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.

Norwalk School Board goes with Adamowski 5-4

The Norwalk Hour reports,

NORWALK — The Board of Education appointed Steven Adamowski as the next Superintendent of Schools in a close vote of 5-4.

[…]

With concerns of Adamowski’s certification to be superintendent, he will first serve as Acting Superintendent until requirements are fulfilled.

Dr. Adamowski received a waiver from the Commissioner of Education in 2007, which is unlimited in its application to either school districts or time,” said BOE Chairman Michael Lyons. “Based on that letter, both Dr. Adamowski and PROACT felt that he was qualified to serve as a superintendent.”

The waiver was issued to Adamowski when he served as superintendent of Hartford Public Schools. Commissioner of Education Dianna Wentzell was willing to accept the waiver but gave Adamowski the option to either use the waiver or fulfill the certification requirements to avoid controversy about his status, said Lyons.

Adamowski opted to fulfill the requirements.

Lyons said the same method was used two years ago to appoint Dr. Manuel Rivera, who had the qualifications for superintendent but needed a course in special education. Rivera later showed that he met the requirement from his previous experience and was granted certification in July 2013.

“Adamowski will serve as acting superintendent as of July 15, 2015 and then upon completion of certification requirements, he will become superintendent for a term of three years from July 15, 2015 to June 30, 2018,” according to a post resolution Lyons read Tuesday.

The four dissenting votes came from Democrats Sherelle Harris, Migdalia Rivas, Rosa Murray and Shirley Mosby.

“We spent a lot of money on a search firm to do a vetting. This was one of the requirements for certification that the applicants had. My question tonight is how did that slip through the cracks. How did we not see this coming?,” said Mosby.

Rivas stated that she didn’t hear about many of the allegations involving Adamowski until after the selection of Adamowski was made public. She suggested the Board should table the vote until the end of the week until the allegations were investigated.

You read the full article at: http://www.thehour.com/news/norwalk/norwalk-school-board-narrowly-oks-new-superintendent/article_f7735aea-1490-11e5-b04f-2368f41b5c8e.html

Additional coverage can also be found at https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/, which began its “news’ coverage by writing,

NORWALK, Conn. – A new era of school reform in Norwalk was ushered in Tuesday by the slimmest of margins.

The Board of Education voted 5-4 to make Steven Adamowski its new superintendent of schools after a discussion dominated by those who had problems with the appointment.

Adamowski, sitting in the front row, got a good look at the behavior of Norwalk’s fractious Board in public, as Migdalia Rivas rambled emotionally for 10 minutes about hurt feelings, Shirley Mosby said she wouldn’t be a rubber stamp and Mike Barbis flashed anger as he called Mosby out for her face-making.

PROACT Search LLC

Meanwhile, the search firm that recommended Adamowski to Norwalk, PROACT Search LLC, continues under a cloud of suspicion due to its founder and CEO’s involvement in a $20 million no-bid contract in Chicago.  Gary Solomon created and runs PROACT Search, the Supes Academy and Synesi Associates.  Solomon previously served as Chairman of the Chicago Board of Education and a series of contracts between his companies and the Chicago School System and his firms are reportedly under investigated by the FBI.  With the investigation growing, the CEO of Chicago’s school system who worked for some of Solomon’s company’s recently resigned.

PROACT was also fired last month by the school board in Lancaster, Pennsylvania when the local board of education “learned of disturbing allegations … that PROACT Search CEO Gary Solomon used racist slurs in some past emails.”

A number of other communities have terminated their contracts with PROACT in the wake of the Chicago allegations.

It remains unclear if members of the Norwalk Board of Education were fully informed about Adamowski’s involvement with Solomon and his companies.

Supes Academy lists Adamowski as one of its Past Teachers, Speakers & Advisors and the business tracking website ZoomInfo reports Adamowski is a “Board Member” of Supes Academy LLC.

Setting the record straight on Adamowski and Hartford

Robert Cotto Jr. is a member of the Hartford Board of Education.  He is also a leading academic expert on education policy in Connecticut.  His articles have appeared in numerous publications and his writing and work can be regularly found in the Hartford Courant, CT Mirror and CT NewsJunkie.

Having seen witnessed Mr. Adamowski’s time in Hartford first-hand and written extensively about the challenges facing Hartford’s public school system, Robert Cotto Jr. sent the following letter to the Norwalk Board of Education today.

Letter to Norwalk Board of Education (By Robert Cotto, Jr. June 16, 2015)

This letter is sent in my capacity as an individual and do not represent the views of any organization I am involved in.  The views are my own.

