When former Chicago Public Schools chief Paul Vallas was recruited to revive the schools in hurricane-battered New Orleans, he asked for help from back home, newly obtained records show.
In a series of letters to Louisiana officials who oversaw the New Orleans district, Vallas vouched for Synesi Associates, an education consulting firm that recently had been started in Chicago by a former high school teacher named Gary Solomon.
“This out-of-state provider has a record of demonstrated effectiveness,” Vallas wrote in 2007, citing the “unique experience” of the firm’s staff.
Synesi landed two no-bid contracts worth nearly $893,000 in New Orleans during Vallas’ time running the Recovery School District from 2007 to 2011, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.
And Solomon is set to report to federal prison July 11 to begin an 84-month sentence. Solomon was convicted of bribing Barbara Byrd-Bennett, one of Vallas’ successors heading CPS, who arranged for Synesi and another of his companies to land $23 million in business with the Chicago school system.
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and former Democratic Illinois Senate President Emil Jones had called for Vallas to be given a leadership role at the South Side university.
The new role is yet another reclamation job for the man who came to prominence in the 1990s as Mayor Richard M. Daley’s first schools chief when Springfield gave City Hall control over Chicago’s financially troubled schools. After leaving CPS and mounting a losing campaign for Illinois governor, Vallas headed the Philadelphia schools before going to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Two years ago, as the CPS bribery scandal unfolded, Vallas tried to distance himself from Solomon, downplaying the education consultant’s role during his tenure in New Orleans.
Synesi had said it participated in “the successful implementation” of Vallas’ goals in New Orleans and led efforts that resulted in a foundation giving a $10 million grant to the schools there.
Amid the investigation that resulted in the corruption convictions of Byrd-Bennett, Solomon and Solomon’s business partner Thomas Vranas, Vallas said this and other assertions by Synesi were vast exaggerations. “He played no role in policy development,” Vallas said then.
Now, Vallas says Synesi’s contracts were “vetted and approved by the elected Louisiana board of education.”
What the records show, though, is that Vallas urged the board to approve the deal, saying no one else was qualified and there was no need to put the job out for competitive bidding.
Synesi’s first New Orleans contract took effect four days after Solomon formed the company in Chicago in 2007.
The Louisiana board later extended the initial deal twice, then gave Synesi a second contract, all at Vallas’ urging.
In a 2007 letter to Louisiana state officials, Vallas wrote that Solomon’s company “will provide guidance and counsel to the superintendent and the deputy superintendents in the development of an organization structure for the . . . central office.”
In another letter, Vallas wrote in 2008 that Synesi should get the second contract to “ensure implementation of the high school reforms” and again advise Vallas and his top aides.
Five years later, the Illinois State Board of Education rejected Synesi’s efforts to be partners in 2013 with four CPS high schools seeking multimillion-dollar federal “transformation” grants. But the Illinois State Board of Education, which administered the grants, found Synesi wasn’t qualified for the work.
Vallas calls his involvement with Solomon in New Orleans a “non-story.” He also says, “New Orleans honored me with the key to the city, while those involved in CPS are about to be locked up” — and emailed a photo of the key.
Urging that the then-newly formed Synesi be hired in 2007, Vallas told officials the New Orleans school system didn’t have anyone who could do the work, according to documents from the New Orleans district. And in his “justification for an external contractor” letter, he urged that Solomon’s company be hired without seeking competitive bids.
The contract was to be for five months and pay $172,800 for “counsel and academic administrative assistance,” according to Vallas’ letter.
Before that deal expired, Vallas arranged a contract extension through July 2008, records show, for an additional $624,000.
Synesi got its second no-bid contract in New Orleans in 2008 — for $96,000. The funding for that came from the Walton Family Foundation, founded by the late Walmart mogul Sam Walton.
Solomon’s lawyer says Synesi did “exemplary” work.
Synesi and other Solomon companies went on to work for schools across the country until the CPS inspector general and federal investigators uncovered the bribery scheme involving Byrd-Bennett.