Stench of Chicago’s Corporate Education Reform Industry scandal wafts as far as Connecticut

This past Tuesday (October 13, 2015) former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, one of the nation’s leading Corporate Education Reform Industry leaders, pleaded guilty for her role in a $23 million kick-back scheme with Gary Solomon and his education reform companies, The SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates.

As part of the plea agreement federal prosecutors told the court that they would drop all but one of the twenty fraud charges listed in Byrd-Bennett’s indictment and that although she faced a maximum of 20 years on each of 20 fraud counts, they would recommend a prison sentence of no more than seven 7 ½ years if she continued to “cooperate with federal investigators.”

Byrd-Bennett has previously served in top management positions with the Cleveland and Detroit public school systems.

As Barbara Byrd-Bennett was pleading guilty for her crimes in Chicago, The Detroit News reported that the FBI was investigating contracts Byrd-Bennett approved when she worked in Detroit;

According to six-month expenditure reports from May and November 2011, DPS paid $1,487,654.08 to Synesi for “Consultant Services/Curriculum/Office of Accountability.”

The report from November 2011 also lists an invoice of $128,698.77 to Synesi as “disapproved.”

The dark cloud of potentially illegal activities casts a long shadow over The Supes Academy, Synesi Associates, and a third company that is owned by Gary Solomon, PROACT Search.

As previously reported, Solomon’s PROACT Search has received a number of contracts in Connecticut.

The superintendent search firm was responsible for getting Garth Harries the superintendent’s job in New Haven and Manuel Rivera the same post in Norwalk.

When the New London Board of Education, with the help of Governor Malloy’s Special Master Steven Adamowski, hired Rivera away from Norwalk in February 2015, the Norwalk Board of Education re-hired PROACT Search and this time they recommend Steven Adamowski for the job.

Steven Adamowski has had a long-standing relationship with Gary Solomon and his corporate education reform companies.  Adamowski worked with The Supes Academy for many years and has also been on PROACT Search’s preferred list.

When Steven Adamowski announced his surprise departure as head of the Cincinnati school system in 2002, PROACT Search was hired to find his replacement.  The process garnered national attention as the Cincinnati Enquirer ended up, “suing the school board and its new superintendent over the secretive process by which the superintendent was chosen for the job.  Adamowski’s name was featured prominently in the newspaper’s complaint.

Four years later, in 2006, when PROACT Search put Steven Adamowski on the short-list for the superintendent’s job in Seattle, the move generated searing local criticism (See: The School Board Flunks Google 101 – In rounding up superintendent candidates, it seems no one did their homework. And what about the $63,500 head-hunting firm?)

And PROACT Search’s involvement in Norwalk has also generated controversy.

As the $20 million no-bid contract in Chicago originally came to light, Catalyst Chicago, a local education media outlet in Illinois reported;

In addition, Byrd-Bennett is listed as a senior associate for a superintendent search firm called PROACT Search, in documents dated August 2012—four months after taking the position with CPS [Chicago Public Schools.] PROACT is run by the same individuals who lead Supes: Gary Solomon, the executive director, and Thomas Vranas, the president

[…]

Byrd-Bennett is one of four contacts listed in the proposal for services submitted by PROACT in its bid to do a superintendent search for the Norwalk, Connecticut school district. She has an e-mail address listed in the proposal. When PROACT won the contract, an official for the company was quoted in the local newspaper touting that Byrd-Bennett, who by that time had been named as Chicago’s CEO, was a contractor with the firm.

[…]

However, Byrd-Bennett denies that she ever worked for PROACT and was surprised that her name was used, according to CPS spokeswoman Kelley Quinn. Quinn says the e-mail address [email protected] was “generic.”

