Demonstrating why school districts everywhere should utilize a transparent bidding process, the Chicago Public Schools’ district has earned bad publicity and a federal investigation for its failure to solicit bids for an approximate $20 million dollar contract it awarded to The SUPES Academy (SUPES). Further, The Washington Post reports that Chicago Public School district’s CEO, Barbara Bryd-Bennett, is taking a leave of absence amid allegations that she previously consulted for SUPES.1 And the Chicago Sun Times reports that “Chicago Public Schools has given notice to the embattled SUPES Academy that the district is suspending the principal training company’s $20.5 million no-bid contract.”2 Although few people are surprised to learn of yet another Chicago public spending scandal, is there a connection between SUPES and the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD)?
SUPES is an organization that markets itself as providing training and leadership programs to educational administrators, including superintendents, principals, and teacher leaders.3 Catalyst Chicago reported that “[t]he owners of SUPES Academy—Gary Solomon and Tom Vranas—also run a superintendent search firm called ProAct, as well as a company called Synesi Associates, which helps districts improve failing schools.”4 A quick search on the Illinois Secretary of State’s website shows that The SUPES Academy LLC, Synesi Associates LLC, and ProAct Search LLC all have the same manager, Gary Solomon, and the same principal office street address,5 demonstrating close ties among the three firms.
Here is where it starts to get interesting. As of May 8, 2015, ICCSD’s Superintendent, Stephen Murley, and its Chief Community Affairs Officer/Chief Human Resources Officer, R. Chace Ramey, were shown as being part of “Our Team” on The SUPES Academy (SUPES) website.6 ICCSD’s contract with Mr. Murley permits him, while on ICCSD’s time clock, to also engage in consulting for his personal profit so long as it is approved by ICCSD Board President Chris Lynch and “contribute[s] to the betterment of the District.” Murley’s contract states:
Discretionary Leave. The Superintendent shall be entitled to up to ten (10) paid personal leave days for personal business, consulting, professional activities, community events or other activities that will contribute to the betterment of the District each year with such Discretionary Leave to be mutually agreed upon by the Superintendent and the Board President. Discretionary leave is not to be used for vacation purposes.7
It is not known whether Mr. Murley provided any consulting services to the Chicago Public Schools, or if so, what he was paid, or whether it was done on ICCSD’s time. He does, however, appear in the following tweet by SUPES Academy.8
Given the mixed reviews of the SUPES’ training and the mess the Chicago Public School district is in for contracting with SUPES, it is difficult to see how consulting for SUPES benefits ICCSD.9
Has ICCSD had or does it have any other dealings with SUPES, Synesi, or Proact? Yes. For example, ICCSD’s board approved ICCSD contracting with Synesi in 2011 to audit ICCSD’s payroll and accounting processes.10 And, according to ProAct Search’s website, ICCSD used ProAct Search to help it fill its recent Equity Director opening.11
Some districts and officials are cutting ties to SUPES. For example, the Baltimore Sun reports that Baltimore’s Superintendent took a part time consulting position with SUPES Academy that he has since quit, and he is reported to have agreed to donate his fees to a not for profit foundation.12 And the interim head of the Chicago Public Schools district has reportedly stopped the use of no-bid contracts such as the one between it and The Supes, “pending the findings of an independent review of the CPS [Chicago Public Schools] contracting process.”13 Additionally, Chicago Catalyst reports that three other school districts have cut ties to either SUPES or ProAct.14
So what should ICCSD’s board do?
1. Consider prohibiting top school district officials, including the superintendent, from outside consulting. After all, we have more than enough of our own challenges to keep all top officials busy.
2. If our school board does permit its top officials to engage in outside consulting, it should, at a minimum, require that a) all consulting activities and payment for the same be disclosed publicly in writing and b) school officials publicly provide copies of phone records and tax returns for themselves and any consulting firms they have an interest in to ensure employees are not consulting on district time.
