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Most drug violations in CPS involve an ounce or less of marijuana. Schools are quick to call police, yet rarely have the resources to offer education, counseling or other non-punitive help to students.

$20 million no-bid contract raises questions about Supes Academy

In a city that is home to major universities and non-profit organizations that train and support principals, the small, for-profit Supes Academy got the contract without competition.

Without fanfare, CPS board members recently approved a three-year, no-bid $20 million contract to provide extensive professional development for principals and network chiefs in what is being dubbed the Chicago Leadership Academy.

The size and the circumstances surrounding the contract have raised eyebrows among some outside observers. The contract with Wilmette-based Supes Academy is by far the largest no-bid contract awarded in at least the past three years, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of board documents. In addition, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett worked for the company as a coach up until the time she came on board at CPS as a consultant.

There’s also conflicting information about Byrd-Bennett’s involvement with another company owned by the same individuals who run the Supes Academy.

Andy Shaw, president and CEO of the Better Government Association, says that a large, no-bid contract such as this one deserves scrutiny.

"No-bid contracts should be reserved for extraordinary circumstances that demand highly specific skills in a short time frame,” Shaw says. “It's too early to say if this one qualifies. But Catalyst has raised enough other questions to merit a review by the CPS inspector general."

Wendy Katten of the parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand, whose group has tracked school budget cuts, is critical as well.

“A $20 million no-bid contract … is a questionable use of funds at a time when our students have 94 less art positions, 58 less [physical education] positions, and 54 less music positions for the fall, and CEO Byrd-Bennett is in the press discussing online courses for these programs,” she says. “We have to ask where the priorities of this district are right now.”

The $20 million contract is the fourth awarded to Supes since October of 2012. The three other contracts include two for $2 million each and a third for $225,000 for consulting services. In 2011-12, the Chicago Public Education Fund paid for training of Chiefs of Schools and Network Chiefs.

Education experts contacted by Catalyst say that the intensive training that Supes Academy says it will offer is needed and was a missing piece of the puzzle in the district’s efforts to get top leadership at the helms of schools.

Yet in a city that is home to major universities and non-profit organizations that train and support principals, the for-profit Supes Academy got the contract without competition. (CPS considers the contract a “sole-source request,” the same as a no-bid contract.) The Supes website states that the organization runs similar academies in 14 school districts, most of them small.

While the CPS price tag might seem steep, University of Illinois at Chicago professor Steven Tozer stresses that research proves principals are the best lever for improving schools.

“It is an okay price to pay if Chicago can produce good leaders,” Tozer says.

Connections to the CEO

Up until April 2012, Byrd-Bennett worked as a consultant to the Supes Academy. At that time, she was brought on at CPS as the chief education advisor to then-CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, a contract position for which she was paid $21,500 a month.

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. PROACT is run by the same individuals who lead Supes: Gary Solomon, the executive director, and Thomas Vranas, the president. (Update: Another Supes founder listed on its website, Tim Quinn. Quinn worked for the Broad Superintendent Center, but Broad officials say they have no connection to the Supes Academy.)

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.

One board member for Norwalk schools objected to the contract, saying the district’s special education department needed the money instead.

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 bennett@proactsearch.com was “generic.”

Board President David Vitale said he was aware that Byrd-Bennett worked for Supes prior to taking a job with CPS.

PROACT Search had been awarded several small contracts with CPS prior to Byrd-Bennett’s arrival.

Track record under a microscope

Supes and PROACT are located in the same Wilmette office building, and Solomon and Vranas also run a third business, Synesi Associates. Synesi, according to its website, helps school districts “identify challenges, plan for the future and achieve higher results.”

Solomon declined to be interviewed by telephone and asked Catalyst Chicago to e-mail questions, but did not respond. Vranas also did not respond to a phone call or e-mail.

This year, Synesi Associates attempted to partner with four schools in CPS to get federal School Improvement Grants, multi-million dollar grants given to low-achieving schools that partner with outside institutions to improve. But the Illinois State Board of Education, which administers the program, did not award the grants to any of the schools associated with Synesi. Instead, ISBE gave the grants to two schools that are partnering with the University of Chicago’s Network for College Success.