At the time, Norwalk Board of Education member Mike Lyons, Steven Adamowski’s biggest local supporter, who now serves as Chairman of the Norwalk Board of Education spoke out in favor of hiring PROACT Search.  A November 12, 2102 Stamford Advocate article reported,

Lyons said the company has three bilingual staff members that will work on the project and hires contractors as well, including Barbara Byrd-Bennett, former superintendent of the Cleveland school system and now CEO of the Chicago school system

“I think we’ve got some really top flight talent that this group can bring in,” Lyons said.

Two years later, when it was time to find yet another superintendent, the Norwalk BoE voted 7-0 to rehire PROACT This time the company’s involvement led to the hiring of Steven Adamowski

In addition to their connection with Gary Solomon’s company, both Garth Harries and Steven Adamowski “graduated” from the Broad Academy, a corporate education reform training camp funded by billionaire Eli Broad, whose foundation is one of the three biggest funders of the Corporate Education Reform Industry.

A fourth Connecticut name with connections to those associated with the Chicago scandal is Christina Kishimoto who became Hartford’s superintendent when Adamowski left the position in 2011.  Kishimoto was Adamowski’s choice for the job, despite Mayor Pedro Segarra’s opposition (or initial opposition).  Like Adamowski, Kishimoto has worked with Gary Solomon’s Supes Academy.

Shadow of Paul Vallas hangs over Chicago’s Corporate Education Reform Industry scandal

UPDATED!  Chicago: Barbara Byrd-Bennett Pleads Guilty, Sentenced to 7 1/2 Years in Prison

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools and one of the Corporate Education Reform Industry’s most prominent leaders, we be in federal court today – Tuesday, October 13, 2015 – to face charges criminal stemming from her indictment in a $23.5 million contract and kick-back scheme.  A guilty plea is expected.

Charges were also filed against The SUPES Academy LLC and Synesi Associates LLC, as well as against the owners of those two companies, Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas.  According to the indictment, their role in the kick-back scheme includes charges of bribery and conspiracy to defraud the United States.

A third company owned by the two individuals, PROACT Search, a superintendent search firm that provided New Haven with Superintendent Garth Harries and Norwalk with Superintendent Steven Adamowski has also been caught up in the FBI’s investigation into the Chicago scandal.

As the Chicago Sun Times reported last week,

“Even before she was hired to run Chicago Public Schools, Barbara Byrd-Bennett set up a scheme to get a 10 percent kickback on all the CPS contracts she could steer to a former employer, in part to set up a college fund for her twin grandsons, authorities said Thursday.

The feds found damning, detailed emails between her and her ex-boss, Gary Solomon —

[…]

“I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit :)” the feds say Byrd-Bennett wrote in one of many emails discussing the alleged kickbacks.

In a follow up story the Chicago Sun Times added,

“In another email from December 2012, Solomon assured Byrd-Bennett that trust accounts had been set up in the names of two of her young relatives, each funded with tens of thousands of dollars, federal prosecutors alleged. The cash would be hers once she stepped down from her public post and rejoined his firm.

‘It is our assumption that the distribution will serve as a signing bonus upon your return to SUPES,’ Solomon wrote, according to prosecutors. ‘If you only join for the day, you will be the highest paid person on the planet for that day.’

Prior to being hand-picked by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to run Chicago’s Public Schools, Byrd-Bennett worked as a consultant and lead teacher for The Supes Academy, worked as a consultant for Synesi Associates and was listed as a part of the management team at PROACT Search.

While many key actors in the Corporate Education Reform Industry have been involved with Gary Solomon and his companies, one of the most prominent names on Solomon’s list of close colleagues is the Great Paul Vallas, the Education Reform Guru and former CEO of the Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans  public school systems.

More recently, Democratic Governor and education reform disciple Dannel Malloy brought Vallas to Bridgeport, Connecticut and then twisted Connecticut law in knots so that Vallas could stay for two years until local residents had finally had enough and forced Vallas to leave the job and return to Illinois.

As for the situation in Chicago, it could certainly be said that Gary Solomon’s ability to build such a “successful” corporate education reform company is due, in no small part, to his close relationship with Paul Vallas.

