Feds investigating CPS chief, $20.5 million contract to her former employer
Federal authorities are investigating Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and a $20.5 million contract the district awarded on a no-bid basis to a training academy that formerly employed her, sources said.
The CPS inspector general's office began an investigation into the contract with north suburban-based SUPES Academy and Byrd-Bennett's relationship to the company in 2013, a source said. The U.S. attorney's office then started its own probe, and a grand jury has been reviewing evidence for at least a year, the source said.
CPS officials have discussed the possibility of appointing an interim CEO depending on the outcome of the investigation, a source said. Byrd-Bennett, who was appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in October 2012, attended a regularly scheduled meeting at CPS headquarters Wednesday and remains in her post.
CPS signed its initial contract with SUPES for leadership training not long after Byrd-Bennett took office. Byrd-Bennett had worked for the company before joining CPS as a consultant in April 2012.
Byrd-Bennett, who has not been accused of any wrongdoing, could not be reached Wednesday.
A spokesman for SUPES Academy said federal authorities have "obtained records and files" from the company for the investigation.
"SUPES will of course cooperate with this investigation," spokesman Dennis Culloton said in a statement. Culloton said the company "stands behind the countless hours of training it has provided to Chicago Public Schools principals."
The federal investigation was first revealed Wednesday by CPS officials in a release that offered few details. The district said authorities have requested interviews with several district employees.
David Vitale, president of the Chicago Board of Education, said in a statement the district was made aware of the investigation Tuesday.
"We take any allegation of misconduct seriously, and we are fully cooperating with investigators who requested that we not discuss any specifics regarding the ongoing investigation," Vitale said.
At a news conference Wednesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was asked about the investigation and repeated much of what was in the CPS statement, saying that he did not have additional information.
The mayor said he did not know if federal investigators had spoken to Byrd-Bennett. Asked if he had confidence in the schools chief, even given his professed lack of information on the investigation, Emanuel said: "I can't answer, I don't even know who they are looking at."
CPS has paid SUPES Academy roughly $15 million since the 2012 budget year, according to district purchasing records. According to its website, SUPES offers "a dynamic leadership preparation program for emerging K-12 leaders, aspiring principals, sitting principals, and regional, central office, and cabinet level administrators."
The district approved a "leadership development services" agreement with SUPES for up to $20.5 million that was to extend from June 2013 to June 2016, according to CPS documents. District records show SUPES was hired on a "non-competitive basis" but the contract was reviewed and approved by an internal committee and the district's chief procurement officer, records show.
Vitale signed the agreement in June 2013. The Board of Education approved the contract at its June 26, 2013, meeting.
CPS and the academy had already entered into a one-year agreement in 2012, but records show both sides agreed to terminate that contract and replace it with the updated version.
Under the 2013 contract, SUPES was to train high-ranking network chiefs and deputy chiefs, as well as school principals and assistant principals. SUPES Academy was to "design and deliver the Academies and other coaching services" to all eligible employees.
Byrd-Bennett worked for SUPES before being hired as an adviser to her predecessor at CPS, Jean-Claude Brizard.
She took over at CPS following Brizard's resignation and less than a month after a bitter seven-day teachers strike. Byrd-Bennett faced entrenched financial issues and then, in 2013, oversaw the closing of nearly 50 schools the city said were under-enrolled.
A former teacher, Byrd-Bennett previously held top posts at school districts in New York and Detroit. She led the Cleveland school district from 1998 to 2006. There, her use of private donations on expensive hotels and fancy restaurants led to a state audit. The audit found no wrongdoing but recommended the district keep a tighter watch on spending.
But also in Cleveland, Byrd-Bennett was credited with straightening out finances, improving test scores and raising the high school graduation rate.
As CPS chief, she makes a base salary of $250,000 annually as part of a contract that expires June 30.
Tribune reporter Hal Dardick contributed.