Solomon does have a background in education. But in 2001, according to a Chicago Tribune news report, Solomon, then a dean of students in Niles, accepted a settlement with Niles Township High School District 219 after being accused of sending sexually explicit e-mails to students. He was never charged criminally and denied the allegations.

Solomon went on to be a sales associate and then a vice president for the Princeton Review, a test preparation company, and counted CPS as one of his clients.

In 2005, he ventured out on his own and created two companies, one focusing on consulting and the other on web development. In Philadelphia, he marketed the consulting company as using the “Paul Vallas method of school reform.”

Solomon’s marketing efforts stoked controversy in the Philadelphia school community. Vallas at the time was CEO of Philadelphia schools, but had no training or background in education other than his time leading Chicago schools—a job he took at former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s behest after being the city’s budget director.

Solomon later said he used Vallas’ name without permission and it was a “mistake.”

As for Vranas, his online biographies boast that he got his start by creating an urban tutoring program in Chicago that served 8,000 students. However, none of the biographies specify the name of the tutoring program and he did not respond to email questions about it.

Vranas’ biography also states that he started a wireless Internet company, a sales and marketing company and a venture capital firm. None of the companies are named.

Why a no-bid?

Though the Supes Academy contract stands out because of its size, the Chicago School Board approves no-bid contracts on a regular basis. In some cases, CPS includes the reason why the contract did not go through a competitive process. In this case, as in some others, the board documents state only that it was approved by the chief purchasing officer.

Vitale says the Supes Academy contract went through the district’s “extensive” no-bid contract process, in which officials look to see if other companies or organizations can do the job. Like all contracts that are not let through a competitive process, it was reviewed by the Non-Competitive Procurement Review Committee that has representatives from Procurement and Contracts, Law, Information Technology, the Chief Education Office and Chief Executive Office.

Vitale says officials concluded two things made Supes unique: It has a roster of 125 sitting superintendents who can provide coaching to principals and network chiefs, mid-level administrators who oversee groups of schools; and it is the only organization in the country with an official superintendent certification program.

Yet the certification issue raises red flags as well. For one, Illinois, like most states, has its own certification for principals and administrators, called a Type 75 certificate. The certification issued by the Supes Academy, through the American Academy of School Administrators, is an additional, unofficial certification that is intended to “sharpen the skills of superintendents.” In addition, the Supes certification was just launched in April of this year—and it was at least partly self-created, by Supes itself.

Also, it is unclear why it is important for an organization that will train principals and administrators to offer a certification for superintendents.

Tozer says the University of Illinois, which has a well-regarded training program for urban principals, would have looked into bidding on the contract had the process been open. Tozer had not heard of Supes until the organization had already been hired.

Tim Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute for the University of Chicago, also says he has not heard of the Supes Academy.

Investing in leadership

Even as investments in other areas have been scaled back, CPS has put a priority on training principals and other leaders, considering it essential for improving schools. CPS is already investing $10 million in the Chicago Leadership Collaborative, an initiative in which the district is partnering with two universities and two organizations to improve principal preparation.

When Vitale worked for CPS as the chief administrative office in the mid-2000s, he says he felt as though good professional development for principals was a “big gap.” Mostly, principals were offered one-off sessions in big auditoriums.  

The Supes Academy was originally brought in to work with network chiefs. One former network chief, who asked not to be identified, says he found the Academy workshops and his assigned coach to be helpful.

He says the network chiefs never had professional development and were asking for it. “We wanted to know how to grow and we really wanted some context from outside of the district,” he says.

Yet he notes that he is skeptical about how well that extensive support can be ramped up to be effective with 400-plus principals.

Carlos Azcotia, a board member and a professor at National-Louis University, says he does not know the specifics of the contract with the Supes Academy, but adds that it is generally important for the principals and network chiefs to have the same goals. Azcoitia was not at the June board meeting and did not vote on the Supes contract.

Tozer says that he agrees with the strategy CPS is taking and notes that for the last decade, the district has tried to improve training--but none of the efforts brought large-scale change.

“With the Chicago Leadership Collaborative and now the [Leadership] Academy, they are trying to raise the bar higher,” he says.