Vallas not only hired Solomon and his companies when he worked in Philadelphia, but brought Solomon with him to New Orleans.

And Vallas worked to bring other business to Solomon and his companies as well.

While Vallas has publicly claimed that he has no financial interest in any of Solomon’s consulting activities, in Vallas’ Philadelphia days Solomon’s consulting company advertised that it had “the exclusive rights to Paul Vallas’ model of education reform.”

Solomon’s Synesi Associates went on to bragged on its website that it had played a leadership role in, “‘the successful implementation’ of Vallas’ plans when Vallas was heading up the Louisiana Recovery School District.”

The close relationship between Vallas and Solomon was explored in a detailed expose published on Philadelphia’s education website, The Notebook, in April 2005.  In an article entitled Cashing in on ‘The Vallas model’ the Notebook laid out the story as follows;

Even with all the private company entrepreneurship revolving around Philadelphia School District initiatives lately, local observers expressed surprise at signs that District CEO Paul Vallas himself was appearing to be in on the action.

Evidence of a business initiative involving the use of Vallas’ name and reform approach recently surfaced on the websites of two related Chicago-based businesses. Information about the venture on one website was apparently pulled from the web minutes after Notebook inquiries. The other website disappeared the next day. (Images of several of the removed pages referenced in this story were saved by The Notebook, and are linked to in this story).

Solomon Consulting Services Inc. (SCS), a new for-profit enterprise that counts among its team a number of prominent administrators and leaders who’ve worked under or with Vallas, had obtained exclusive rights to “The Vallas Model,” according to the website of SCS’s partner and online marketing firm.

Vallas categorically denies any such deal. But questions linger about how a website devoted to marketing Paul Vallas’ accomplishments and approach came into being and what will become of the enterprise that created it.

[…]

Through a District spokesperson, Vallas said he has no commercial relationship with Solomon Consulting, adding that SCS had not been authorized to use his name or sell his reform model.

Spokesperson Cecelia Cummings said Vallas has acknowledged awareness of a number of his associates forming an enterprise. Cummings said the District had threatened legal action over the SCS website, which implied that the School District was a client of SCS.

[…]

SCS’s team list names Phil Hansen, a former Chicago chief accountability officer who served on Vallas’ Philadelphia transition team and who now works for Princeton Review; Cozette Buckney, Chicago’s chief education officer under Vallas and a member of Vallas’ Philadelphia transition team; Sue Gamm, chief specialized services officer in Chicago during Vallas’ tenure, who also served as a consultant to Vallas during his transition…

[…]

SolomonConsultingInc.com, disappeared from the web April 28, one day after the interview with Solomon. [Solomon had told the Notebook that a newly designed site was to be posted soon. A new SolomonConsulting Inc.com was posted Saturday, April 30, with no references to Vallas and no list of personnel].

When Solomon’s website reappeared there was also no mention that Gary Solomon had also served as assistant vice president of educational partnerships with the Princeton Review, but….

On April 20, the School Reform Commission approved a resolution for $2.6 million in categorical/grant funds for Princeton Review to provide curriculum, educational materials and professional development for the District’s summer program. Other Princeton review contracts this school year have been for $600,000 for consulting for four transitional high schools – Lamberton, Sayre, Vaux and Parkway Gamma High, and $750,000 for PSSA test prep materials, support and professional development.

During the interview, Solomon initially said he no longer worked with Princeton Review. However, in a Notebook phone call to Princeton Review’s New York office, an operator responded that the company did indeed have a listing for Gary Solomon. When the call was transferred, Solomon answered, and explained, “They’re a client of mine.”

And, has been repeatedly reported, the close bond between Vallas and Solomon was just beginning.

When Paul Vallas moved on to New Orleans to head the Louisiana Recovery School District, Solomon picked up even more lucrative contracts.