Dear members of the Norwalk Board of Education,

Several newspapers recently reported that the Norwalk Board of Education would be hiring a former Superintendent of the Hartford Public Schools (HPS). As a Hartford Board of Education member since 2010 and an educational researcher, I write to raise concerns about claims made about the Hartford Public Schools between 2006 and 2011.

A press release from the Norwalk Board of Education suggests that HPS improved test results and graduation rates because of a change in policies and a new superintendent in 2006. It is true that HPS embarked on a policy of expanded school choice and hyper-accountability. This included closing schools and reopening them as themed academies.

However, there is little evidence that these policies alone resulted in improved achievement and graduation rates. As I wrote in The Hartford Courant in 2011, there was a mixed result from these policies – at best. Most importantly, the apparent “increases” only began when testing and graduation policies changed to artificially inflate this data.

Hartford’s “historic” test result increases only began when low-income, Black, and Latino students with disabilities were removed from regular tests and allowed to participate in a separate modified assessment in 2009. By 2011, 10% or more of all Hartford students, all with disabilities, were selected for a separate test. While this was happening, the HPS superintendent and administrators took credit. They also took bonus money for the subsequent increases, caused in large part by removing these kids.

I have written extensively on this issue. You can read my Op-Ed in the Hartford Courant, my report for CT Voices for Children, and my TEDx Talk at Central CT State University on the issue. This is not speculation, but fact.

Hartford’s graduation rate also has a number of question marks. Between 2006 and 2011, several policies changed that inflated graduation rates. First, the formula changed to calculate graduation rates. This new formula has excluded hundreds of Black and Latino students. They have been transferred out of their cohorts, and effectively removed from all calculations.

Second, online credit recovery and the policy of mandatory minimum grade of 55% inflated graduation rates. Online credit recovery, required by State law in 2010, meant that students that did not pass a course the first time were allowed to take the course online instead.

Hartford’s “F-55″ rule mandated that a student failing a quarter or semester would get a 55% percent. With this rule, a student could earn a 75% in one quarter and pass the rest of the course, even without doing any work or even showing up to class. The Hartford Board of Education never approved these changes for online credit recovery and the “F-55” policy.

The information is not new, but ignored. Elected board members in Hartford raised concerns about both the test scores and graduation rates with little response from the Superintendent or his successor. Interestingly, the video of the meeting in early 2011 where Board members confronted the superintendent about the test inflation was reported as “damaged”. This was the only missing or damaged meeting video in my six years of service.

Rather than outright success, much of what happened in Hartford can be explained by these data illusions. Also, the tremendous State investment in school choice, particularly magnet schools, under the Sheff v. O’Neill agreement has played a major role.

The Hartford Public Schools are still trying to recover from the considerable damage caused by the school “turnarounds” started in 2006 and the unregulated school choice system. Our district is in as much or more financial distress with the expansion of school choice programs beyond our ability to support them. Many of the “turnaround” schools have experienced their second closure and reopening. In many of the Sheff magnet schools and most of our non-magnet schools, our staff still struggles to meet the needs of all children. Even former proponents of these policies have come to question their viability and performance.

I believe deeply in the ability of our city’s children and families, mostly Black, Puerto Rican, and Latino folk, to succeed academically and thrive in life. That is what we have been doing for hundreds of years with substantially unequal and separate opportunities in education and the economy. Yet, the limited resources that sustained our Black and Latino communities are now diminished, dismantled, privatized, or provided to only selected students. These resources included broad academic curriculum offerings, sports, special education services, bilingual education, and libraries.

While you are free to make the decision that is best for Norwalk, I would recommend not to make that decision based on discredited claims about Hartford. What happened from 2006-11 in Hartford may have helped some kids, but came along with further marginalization of the most vulnerable children and families in our city. In Hartford, we are still working for equitable opportunity.

Sincerely
Robert Cotto, Jr.

Member, Hartford Board of Education

– See more at: http://commons.trincoll.edu/cssp/2015/06/16/letter-to-norwalk-board-of-education/#sthash.6WmgJGGa.dpuf

Why would Norwalk hire one of Malloy’s key witnesses against fair school funding for Norwalk

There are many questions about why the Norwalk Board of Education would hire the extremely controversial and combative Steven Adamowski to be the community’s next superintendent of schools.

Adamowski has left a trail of destruction behind him.  One need only ask parents, teachers, school administrators and taxpayers in Windham, New London and even Hartford.