The principals who attended the first Supes Academy sessions in July said the language and messaging were good, Tozer says.

CPS spokeswoman Kelley Quinn says that Supes will provide the most comprehensive leadership development ever done in the system and that through coaching, principals will get “differentiated” support. Principals will attend 10 workshops throughout the year and will be contacted by the coach weekly.

“Principals face different challenges and bring different sets of expertise and experience to their role, so we need to provide specialized support for each,” Quinn says. “For principals who are getting positive traction in their schools, we want to expand their reach. For principals who are struggling to move their schools in one or two aspects of their performance, we want to assist them in course-correcting and provide diverse strategies and tactics to address the issues with which they're faced.”

71 comments

SoxSideIrish4 wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

SUPES

The day Byrd-Bennett signed w/CPS~Supes signed a contract w/CPS as well.

City Parent wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

Thank you Catalyst for bringing this forward

As school budgets have been slashed, our principal shared nothing but disappontment as he describes this low level 'academy.' Does not anyone realize at CPS downtown how bad this is? They are so far removed from the reality of the schools and what teachers and principals do.

falls a'comin' wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

sorry BBB, it is being called stupes academy. Is there no shame?

Our principal was forthcoming, when the mentor got to the section on REACH, it was skipped because the mentor admitted they knew nothing about it nor did they know anything about a final project that is due. Principals are (and should) voting with their feet, leaving the workshops because they are boring and at an incredible low level. Not one chief stayed for the four day 300 page presentations. A number of the mentors are from small school districts, having no idea of the urban setting or how CPS works (or doesn't work). Principals are to all of a sudden trust these well paid, expense account mentors with confidential information. Using the $$ from our schools to pay them. (CPS has a way of holding things against you, so any smart principal will not be forthcoming.) Our principal was outraged at the waste of his time and discovering the expense of this contract,with the loss of programs and teachers at our school. Northwestern and UIC have great leadership programs here at home and they know the community. The CPS Board member from Northwestern should have brokered a discount for CPS from Northwestern. The cost and the way this was done is an outrage and unethical. There must be a call to the IG!

truth teller wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

Shame on chief of schools for not speaking up- Rham where r U?

so fearful for your jobs that you do not do the right honorable thing and speak up against this expense, this waste as you did not speak for the children by letting all this money be spent on this instead of the schools?
Networks need to closed and chiefs removed.
End this contract!
Return the money to our chidren.
Is not even this unsavroy to you Rahm Emmanual? Even this?

truth teller wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

Mostly, principals were offered one-off sessions in big auditori

Not correct Mr. Vitale-did you attend?
CPS offered LIFT to principals with solid urban proved mentors and smaller workshops (including an AUSL leader btw) that were given by those who had been there done that in Chicago. What is being offered to experienced principals now is so much lower than LIFT. (Don't wear sunglasses when you speak to the press...)
Can you not cancel this contract?You have made a huge mistake here, correct it. If Rahm can, you can. Consider this well since this will be or now is, another embarrassement to Rahm. It boarders on discusting.

Anonymous wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

all of us should go tomorrow,

all of us should go tomorrow, sit, listen to and look at presenters with poker faces at 7:30 a.m., and then rise quietly at 8:00 a.m., exit and go back to our schools.

who would place blame on principals who go back to their schools to get the real work done?

only cps.

truth teller wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

What I would ask my supes mentor?

How do I get the money back to my school that was taken from my students? How do I evaluate fairly 50 teachers who now have 33 children in their classrooms? One mentor is from a small charter school in Atlanta, another, a small town in Connecticut.

Mike Klonsky wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

Tozer at UIC defends the deal. Why?

Interesting that Tozer at UIC is defending the deal. Surprised that Sarah didn't ask if his principal training program is cut in (subcontracting) Are they?

lforte wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

REMINDER: No comments labeled 'anonymous'

As per our comment policy, any comments labeled "anonymous" will be deleted. Thank you and we welcome your feedback and input.

truth teller wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

Principals we appreciate you, please be and stay united

sit, listen and look at presenters tomorrow with poker faces at 7:30 a.m., then rise quietly at 8:00 a.m., exit and go back to your schools. Who would blame principals who go back to their schools to get the real work done?
only cps.

falls a'comin' wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

Isn't Alicia Winkler part of this?

she is the one sending the directives to principals about thier attendance.