But it is a story out of Illinois that provides a true snap-shot and insider’s view into how Vallas and the Corporate Education Reform Industry works;

While Gary Solomon and his companies profited greatly via Vallas in Philadelphia and New Orleans, it is the somewhat more hidden story surrounding the Rockford School District (PSD 150) in Illinois that provides telling evidence about how Vallas and the Corporate Education Reform Industry works.

The December 13, 2007 headline in the Rockford Star newspaper proclaimed, Vallas will ‘assess and evaluate’ District 150 – for freeThe story read,

School reform trailblazer Paul Vallas is willing to assess the educational program at District 150 and develop a “vision” to effectuate change, all for free.

“My role would not only be to assess and evaluate but also to lay out a comprehensive vision for the district. … Given the fact that I would do it for free, there’s certainly no loss of investment,” the New Orleans superintendent said Wednesday.

But the question remains: Will District 150 take advantage of his services or hire consultants he has recommended to assist the district in reform efforts?

Vallas met with district leaders in November, and he and consultants offered educational services to the district. The consultants are Gary Solomon and Phil Hansen, of Synesi Associates.

Vallas is willing to help for free, but the consultants have a cost. School Board President David Gorenz said Synesi has quoted the cost of its consulting services at $600,000.

Vallas, the former head of schools in Philadelphia and Chicago, emphasized Wednesday that he is not affiliated with the consultants and doesn’t benefit financially from their services. They are, however, among a group of people he recommended be part of a successful school reform process.

[…]

“Should they decide that they want my help and should they decide that they want me to recommend a full team to come in and do the job … I will be very specific in identifying the people I feel (are) some of the best people out there to come in,” Vallas said.

The superintendent of Recovery School District in New Orleans said he’s inclined to help districts when he can. Plus, he has always enjoyed Peoria, and the city is close to his permanent home — his wife still lives in Chicago.

Days later, on December 22, 2007, the paper expanded its coverage reporting Vallas will meet with Peoria District 150 officials after Christmas,

Noted education leader Paul Vallas was in town Friday talking to local business leaders about school reform, and he plans to meet with District 150 officials sometime after Christmas.

Vallas has offered to help the district reform its educational system and bring in consultants to help implement changes. He first made the offer to district officials in November, after being asked to come to town by Mayor Jim Ardis.

The superintendent of Recovery School District in New Orleans stopped by Peoria on his way home to Chicago for the holidays. He spoke at a meeting of the CEO Roundtable Friday morning and met with the Journal Star editorial board afterward.

“All I’m going to do is try to tell them what I think works and what doesn’t work and to try to provide them with some guidance. The rest is going to be up to them,” Vallas told the editorial board.

Vallas is willing to help for free, but the consultants that he would recommend would have a cost. School Board President David Gorenz has said that a consulting firm that was represented at the November meeting quoted the cost of its services at $600,000

And while Vallas said he would work for free … who were the consultants that District 150 would need to hire?

The consulting firm that is in contact with District 150 is Synesi Associates. Company officials Gary Solomon and Phil Hansen were both at the November meeting. But Vallas said there are multiple people he is willing to bring to District 150, people he referred to as “the best seasoned educators around.”

 As the Chicago Scandal played out in the news this year, the Chicago Tribune reported that,

“No contract was ever signed in Peoria and Vallas disputed the assertion that he had pitched work specifically for Solomon’s firm.”

But there is often more to these types of situations than meets the eye.

Earlier this summer, Paul Vallas and his relationship to Illinois Public School District 150 surfaced yet again.  The local PJ Star newspaper reported, Efforts for independent review of District 150 continue despite rejections

PEORIA – … the current School Board already had rejected at least two attempts at outside evaluations orchestrated by Mayor Jim Ardis, with help from his recently retired education adviser Bill Collier and Peoria County Regional Superintendent of Schools Beth Derry.

The Illinois State Board of Education apparently declined to get involved in a request made by Collier, according to Freedom of Information Act requests. Derry backed off after the school district attorney questioned the legality of her office’s involvement.

