school system, Solomon wrote to Byrd-Bennett in August 2009, asking, on the advice of a mutual acquaintance, to set up a meeting with her in Detroit.
“You and I have been playing phone tag for a bit, and Joey Wise suggested to try again to connect with you. I am going to be in Detroit to meet with some folks on Sept. 16th, and was hoping you might have some time that day to chat for a bit,” Solomon wrote.
Joseph Wise heads Distinctive Schools, a company that manages charter schools in Chicago. He also has worked for SUPES.
In another email, this one on Sept. 4, 2009, Solomon thanked Byrd-Bennett for “taking the time to meet with me this week. I really enjoyed our talk and am working on some information that I can provide to you, in regards to working with some of your feeder schools that might be managed by an external partner. Also I am glad that I had a chance to talk with you a bit about Proact… where we have been and where I hope to take things. I would welcome the chance to speak to you about this further.”
The Detroit schools hired Synesi in July 2010 to work with three elementary schools for $760,000, according to their contract. In November 2010, the district dropped two of those schools and added four, under a $3.195 million contract covering a total of five schools.
The district appears to have issued a “request for qualifications” for that work, records show. That meant that, ahead of a possible competitive bidding process, any firm seeking the work had to show it would be able to handle the job.
Attached to the July 2010 contract was a scoresheet for 10 companies Detroit officials apparently considered before awarding the work. Synesi had the fifth-highest score.
The later Synesi deal in Detroit didn’t end up needing to be competitively bid. Late that July, the company received approval from the state of Michigan to become an official “external service provider” for schools that won the federal improvement grants. The state’s department of education wrote to Detroit’s procurement chief to tell her that with approved providers, “It is not necessary for the Detroit Public Schools to competitively bid out these contracts.”
Annie Carter, a longtime Detroit school board member, said that deal was never brought before the board for approval, nor were the others.
“Normally, we would have had to approve it, but we never was given the opportunity,” Carter said.
In late 2011, after Byrd-Bennett left Michigan, Detroit hired Synesi for another $160,000 to work with one of the same elementary schools.
Under Byrd-Bennett, CPS also tried to hire Synesi to work with schools under the same federal grant program. That deal would have paid Synesi more than $1.8 million to work with eight schools under the direction of Martin, who’d been Byrd-Bennett’s chief of staff in Detroit and moved to Chicago to oversee a group of academically lagging CPS schools.
But Synesi didn’t get the necessary approval from the Illinois State Board of Education, which didn’t find it qualified. Because the firm already had done some work, CPS ended up paying it $135,000.
Detroit then gave PROACT a $77,500 contract to fill at least five top positions once Byrd-Bennett’s tenure ended.
The firm emailed Byrd-Bennett aide Sherry Ulery several times to make sure she was aware of the job opportunities and then to remind her the deadline was approaching.
Ulery didn’t respond to requests seeking comment. She was among top Byrd-Bennett aides named in the federal subpoenas in Chicago. She also was subpoenaed in April to testify before a grand jury.
PROACT hit a snag in Detroit and complained it hadn’t been paid. For several months, Vranas kept checking on the payment with one of Byrd-Bennett’s aides, Kathleen Freilino. In March 2011, he wrote to her, “We have yet to get paid for any of our work.”
That same month, he wrote, “We show $30,000 that is significantly past due. Any help on getting these paid?”
Freilino disagreed with that amount, saying Solomon hadn’t discussed an additional $5,500 submitted for marketing costs.
In April 2011, Vranas began including Byrd-Bennett on the emails: “Hate to pester — any news on this?”
“Dear Lord!!!!!!” Byrd-Bennett emailed Ulery and Freilino the next morning. “PLEASE wrap this up and/or let me know if and how I need to intercede. BBB”
Later that day, she wrote to Ulery again, “Will u assist to see that this get this paid please?”
Solomon and Byrd-Bennett frequently emailed each other while she was in Detroit and later in Chicago.
On Feb. 16, 2011, a formal email arrived in Byrd-Bennett’s inbox from Solomon:
“We are pleased to announce the creation of The SUPES Academy, a new not-for-profit corporation that will be dedicated to preparing a new generation of superintendents for our nation’s schools.”
Within a year, Byrd-Bennett was working for SUPES as a consultant to CPS, coaching Noemi Donoso, the district’s chief academic officer — whom Byrd-Bennett was hired in May 2012 to replace, beginning her three-year tenure at CPS.