But above all else, not only is Adamowski one of Governor Dannel Malloy’s closest advisors and allies when it comes to education, Adamowski – who is presently on the payroll of Malloy’s Department of Education – is one of Malloy’s star witnesses in the effort to derail and destroy the critically important CCJEF v. Rell School Funding Lawsuit.

In fact, when the CCJEF v. Rell case finally goes to trial later this year, Steven Adamowski will be there.

But Adamowski won’t be there to testify on behalf of Connecticut’s public school students, teachers, parents and schools.  And he won’t be there to testify on behalf of Connecticut’s property taxpayers.

And he certainly won’t be there to testify on behalf of the best interests of Norwalk.

He will actually be there to testify against all of those people.

Instead, Steven Adamowski will be there to testify on behalf of Governor Dannel Malloy and his effort to stop Connecticut’s judicial branch from finally requiring that the state of Connecticut to design and adopt a fair and equitable school funding system.

The truth is that Steven Adamowski has already given a deposition in support of Malloy’s position and against the interest of Norwalk and all the other communities that are fighting so hard to force Connecticut’s elected officials to adopt a fair, equitable and constitutional school funding formula.

Here at Wait, What? I’ve called the CCJEF v. Rell lawsuit the single most important court case of our lifetime.   There are almost as many posts about the CCJEF case as there are against Adamowski.

CCJEF v. Rell is the case that correctly argues that Connecticut’s school funding system is unconstitutional and that Connecticut’s Governor and General Assembly have a fundamental duty to adopt a school funding formula that finally ensures that towns get the financial aide they need to ensure that ensure that every Connecticut child has the opportunity to succeed.

The CCJEF v. lawsuit is also proof that that there are some issues that are so important that the partisan divide that is undermining our nation is put aside.

It is an issue that is so vital to the future well-being of our citizens that Democrats and Republicans are actually willing to work together for the common good.

And it is a lawsuit that would probably benefit the children and taxpayers of Norwalk more than any other town in Connecticut.

And yet, the Norwalk Board of Education appears to be on the verge of handing control of their public schools over to someone who has is a star witness for Governor Malloy’s on-going attempt to undermine and defeat this critically important lawsuit.

For those who don’t know what the CCJEF v. Rell lawsuit is all about they may want to start by reading some of the Wait, What? posts on the issue.  See: NEWS FLASH: Kids win, Malloy/Jepsen lose as judge rules school funding trial to begin this summer and Whatever you do, don’t mention school funding and the school funding lawsuit! and Jepsen, Malloy and playing politics with the law…

Those who already know how important the case is and how hard Governor Malloy has been working to undermine the case should look to Norwalk’s own media coverage on the topic.

Start with the article written by the Norwalk Hour’s Korey Wilson who just a year ago published an article entitled, “Lawsuit against state aims to revamp educational funding formula,”

NORWALK — A lawsuit filed against the state nearly 10 years ago, which calls for a revamping of the Education Cost Sharing Formula, will finally go to trial in September.

The plaintiff in the suit is the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF), a nonprofit organization launched in 2004 by the mayors of several cities and now includes municipalities, boards of education, professional education associations, teachers and parents.

Read the Hour’s story entitled, “Rilling named to Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding; school funding lawsuit goes to trial in September,” which explained,

NORWALK — A landmark lawsuit by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding to revamp school funding statewide will go to trial in September and Norwalk will have a strong stake in the proceedings and outcome.

Mayor Harry W. Rilling was recently appointed the to coalition’s steering committee.

“This is a way that we can fight for equal funding for our schools and our children,” Rilling said. “It’s my hope that we will prevail and that we will be able to reduce significantly the tax burden off the shoulder’s of our homeowners, who are being overly taxed for our educational system.”

The Education Cost Sharing Formula allocates state money to local school districts based, among other things, upon a city’s or town’s tax base, poverty and the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

Local officials, from both sides of the political aisle, have long labeled the formula unfair to Norwalk. Norwalk is not alone in that belief.

Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF), a nonprofit organization, was launched in 2004 by the mayors of several cities and now includes municipalities, boards of education, professional education associations, teacher and other unions, parents and others.

In 2005, CCJEF filed suit against the state. In CCJEF v. Rell, the coalition alleges that “the state’s failure to suitably and equitably fund its public schools has irreparably harmed thousands of Connecticut schoolchildren.”

And definitely read about how Norwalk’s Mayor has been working so hard on behalf of the case in the article entitled, Rilling vows to obtain more state aid for schools

NORWALK — Mayor Harry W. Rilling on Monday vowed to become more active in the litigation aimed at getting more state aid for Norwalk schools.

