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Emanuel says his administration played no role in no-bid CPS contract that triggered federal investigation

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Monday his administration played no role in awarding a $20.5 million no-bid principal training contract to a company that once employed Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and is now the focus of a federal investigation.

“You obviously know that by all the information available. So, the answer to that is `No,’ ” Emanuel said when asked whether his administration was involved in the decision to hire Wilmette-based SUPES Academy, where Byrd-Bennett once worked as a trainer.

The mayor stood behind his hand-picked school board members who approved and defended the sole-source contract — even though there were hundreds of companies around the nation that did similar work.

The board also ignored chronic complaints about the caliber of principal training by SUPES.

“David [Vitale, board president] does very important work, as does all the board. Look at the whole board and the experience it’s brought there,” he said.

“You have, for the first-time ever, school principals that are on the board. You have people like Andrea Zopp, head of the Urban League. You have Henry Bienen, former president of a major university. You have the present [U.S.] Secretary of Commerce [Penny Pritzker] that was on the board. So you have a wealth of experience and knowledge.”

Emanuel credited Byrd-Bennett with playing a “central role” in the educational gains made at the Chicago Public Schools, but said she did the right thing by taking a temporary leave of absence and handing the reins to Board Vice President Jesse Ruiz.

“I don’t want to prejudge anything. I do say that Barbara did some important work for us in the past years. But she has to be focused on what’s in front of her,” Emanuel said.

“As mayor, I want everybody at CPS — our teachers, our students, our parents, our principals our administrators — like a laser focused on our children’s educational gains building on the gains we’ve had the last couple years, from a rising graduation rate [to] making sure we implement universal pre-K this summer. Which is one of the reasons I also then made sure that somebody like Jesse Ruiz with his skills and ability was able to step in on Day One.”

The mayor also said Ruiz did the right thing by looking for a way out of the SUPES contract and calling a halt to all sole-source contracts pending the outcome of a review of CPS contracting practices by an independent third-party.

Emanuel could not explain why no-bid contracts are no good now when they were OK then.

The mayor’s remarks were his first about the federal investigation since Byrd-Bennett handed the reins to Ruiz, continuing what has been a revolving door at the helm of CPS.

In a brief address to an Ounce of Prevention luncheon, Emanuel referred to the tan he got during a brief, post-election vacation in Mexico that was obviously interrupted by phone calls to Chicago about the CPS scandal.

“This is what blood pressure in a can looks like,” the mayor joked.

Earlier Monday, parent groups stood outside the mayor’s office to demand that Emanuel dump the seven-member Board of Education that signed off on and refused to investigate the SUPES contract.

The Raise Your Hand Coalition, Blocks Together and Parents for Teachers has an ultimate goal that’s more ambitious than a brand new appointed board. They want an elected school board that could take months or even years to implement even if Emanuel were to drop his opposition to the idea.

But the parents groups argued that change can’t wait in the wake of Byrd-Bennett’s decision to take a paid leave of absence pending the outcome of the federal investigation.

They want Emanuel to dump the seven-member board they claim is riddled with conflicts of interest and install a new board with a totally different mind-set that can restore public trust.

“It shouldn’t be the usual suspects of ed reform. We want him to put in people who are of the mind-set that public education can work — not that we need to close it and privatize it,” said Wendy Katten, executive director of Raise Your Hand.

Cassie Creswell, a board member of Raise Your Hand, pointed to a Chicago Sun-Times investigation that showed that Chicago Board of Education member Deborah Quazzo has invested in companies that do business with CPS and with charter schools she has voted to authorize.

“We need a Board of Ed that’s free from financial conflicts of interest. We need board members who, unlike Quazzo, don’t see Chicago Public Schools as business incubators and don’t see Chicago’s children as software testers on our board. We don’t need venture capitalists on our board. We need thoughtful, impartial Chicagoans who regard the schools and their students as a public trust . . . to steward carefully and ethically for the benefit of the public as a whole.”

Rhoda Rae Gutierrez, a member of Parents for Teachers, referred to the infamous story of Rahm Emanuel sending a dead fish to a pollster who was late in delivering results while serving as a brash young political operative for then-President Bill Clinton.

“Because our mayor understands the meaning of dead fish, I have a message that, I hope, resonates with him about the state of Chicago Public Schools: A fish rots from the head down,” Gutierrez said.

The parents groups noted that Board of Education President David Vitale heads a bank while negotiating financial deals for CPS. They also pointed to Vitale’s ties to the Academy of Urban School Leadership, which has turn-around contracts with CPS.

“Under Mayor Emanuel and his appointees on the Chicago School Board, the decay of our public school system has accelerated. When we have appointed board members whose former and current companies and law firms benefits, when we have board members who gamble with public money on risky toxic swaps, who suffers? Our children. And as we’ve seen in past school closings, it’s African-American and Latino children who suffer the most,” Gutierrez said.

“Under this administration, what we are witnessing is the plunder of our public assets. Parents are saying, `Enough is enough.’ We need an elected, representative school board now.’ ”

Vitale rejected the suggestion that the current board is so “riddled with conflicts,” including his own, that the mayor should start over.
“Riddled with conflicts? We have an ethics policy that takes care of conflicts. I don’t have any conflicts,” Vitale said.
“A lot of people have called for my resignation over the years, but I don’t have any conflicts. My ethics story is clean.”
Quazzo issued the following statement through a spokesman: “As was announced in January, Deborah Quazzo has voluntarily committed to contribute any profits from companies serving any U.S. school district back to organizations serving Chicago Public School students – a commitment she will continue to make while serving on the board and for one year after.”Since joining the board in June 2013, Deborah Quazzo has received $2,654.40 from those investments and she has contributed that exact amount to George Manierre Elementary School to support their 8th grade class trip.” During the just-concluded mayoral campaign, Emanuel adamantly opposed an elected school board on grounds that it would inject more politics into the school system and impede the educational progress CPS has made under his watch.

Last week, CPS released copies of grand jury subpoenas that showed federal investigators are looking into the inner circle of advisers Byrd-Bennett brought with her to Chicago.

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, were also sought.