Retired but paying attention wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

Read the entire story

CPS probably should not have done a no bid contract on this deal. However it seems clear that there is no impropriety here. And I think people like Dr Byrd Bennett who have been working in our field as long as she has will have contracts as a consultant with multiple clients. Why steer money towards an organization where she was but one of more than a hundred coaches? She didn't have ownership in the organization. She was just a coach. And let's face it, many of our principals can use training and coaching to help improve upon their profession. This is all for the betterment of our children. Lets stop turning everything into some grand conspiracy.

northside wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

principals

I just wish some principals would help teachers more. My principal was foaming at the mouth for this new "reach" evaluation giving the same Superiors to the teachers she likes and basics to the ones she doesn't like. Marking me down because a I asked a student to be please be quiet...even though the student had a KNOWN history of being a problem. She told me that students should be self correcting and so engaged they would correct others ....ONE STUDENT...please tell me this is possible...
...I am talking about a third grader????

northside wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

truthteller

you sound like a good principal....my principal says that class size is not a factor....i am serious....she says that we can't use it as an excuse...last year i had 34 kids....no compassion...just a basic rating.....not saying I am a golden apple teacher...but no worse than the rest...

Ltwain wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

The district brings in as

The district brings in as chiefs and leaders outsiders who will bring fresh ideas and skills for modeling. Though they were former superintendents or associate superintendents, they now find themselves in need of PD or additional training by sitting superintendents who might have replaced them at their old job. Although our nervous chiefs have many degrees and have had leadership positions, they need support from supes from smaller less intensive systems. So we have principals sitting alongside their chief at these workshops learning the same thing, being mentored by the same sitting supe from outside. So who's mentoring the mentor, the supe from Backwater, Arkansas with 300 students? If the sitting supe is doing all this mentoring, why do we need networks? Let's just have these sitting supes be the de facto chiefs. Or since this seems to be the game, have the cps chiefs be mentors at some other district. All chiefs and supes being in charge of someone else's system. Come to think of it, it's not a bad idea because one is smarter if one has no personal stake in something, no skin in the game.

But whatever happened to the cps principals who worked their way up to chiefdom? They appeared to have what it takes to move schools. Why aren't they modeling or leading the charge?

Steve Tozer wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

Not "defending the deal"

Mike, let's be clear about two things: first, I'm not defending nor attacking the deal with SUPES. As the article makes clear, I had no background knowledge on the organization nor of the transaction. I am saying that the amount of money that would be invested in leadership development, less than half a percent of the CPS budget, is reasonable if in fact it produces "great principals." Second, UIC gets no cut on this of any kind, and you should know better than to put that kind of idea out there.

Sherri wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

common sense

cps is focused on teaching administrators and not kids. until kids basic needs are met .. sports and music and arts after school til 5:30. healthy food.. the 6 figure salaries of the adminisrators who do nothing but make excuses why they cant solve problems do not need more training. hire 1 smart kid to maintain websites for schools to improve communication. add coaching until 5:30 pm to job description of gym teachers. get back to basics and stop making things so complicated. laura ingalls wilder learned more in a small school w 1 teacher than these kids learn in a huge bureacracy. if the chiefs dont have the skills how did they get hired? who writes the job descriptions?

Charles Jones wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

Special Priority to some Principals

How can Principal (x) who has been sitting in the Rubber Stamp room at Cps go to the gifted school Edgar Allen Poe; after being at Dewey Academy that was turned around for poor performance. How does this system work. Entire staff was fired; but the principal gets placed in a gifted school. Even after he broke a students arm at Wendell Holmes School when he was Assistant Principal. Is there some inside help at Cps? After all he did work downtown at Cps in the Budget department. Staff at Dewy went through so much by not being led by Principal x who has a track record of poor leadership. So now he is Principal at the gifted Poe school; after getting a bad rating from the Network and Dewey's LSC. Sould you call this priority. Who he knows downtown at Cps.

