Watchdog finds Barbara Byrd-Bennett taint on Camelot’s alternative schools bid
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One of Chicago Public Schools’ largest alternative schools providers, the for-profit Camelot Education, could be permanently banned from CPS or ordered to pay steep fines because the schools inspector general concluded it rigged its bid with help from disgraced former CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.
Those were among the recommendations to be released Tuesday alongside explosive findings by Inspector General Nicholas Schuler, whose work helped put the woman Mayor Rahm Emanuel affectionately called “B3” behind bars.
Schuler accused Camelot of quietly hiring Byrd-Bennett’s co-defendants and former employers, Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, as paid lobbyists to help skirt CPS’ procurement rules and with her aid, landing big contracts to open publicly-funded schools for students who’ve dropped out or are at risk of doing so.
Accusing Schuler of cherry-picking facts, Camelot CEO Andrew Morrison denied any bidding impropriety and touted the company’s academic record. “We proudly stand by our programs,” he said, calling Solomon and Vranas “paid consultants”.
Morrison said Schuler’s “recommendations are disproportionate to the truth and they are based on findings that are inaccurate.”
“We believe that once the Board of Education is presented with accurate information it will reconsider its position,” he said.
But on Monday, CPS officials said they’d begin debarment proceedings against Camelot, which runs six alternative schools in CPS for about 560 students.
That means CPS will negotiate fines against the company that’s been given $67 million to date, spokesman Michael Passman said. Or the Austin-based chain running schools in Philadelphia and Houston could be eventually barred from working in Chicago, though its schools couldn’t be closed before August 2019.
The fallout from Byrd-Bennett’s stint heading Chicago’s schools still hasn’t ended as she serves a four-and-a-half-year sentence in the federal prison known as “Camp Cupcake.”
The plot shares striking similarities to The SUPES Academy bribery scheme that offered Byrd-Bennett kickbacks for steering lucrative deals totaling more than $20 million to SUPES owners Solomon and Vranas, who also were handed prison sentences.
Once again, Byrd-Bennett pressured district underlings to ensure her choice would prevail. Again, the company considered offering her a soft landing with them after she left CPS. Again, Solomon and Vranas were paid handsomely, as consultants with promises of a $25,000 “success fee” for each school Camelot was authorized to open. And once again, the scheme was caught in damning emails, detailed in the report.
“CPS will give you all you can handle and then some,” Solomon wrote as he emailed two Camelot executives shortly before the December 2012 meeting when the school board approved an additional Camelot school, according to the report. And he emailed that on the night of that meeting, he, Vranas and the two executives — who remain employed by Camelot — would go out “to celebrate.”
One of those executives also had emailed Solomon in August 2012 after a direct competitor sent CPS a proposal to open schools, calling that development “bad news,” and saying “we don’t want them to get started in Chicago.”
Byrd-Bennett also had Camelot hire a former CPS network chief she had mentored at SUPES, who had resigned amid a CPS investigation, “in a “wink-wink” agreement “with the understanding that his hiring was necessary for the company to continue doing business with CPS,” Schuler wrote.
CPS will tighten ethics rules for anyone bidding on work, and will publish a searchable database of the additional disclosures on its web site.
“The actions uncovered by the Office of the Inspector General undermined the best interests of Chicago students, city taxpayers, and the honest, hard-working educators and administrators,” Passman wrote in an email. “CPS is fully committed to preventing conduct of this nature from occurring again.”