Rilling said he has traveled to Hartford three times and has spoken with state budget Director Benjamin Barnes about changing the Education Cost Sharing formula but concluded the matter shouldn’t be left solely for the General Assembly to decide.

“We will also need a state constitutional mandate to make sure the educational needs of our children will be met,” Rilling said. “Therefore, I will continue to support the education funding lawsuit by maintaining Norwalk’s membership in the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding that was initiated by Mayor (Alex) Knopp and continued by Mayor (Richard) Moccia.”

The mayor said he plans to seek a more active role in the coalition by volunteering membership on the organization’s steering committee.

And then, after you understand just how important this lawsuit is to Norwalk and the students, parents, teachers and taxpayers of Connecticut, ask yourself…

Why on earth would the Norwalk Board of Education turn control of Norwalk’s schools over to someone who is not only on Malloy’s payroll but is actually one of Malloy’s most outspoken witnesses in a case that would benefit the children AND taxpayers of Norwalk.

For more about Norwalk’s history with this important case read, also consider reading the following articles from Nancy on Norwalk.

Norwalk bemoans inadequate state education funding

‘Unfair’ Connecticut education formula to be challenged this fall

Letter: The next fight for education funding

Norwalk Mayor’s Night Out focuses on finances

What will happen to Norwalk’s English Language Learners if Steven Adamowski becomes superintendent?

Like communities across Connecticut, Norwalk’s public schools are witnessing a growth in the number of students who are not proficient.

As academic studies have shown, poverty, language barriers and unmet special education needs are the three major factors leading to the educational achievement gap.

In Norwalk, more than 1,300 students, accounting for more than 12 percent of the student body are such limited English language skills that they qualify for identification as English Language Learners.

While Spanish is the primary language spoken by the majority of Norwalk students who do not speak English, the Connecticut State Department of Education reports that nearly 4 in 10 (37%) Norwalk public school students come from homes where English is not the primary language and that, according to the state’s latest data, Norwalk students come from homes that speak 60 different languages.

As Norwalk contemplates who would best serve as their school superintendent, they should be especially cognizant of the policy issues surrounding how to improve educational outcomes for those students who enter the school system without the English language skills necessary to succeed.

A major 2013 investigative report produced by WNPR public radio entitled, “End of Bilingual Education in Windham Forces English Language Learners to Cope,’ looked into the impact of Special Master Steven Adamowski’s decision to eliminate Bilingual education in Windham Connecticut over the objections of students, parents, teachers and some local officials.

As the piece explained, the WNPR’s reporting on this critical issue was made extremely difficult because Adamowski refused to speak to the reporters.  The unwillingness to speak to the media required the respected news outlet to note in their report,

“Multiple requests by WNPR for an interview with Adamowski were unsuccessful.”

What was reported was the following;

As the number of Hispanic students in Connecticut’s schools continues to rise, the achievement gap between these students and their white classmates remains. Gaps can be found in every grade, in every subject, in just about every school district in the state. The highest percentage of English language learners can be found in the town of Windham. In the past year, there have been big changes there to the way Hispanic students are being taught.

[…]

A few years ago, newcomers to Windham would be placed in bilingual education, and transition over time into mainstream classes. The philosophy behind bilingual education is to teach kids using a mixture of English and their native language, so they can keep up with subject matter as they gradually master English. But that changed about a year ago, after Dr. Steven Adamowski was named Special Master for Windham’s schools.

In an effort to improve lagging test scores and move kids more quickly into mainstream classes, Adamowski took a different approach, ending bilingual education and moving to English-only. He allowed certain support programs for non-native speakers to continue, but essentially dismantled bilingual education throughout the district. Multiple requests by WNPR for an interview with Adamowski were unsuccessful.

Rose Reyes, who used to teach a second-grade bilingual education class in Windham, now provides Spanish support to kindergarten, first, and second graders. She worries that too many of these children are being tracked into special education. “When there’s so much English going on for a kindergartener,” she said, “there are two responses. Children either implode or explode. The children who are exploding, acting out, are now flagged as problematic, and then more support services or interventions are provided. However, the condition is that the interventions and services are in English.”

And what was the result of Adamowski’s extremely controversial changes?

As the WNPR investigation reported, student test scores actually declined.

Norwalk’s elected officials, school administrators, teachers, parents and community leaders need to ask the serious questions about Steven Adamowski’s commitment to students who come from households whose primary language is not English.

All children can learn, all children can succeed, but Mr. Adamowski’s track record indicates that he is unwilling to make the investments necessary to ensure that every child gets the support they deserve.