Diane wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

fly on the wall

I wish I were a fly on the wall at those sessions. What is being said about teachers? Is this to further develop an 'us' and 'them' dynamic between administration and teachers, rather than how to be a principal who supports the best efforts of teachers. Cuts to school budgets and forcing principals to make decisions limiting teaching positions would suggest so. FURTHERMORE, Professional Development for teachers has been cut quite a bit the past couple of years. Why? I wonder if they channeled that money to pay for this no-bid contract for cronies?

Steve McKenzie wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

I read the entire story...

...and money spent on principal development at this time is obscene. Children first.

lforte wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

Decorum in comments

As I posted above, comments labeled "Anonymous" will be deleted, so thanks for adhering to that rule. I would also like to note that personal attacks and accusations are also not allowed.

Fred Chesek wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

Principal Training

Just how many times will principals be offered avenues for retraining, reeducation, re-everything. In my many years at CPS, costly programs such as this targeting administrators, came and went with much fanfare and few lasting results. Had student learning increased in schools led by these administrators? Had there been any assessments at all? Whether its 1% or 50% of the CPS budget is beside the point. We have lost over 3000+ teachers. A CPS child's education is more at risk then ever. Who speaks for them?

Anonymous wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

Anonymous Posts

I started posting as "Anonymous" when I had a job where I could not risk being recognized as the poster. When the new policy was announced, I tried to figure out how to change my poster name, with no success. I am still "Anonymous."

Two questions: why is someone posting as "Anonymous" worse than someone posting as "pooponmemoreplease"? And why, if this is Catalyst policy, has it not been enforced?

A subsidiary question: how can I change my posting name?

Lorraine Forte wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

Changing your name for posting

We understand the desire for people to remain unidentified in comments if their jobs are potentially at stake. You may post as, for instance, "South side teacher" by typing that in the block labeled "Your name" when you post your comment.

Ed Dziedzic wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

You should know better Mr. Tozer

Your statements, quoted in this article, made me cringe for my alma-mater (UIC.) You said this is an effective use of funds? Are you mad? We are laying off 3000 staff and teachers, and this is an effective use of $20 million? Can you, or anyone else, tell me exactly what "District Chiefs" even do? Principals already have been served a huge portion of more work due to the idiotic new evaluation plans. Now they get to go to useless in-service programs provided by know-nothings that were awarded a $20 million no-bid contract? And you wonder why anyone would question whether you are getting a slice of the pie here?

Chicago An wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

Okay, that was funny

I honestly laughed out loud when I read this:

"Vitale says officials concluded two things made Supes unique: It has a roster of 125 sitting superintendents who can provide coaching to principals and network chiefs....and it is the only organization in the country with an official superintendent certification program.
Yet the certification...was just launched in April of this year—and it was at least partly self-created, by Supes itself."

So a primary reason, according to Vitale, they allowed a no-bid was because it provided "official" certification, but it was a company-created certification? Wow. You really can't make this stuff up.

Ed Dziedzic wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

LOL

Good point, Chicago An. Sort of like awarding yourself a gold star.

Rodestvan wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

re: Supes Academy curriculum

I would like to see the training curriculum the Academy is providing to CPS in relation to the improvement of instruction for students with disabilities. Simply based on standardized test data over the last 10 years we can see the gap has grown. So clearly this should be a priority area for training principals and network chiefs.

Based on what the Supes Academy calls its "Academy Topics" I saw no topic relating to improving instruction for students with disabilities at all.

Rod Estvan

northside wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

pictures

just go to the http://supesacademy.com/....it looks more like a meeting for IBM than for teachers. there isn't he HINT of anything to do with children....water glasses that look like wine glasses.....in some expensive high rise setting...also, notice NO MENTION Of BBB.....take a look at the website and look at the Principals faces...looks like a meeting for Noth Korea ....can't exacly say why it bugs me.but the pictures are classic

northside wrote 1 year 3 weeks ago

calculation

I don't know how many principals go to these meetings..but if we say cps has 400 schools...that is 27500 per principal?? am i wrong..also i am sure CPS has to pay principals for parking food etc??? omg....27500 is like tuiton to DePaul????

The website is so full of fluff

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