School board members, taxpayers, and parents everywhere can learn important lessons from the events leading up to the recent federal indictment of and eventual guilty plea by Barbara Bryd-Bennett, the former head of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), in connection with her relationship with The Supes Academy, LLC (Supes) and CPS’ $20 million dollar plus no-bid contract with Supes. See the United States Department of Justice’s press release here, which includes within it a link to the indictment, and also see Ms. Bryd-Bennett’s guilty plea here.
The Bryd-Bennett indictment also charged The Supes Academy, LLC (Supes) and Synesi Associates, LLC (Synesi), along with Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, their owners and operators, with numerous criminal violations. This is relevant to the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) because 1) ICCSD’s current superintendent, Steve Murley, and Chief Human Resources Officer, Chace Ramey, were, as recently as early this spring, pictured on SUPE’s website as being Supes “team members,” and 2) because ICCSD reportedly has paid thousands of dollars to Synesi and Proact, companies that were related to Supes.
While a mere affiliation with a company is not an indication of criminal improprieties, the Bryd-Bennett indictment highlights why school board members everywhere should exercise their fiduciary duties and strictly regulate or ban outside consulting activities by their employees with decision-making power over or oversight of contracts. With five new board members, ICCSD’s board should revisit Mr. Murley’s contract found here, which currently permits him to engage in outside consulting and provides, in part, as follows on page 6:
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.
As illustrated here and in the Chicago Sun Times article “BGA Public Eye: CPS’ SUPES probe leads to fallout across U.S.” by the Better Government Association posted on October 31, 2015, consulting for Supes did not appear to “contribute to the betterment of the District.”
In addition to highlighting potential issues associated with no-bid contracts and outside employment of a top official, the Bryd-Bennett indictment highlights the problem of “freebies” alleging that
***defendants GARY SOLOMON, THOMAS VRANAS, and the SUPES Entities gave defendant BARBARA BYRD-BENNETT numerous items of value, such as basketball tickets, baseball tickets, meals, and other personal items in exchange for BYRD-BENNETT using her position with CPS to ensure that the SUPES Entities kept and expanded their contracts with CPS and obtained additional contracts with CPS in the future.
The provision of sports tickets and meals can appear to be bribes or kickbacks by vendors in exchange for favored treatment in the awarding of contracts. Assuming no such policy currently exists or is publicized, ICCSD’s board should follow the practice of many other employers by publicly and proactively setting limits on what employees who 1) are engaged in contracting or 2) have oversight of contracts can receive and strictly regulate or eliminate gifts. Adoption of a conflicts of interest, gift, and outside employment policy should be followed by training of employees and auditing compliance with the policy. Vendors should also be put on notice. One result of a failure of a school district to regulate conflicts of interests, gifts, and outside employment of officials having a role in recommending or awarding contracts is that reputable contractors may be discouraged from bidding due to the perception that other contractors may be overly favored.
At a minimum, a school board should prohibit its employees from providing services to companies or their related companies that provide goods or services to ICCSD. Finally, the appearance of a conflict of interest may be yet another reason why many voters might vote “no” in the upcoming bond election.
And while ICCSD does not have the power of the Department of Justice to fully investigate and obtain emails, phone records, and other documentation from Supes and its owners, the entire ICCSD board should review and investigate past outside employment of ICCSD’s top officials, address all existing and potential conflicts of interest, and take immediate measures to avoid the appearance that ICCSD engages in a “pay to play” system. As ICCSD spends millions of dollars on construction and other vendors, there is no time to waste–school governance only works when a school board sets an ethical tone at the top, adopts proper policies and procedures, and audits compliance with the same.