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THE WATCHDOGS: CPS, ex-CEO pushed 2nd firm in probe for $1.9 million in school deals

When Synesi Associates applied for Chicago Public Schools business working with struggling city high schools, it gave a seemingly impeccable reference, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CPS’ chief executive officer, documents obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.

Synesi, which had never gotten any business from the Chicago schools before, got the job.

But things didn’t work out the way that Synesi’s owners or Byrd-Bennett — a former employee of the north suburban educational consulting firm — hoped.

The plan was for the company to do work at eight Chicago high schools — and get paid $1.9 million for that, the newly obtained records show. But state education officials overseeing the grant program Synesi was hired under called a halt to its involvement, questioning its qualifications.

CPS ended up paying Synesi about $135,000 anyway.

In April, federal authorities subpoenaed records from CPS that included documents concerning a $20.5 million, no-bid contract for training principals that the school system gave to SUPES Academy — which, like Synesi, is owned by Gary Solomon, a former teacher and dean at Niles West High School in Skokie, and his former student Thomas Vranas.

Byrd-Bennett, a onetime senior adviser for Synesi, also worked for SUPES before being hired at CPS in 2012, initially as the district’s second-ranking executive.

Byrd-Bennett resigned last month as the head of the Chicago school system in the face of the federal investigation.

Much of the attention the investigation has gotten has centered on the SUPES deal, which interim CPS CEO Jesse Ruiz ended, costing the firm more than $7 million of the $20.5 million, after Mayor Rahm Emanuel named him as a temporary replacement for Byrd-Bennett.

But federal investigators also subpoenaed records of Synesi’s dealings with CPS and records regarding longtime Byrd-Bennett aide Tracy Martin, who ran the CPS office that oversees struggling schools before resigning June 29.

Four CPS high schools partnered with Synesi to try to win school “turnaround” School Improvements Grants from the state of Illinois in 2013, as the Sun-Times previously reported. Those grant applications were rejected by the Illinois State Board of Education.

But the school system also tried to bring Synesi in under the radar to work with four more schools, the newly obtained CPS invoices and proposals show.

Before Byrd-Bennett was elevated to CEO, those schools had applied for and won the same grants during the two previous years, listing CPS itself — rather than Synesi, as it the other schools had done — as their “lead partner,” through its old Office of School Improvement. Al Raby, Bogan and Clemente high schools won the multi-year, multimillion-dollar grants in October 2012. Kelvyn Park High School won it in June 2011.

The Chicago Board of Education unanimously voted to add Synesi to its list of approved vendors one month after it voted 6-0, with one member absent, to give SUPES the $20.5 million, no-bid deal.

Subsequently the district sought to subcontract some of the turnaround work to Synesi to those schools. And at some point during the summer of 2013, Synesi did unspecified “consulting work” for Al Raby, Bogan, Clemente and Kelvyn Park high schools, according to an Aug. 28, 2013, invoice.

Earlier during the same month that Synesi put in that invoice with CPS, the Illinois State Board of Education had shot down Synesi’s application to join the state’s list of qualified school “turnaround” providers. The agency said the company failed to show it had helped other schools. That disqualified it from doing any work paid for by the state turnaround program for troubled schools.

If not for the state’s decision, Synesi had stood to be paid $844,000 from CPS for work with the four schools that won the grant, plus another $1.08 million — or $270,000 per school — for the four that did not.

In seeking the work, the company had boasted to CPS of its work “primarily in complex, urban, high-poverty school districts.” It pointed to work it had done elsewhere, including Detroit, and included a list of references topped by “Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CEO,” noting that she had worked with Synesi when she was a consultant for Detroit’s public schools from 2009 to 2011.

CPS paid Synesi about $85,000 for its work at Al Raby, Bogan, Clemente and Kelvyn Park — $65,544 from the Aug. 28, 2013 invoice, plus another $20,000 for consulting work Synesi described as “wind down services.”

“Synesi has completed more work than this amount but will only be able to invoice this amount as per our agreement with the Chicago Public Schools,” according to an agreement signed Aug. 12, 2013, by then-Board of Ed. president David Vitale and one day later by Synesi’s Vranas.

In a letter Sept. 24, 2013, CPS ended its agreement with Synesi. The reason given was that the company hadn’t secured the approval it needed from the state Board of Ed. to continue.

The district’s procurement officer, Sebastian de Longeaux, authorized another $5,000 per school in “wind down services” by Synesi for work with each of the four schools.

As with SUPES, none of the work Synesi ever got with CPS was awarded through a competitive bidding process, though the company’s proposal was screened by the district prior to the July 24, 2013, vote to approve it as a vendor.

Synesi submitted bills for $24,999 each on two of the projects it completed for CPS — $1 shy of the $25,000 figure that, under the school system’s contract rules, would have required CPS to seek at least three price quotations and also would have had to be submitted for further central office approval.

One of those bills, dated May 21, 2013, arrived before Synesi became a CPS approved vendor. It was for “SIG Consulting Work” — apparently referring to the state School Improvements Grants program that the state Board of Ed. rejected Synesi for.

The other, dated March 14, 2014, was listed as being for “working with principal to coach and develop to ILT members” during 10 days in February, March and April.

Citing the ongoing federal investigation, CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey declined to answer questions about how Synesi was brought in on the CPS work, who chose the company to work with the schools or why a company that didn’t have the required state approval was brought in under the program.

Dennis Culloton, a spokesman for Solomon and Vranas, would not answer questions about their using Byrd-Bennett’s name in their proposal.

“There is a pending investigation into CPS; therefore, it is not appropriate to address your detailed questions other than to say that Synesi, like its allied companies, delivered on its promise of providing valuable expertise for school turnaround efforts and can account for every hour of service,” Culloton said in response to questions.

Neither Byrd-Bennett nor Martin responded to emailed requests for comment. Byrd-Bennett’s attorney, Michael Scudder, declined to comment.

The investigation embroiling CPS, Byrd-Bennett, Solomon and Vranas stems from a CPS inspector general’s investigation that began within months of the Board of Ed.’s June 2013 approval of the no-bid SUPES deal. The federal investigation apparently been going on for more than a year.

No one has been accused of any criminal wrongdoing.

Beth Swanson — Emanuel’s former deputy chief of staff for education issues, who is among those federal authorities have interviewed — told the Sun-Times earlier this month that she raised questions when CPS proposed the SUPES contract.

Swanson described Solomon’s ties to Byrd-Bennett as close, describing him as a “conduit” for her, pushing for her hiring and barraging her with emails about her concerns and complaints.

Vitale — whom Emanuel replaced last week as Board of Ed. president in a move he said Vitale suggested — said Swanson didn’t discuss her concern with him, telling the Sun-Times, “I did not talk to Beth about it. . . . I have no recollection of talking to” her.

Contributing: Dan Mihalopoulos