But Ardis and Collier haven’t given up on getting the board to agree to an independent review. The School Board’s make-up will change Wednesday with the seating of two new members who support the idea. Either the board or Superintendent Grenita Lathan could have a change of heart, Ardis said last week.

“Support has started to build,” Collier added. “It’s really for altruistic reasons.”

Local business leaders would have donated about $60,000 for a third-party evaluation conducted by a team led by nationally-known, but controversial, education reformer Paul Vallas, who has been school superintendent in Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Bridgeport, Conn.

[…]

According to Vallas, he met with Derry and the teachers’ union leadership, all of whom were supportive. Ardis and Collier presented the proposal to school officials.

Board members were wary of the motives behind what Ardis, Collier and Derry say were sincere efforts to gain an unbiased analysis of District 150’s strengths and weaknesses.

“It was presented as a fait accompli,” said District 150 Chief Legal Officer Rick Rettberg. “The consultant had already been chosen, the scope of the review had already been decided and there was no disclosure of who was paying for it.”

By April, Derry was planning to incorporate the Vallas team’s evaluation into the standard compliance review her office conducts for all Peoria County school districts every four years. That plan was dropped after Rettberg pointed out an expanded compliance review was beyond the scope of her authority.

“What you are proposing in your letter is both extraordinary and problematic,” Rettberg wrote to Derry, reminding her the ROE’s office does not have authority to conduct a quality review, much less delegate it to a private consultant.

[…]

The letters between Rettberg, Lathan and Derry were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The letters show the district filed its own FOIA request to obtain copies of a contract and correspondence between the ROE’s office and Developmental Specialists Inc., or DSI, the consulting firm Vallas recently joined.

Vallas emphasized he was providing his services for free, a favor he has done for Ardis in the past…

The $60,000 cost would go to the four-person team he assembled to conduct the review.

So while the federal government was closing in on the contract and kickback scheme involving Chicago School CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Gary Solomon this summer, Paul Vallas was a few miles up the road telling local officials in Illinois’ Public School 150 that he was willing to, once again, work for free.  All local taxpayers had to do was pay a hand-picked company selected by Vallas.

But this time Vallas was instructing them that they would have to pay a company that he had publically joined about sixty days earlier.

From a press release issued by DSI Civic Financial Restructuring, LLC on April 4, 2014,

Educational Restructuring Veteran Paul Vallas Joins DSI Civic Financial Restructuring, LLC Former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools Brings 20 Years of Experience to Leading Management Consulting and Financial Advisory Services Firm

Chicago, IL – April 4, 2014 –DSI Civic Financial Restructuring, LLC (DSI Civic), which specializes in government and municipal restructuring and reorganization, today announced that Paul Vallas has joined the firm, lending his considerable government experience and expertise to the group’s national distressed governmental and municipal practice.

Mr. Vallas, the former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools system, as well as school districts in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Bridgeport, Connecticut, brings a solid grasp of state and muncipal issues that complement the senior management team of DCI Civic, an affiliate of Development Specialists, Inc. (DSI), a worldwide consulting firm headquartered in Chicago with major offices in New York, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities.

“Paul brings to DSI Civic a tremendous skill set that uniquely compounds the skills and diverse background of our executives. As a member of our staff our clients will benefit from the extensive knowledge he has built over time; he is an accomplished industry veteran who can navigate successfully through the complex and complicated issues that face many distressed municipalities and school districts,” said Bill Brandt, DSI’s President and CEO.

[…]

“I’m flattered to have been asked to join DSI Civic and its stellar team of professionals,” said Mr. Vallas. “I look forward to aiding this very distinguished team as they counsel school districts, diverse units of government and municipal leaders on how to address the difficult issues that governments are dealing with in this new era of constrained budgets. The main reason I am making this move is because Bill Brandt and DSI create jobs and value. They sustain communities and bring opportunities that just weren’t there before.”