3. Adopt a transparent Conflicts of Interest policy if one is not already in existence for highly compensated employees along with a transparent and public bidding process for service and other contracts, including whether no bid contracts are permissible. Note, this would be a better use of ICCSD’s board’s Policy and Engagement Committee’s time than working to suppress public comment.
4. Adopt a policy that no expenditures to vendors (or related organizations) for whom district employees provide consulting or other services will be authorized.
5. And, finally, if our superintendent really wants to work elsewhere, let’s at least not pay him while he is doing so.
1Brown, Emma, “Report: Chicago schools chief takes leave as feds probe no-bid contract,” The Washington Post. 17 April 2015: Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/report-chicago-schools-chief-takes-leave-as-feds-probe-no-bid-contract/2015/04/17/84e792ec-e52a-11e4-905f-cc896d379a32_story.html .
2.FitzPatrick, Lauren and Spielman, Fran. “Chicago suspends $20M SUPES contract amid federal probe.” Chicago Sun Times. 22 April 2015: Retrieved from http://chicago.suntimes.com/chicago-politics/7/71/541209/cps-suspends-supes-contract-amid-federal-probe.
4Karp, Sarah and Sanchez, Melissa. “Feds investigation $20 million SUPES contract, Bryd-Bennett ties.” Catalyst Chicago. 15 April 2015: Retrieved from http://catalyst-chicago.org/2015/04/feds-investigate-20-million-supes-contract-byrd-bennett-ties/.
6http://supesacademy.com/our-team/ or if you are unable to access that link, try http://supesacademy.com/, click on “National Academy,” and then under the “About” tab at the top, click on “Our Team.” [The pictures of Mr. Murley and Mr. Ramey have since been removed.]
7 See link to June 24, 2014, meeting minutes, including a link to ICCSD’s superintendent’s contract at p. 201/205 http://www.iowacityschools.org/files/_2KEPt_/ca663a108f0fa9153745a49013852ec4/June_24_2014.pdf.
8See https://twitter.com/search?q=%40supesacademy%20murley&src=typd. Also, Mr. Murley does appear to have his own consulting firm–SFM Consulting, LLC is listed on the Iowa Secretary of State’s website at http://sos.iowa.gov/search/business/(S(mh204o55b5aegk450ehk55eq))/summary.aspx?c=0Lj9cQvTUFkIgdp7nA-SZbpzU5fgjcm250auTOc-yno1. See also http://macnjake.com/consultant/mr-stephen-murley/.
9LaRaviere, Troy. “Commentary: A Principal’s view: Amazing Waste at CPS.” Chicago Tribune 27 April 2015: Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-cps-byrd-bennett-principals-rahm-emanuel-perspec-0428-20150427-story.html. Also see Karp, Sarah. “SUPES training for principals under fire.” Chicago Catalyst. 5 December 2013: Retrieved from http://catalyst-chicago.org/2013/12/supes-training-principals-under-fire/.
10Daniel, Rob. “State won’t re-audit district.” Press-Citizen 30 September 2011: A1.
11Proact Search Helps Iowa City Community School District Find Top-Quality Cabinet Member.” 16 March 2015. Retrieved from Proact Search website at: http://www.proactsearch.com/blog/2015/1/4/proact-search-helps-iowa-city-community-school-district-find-top-quality-cabinet-member.
12Bowie, Liz. “Company with Baltimore County school contract under federal investigation in Chicago.” The Baltimore Sun. April 18, 2015: Retrieved from http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/sun-investigates/bs-md-co-supes-academy-20150418-story.html.
13Geiger, Kim, Perez Jr., Juan, and Chase, John. “Rauner [Illinois Governor] tries to distance himself from CPS contract scandal.’ Chicago Tribune. 20 April 2015: Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/politics/ct-cps-contract-emanuel-rauner-met-0421-20150420-story.html#page=1.
14Catalyst Chicago staff. “Pension woes, threats of cuts, charter accountability.” Chicago Catalyst. May 11, 2015: Retrieved from http://catalyst-chicago.org/2015/05/take-5-pension-woes-threat-of-cuts-charter-accountability/.