When the Chicago Board of Education unanimously approved a $20.5 million, no-bid contract with the former CEO’s previous employer that’s now under federal investigation, the members were voting the way they typically do, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis shows.
And the newly constituted board — which includes four more new members already in place under a new president who will take over meetings in August — voted unanimously to approve all of CPS’ proposals on July 22, according to the district.
Outgoing board president and banker David Vitale, who cast one of the six votes for the SUPES Academy deal in June 2013, never cast a dissenting vote since he began voting in June 2011, the Sun-Times analysis shows. Three other board members who have served partial terms also never voted against CPS recommendations: investor Deborah Quazzo, businesswoman and now Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and corporate spokesman Rod Sierra.
The Sun-Times looked at voting records from about 50 board meetings held since the middle of 2011 when Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed his chosen seven members. Two of those members changed in 2013. Several of the nine total told the Sun-times no one ever told them how to vote.
Board vice president Jesse Ruiz, an attorney, and Henry Bienen, president emeritus of Northwestern University, dissented just once each.
Former principal Mahalia Hines, who along with Ruiz remains on the board, and U.S. Senate candidate Andrea Zopp each disagreed with CPS in three votes.
The most public dissent came from former principal Carlos Azcoitia, who voted against CPS nine times during his partial term from January 2013 to June 2015.
He was out of the country on the day of the SUPES vote and missed it but told the Sun-Times:
“Had I been in that meeting, I would have voted ‘no.’ I’m sure I would have voted no like I would have done in other cases. We couldn’t approve that after closing 50 schools,” he said.
Earlier this year, in mid-April, federal subpoenas were sent to CPS seeking records concerning CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, three of her top aides, and SUPES’ owners, Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas.
No one has been charged. Federal authorities have declined to discuss the investigation.
CPS halted all no-bid contracts and moved to change the way it awards them before seeking the board’s approval. Vitale, Ruiz, Hines, Bienen, Zopp and Quazzo voted for SUPES.
Of the few measures the board has voted down since 2011, none has been a mixed vote.
Vitale, who missed only one set of votes since 2011, declined to be interviewed. He emailed that he considered it his job to seek consensus from fellow members.
“Matters only reached the board meeting for action after such consensus had been achieved,” he wrote. “So it is not surprising that your data shows relatively few no votes as significant briefing, discussion and changes to action items were frequently negotiated to develop that consensus. Furthermore, your data would not reflect items that never came before the board for action because consensus could not be achieved.”
Asked for examples of measures that never made it to the agenda, he did not respond.
Vitale said his board “has been working to develop a process whereby more of the give-and-take could be made public by moving from individual board member briefings to a single public briefing for all board members, something I hope the new board will consider pursuing.”
Vitale never made this happen during his tenure. Those briefings begin about two weeks before each meeting, according to CPS.
New board president Frank Clark wouldn’t commit to opening up board briefings to the public.
“I am very pleased to begin leading the board of education and I am taking a careful look at all aspects of the board before determining what changes may be necessary. I promise that any changes made will result in the board continuing to be an effective advocate for our children and the school system,” Clark said in an emailed statement.
Ruiz recalled the one time he dissented, against closing Von Humboldt Elementary School, saying he was impressed with the staff who showed them their plan.
“I wanted to give them a shot to stay open and execute their plan,” he said. “I had faith in the team and wanted to give them the chance. My colleagues didn’t feel the same.
“It’s not the only time I disagreed, but it’s the only time my disagreements haven’t been addressed prior to the board meeting.”
He also cited the example of a recent proposal to approve new technology that board members sent back to CPS before it reached the final agenda.
“We go back to the drawing board all the time,” Ruiz said.
Bienen said he nearly dissented a second time.
“I do remember I was tempted to vote no to a military school, but I decided against it,” he told the Sun-Times. “Some of these are 50/50 things and they’re not clear cut. This was one of them. In the end of the day I voted for that.”
His lone dissent in 2014 involved bonds to fund pre-kindergarten programs.
“I felt the program was good,” he said. “I wasn’t sure that it should just be funded in this way.”
The interest rate was high, he said. “Plus I thought that maybe for that programmatic thing, which is in and of itself important, maybe it’s just that the way it should have been funded.”
But he laid his trust in the CEO when he cast his yes vote on the SUPES deal.
“As for SUPES, I’m not going to discuss everything I know now. But one of the reasons I voted yes was precisely because the CEO had knew these folks and thought highly of them. So you could say there was a potential conflict of interest. Obviously, some people didn’t think there was a conflict of interest or they never would have voted in favor.”
Beth Swanson, a former top aide to Emanuel, has told the Sun-Times she raised questions about Byrd-Bennett’s relationship with Solomon before SUPES got the no-bid deal in June 2013.
“When I learned of the $20.5 million contract just before the CPS board meeting, I asked a number of questions about it,” Swanson said. “But this was the board’s decision, and they were comfortable moving forward.”
Zopp and Pritzker, who left the board after the February 2013 meeting to become President Barack Obama’s Commerce Secretary, declined interviews.
Zopp emailed that she “had to take exception” to characterizations that the board is a rubber stamp.
“Remember that board meetings are really the tail end of a long process of internal discussions and reviews that occurs before matters are brought to the board,” she said. “Like others, I regularly raised questions and concerns about items on the board agenda with staff in briefings prior to the board meetings. Many times these discussions led to proposed actions being revised to address the concerns or at times removed from the agenda.”
She did not provide examples.
“I am very proud of the time I spent serving on the Chicago Board of Education, a responsibility I took very seriously,” Pritzker said in an emailed statement. “Throughout my tenure, I arrived at my decisions through a thoughtful, collaborative, and deliberative process, and ultimately voted for what I believed was in the best interest of the city’s young people.”
Quazzo, who replaced Pritzker from June 2013 through June 2015, did not return emailed messages seeking comment. Her assistant said she was traveling all week and was unavailable.
Rod Sierra also did not return messages seeking comment.