Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Vallas' shadow hangs over Chicago's SUPES/Byrd-Bennett scandal

Disgraced Chicago former schools CEO, Barbara Byrd-Bennett pled guilty to corruption charges today as protesters rallied across the street from the courthouse demanding an elected school board and an end to mayoral control of the schools

For the past few months I have been pointing to the Paul Vallas connection with the Chicago SUPES scandal. So far, the Chicago media has completely missed or glossed over this connection even though Vallas, who just ran a losing race for Lt. Governor, was Gary Soloman's former partner in Synesi Associates. Synesi is one of the indicted companies that hired Byrd-Bennett as a consultant, allegedly in return for her support in obtaining millions of dollars in CPS no-bid contracts.

Today I am posting a piece written by blogger supreme, Jonathan Pelto, which delves more deeply into the Vallas connection. Jonathan ran for governor of Connecticut as a write-in candidate in opposition to Gov. Malloy's corporate-style school reform policies. His exposés of corrupt corporate "reform" practices ultimately helped lead to Vallas' firing as Bridgeport's schools chief. .
Jonathan Pelto
Prior to being hand-picked by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to run Chicago’s Public Schools, Byrd-Bennett worked as a consultant and lead teacher for The Supes Academy, worked as a consultant for Synesi Associates and was listed as a part of the management team at PROACT Search.

While many key actors in the Corporate Education Reform Industry have been involved with Gary Solomon and his companies, one of the most prominent names on Solomon’s list of close colleagues is the Great Paul Vallas, the Education Reform Guru and former CEO of the Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans public school systems.

More recently, Democratic Governor and education reform disciple Dannel Malloy brought Vallas to Bridgeport, Connecticut and then twisted Connecticut law in knots so that Vallas could stay for two years until local residents had finally had enough and forced Vallas to leave the job and return to Illinois.

As for the situation in Chicago, it could certainly be said that Gary Solomon’s ability to build such a “successful” corporate education reform company is due, in no small part, to his close relationship with Paul Vallas.

Vallas not only hired Solomon and his companies when he worked in Philadelphia, but brought Solomon with him to New Orleans.

And Vallas worked to bring other business to Solomon and his companies as well.

While Vallas has publicly claimed that he has no financial interest in any of Solomon’s consulting activities, in Vallas’ Philadelphia days Solomon’s consulting company advertised that it had “the exclusive rights to Paul Vallas’ model of education reform.”

Solomon’s Synesi Associates went on to brag on its website that it had played a leadership role in, “‘the successful implementation’ of Vallas’ plans when Vallas was heading up the Louisiana Recovery School District.”

The close relationship between Vallas and Solomon was explored in a detailed expose published on Philadelphia’s education website, The Notebook, in April 2005. In an article entitled Cashing in on ‘The Vallas model’ the Notebook laid out the story as follows;

Even with all the private company entrepreneurship revolving around Philadelphia School District initiatives lately, local observers expressed surprise at signs that District CEO Paul Vallas himself was appearing to be in on the action.
Evidence of a business initiative involving the use of Vallas’ name and reform approach recently surfaced on the websites of two related Chicago-based businesses. Information about the venture on one website was apparently pulled from the web minutes after Notebook inquiries. The other website disappeared the next day. (Images of several of the removed pages referenced in this story were saved by The Notebook, and are linked to in this story).
Solomon Consulting Services Inc. (SCS), a new for-profit enterprise that counts among its team a number of prominent administrators and leaders who’ve worked under or with Vallas, had obtained exclusive rights to “The Vallas Model,” according to the website of SCS’s partner and online marketing firm.
Vallas categorically denies any such deal. But questions linger about how a website devoted to marketing Paul Vallas’ accomplishments and approach came into being and what will become of the enterprise that created it.
Through a District spokesperson, Vallas said he has no commercial relationship with Solomon Consulting, adding that SCS had not been authorized to use his name or sell his reform model.
Spokesperson Cecelia Cummings said Vallas has acknowledged awareness of a number of his associates forming an enterprise. Cummings said the District had threatened legal action over the SCS website, which implied that the School District was a client of SCS.
SCS’s team list names Phil Hansen, a former Chicago chief accountability officer who served on Vallas’ Philadelphia transition team and who now works for Princeton Review; Cozette Buckney, Chicago’s chief education officer under Vallas and a member of Vallas’ Philadelphia transition team; Sue Gamm, chief specialized services officer in Chicago during Vallas’ tenure, who also served as a consultant to Vallas during his transition…
SolomonConsultingInc.com, disappeared from the web April 28, one day after the interview with Solomon. [Solomon had told the Notebook that a newly designed site was to be posted soon. A new SolomonConsulting Inc.com was posted Saturday, April 30, with no references to Vallas and no list of personnel].
Vallas on ticket with Quinn, was soundly defeated in his race for Lt. governor
When Solomon’s website reappeared there was also no mention that Gary Solomon had also served as assistant vice president of educational partnerships with the Princeton Review, but….

On April 20, the School Reform Commission approved a resolution for $2.6 million in categorical/grant funds for Princeton Review to provide curriculum, educational materials and professional development for the District’s summer program. Other Princeton review contracts this school year have been for $600,000 for consulting for four transitional high schools – Lamberton, Sayre, Vaux and Parkway Gamma High, and $750,000 for PSSA test prep materials, support and professional development.
During the interview, Solomon initially said he no longer worked with Princeton Review. However, in a Notebook phone call to Princeton Review’s New York office, an operator responded that the company did indeed have a listing for Gary Solomon. When the call was transferred, Solomon answered, and explained, “They’re a client of mine.”
And, has been repeatedly reported, the close bond between Vallas and Solomon was just beginning.

When Paul Vallas moved on to New Orleans to head the Louisiana Recovery School District, Solomon picked up even more lucrative contracts.

But it is a story out of Illinois that provides a true snap-shot and insider’s view into how Vallas and the Corporate Education Reform Industry works;

While Gary Solomon and his companies profited greatly via Vallas in Philadelphia and New Orleans, it is the somewhat more hidden story surrounding the Rockford School District (PSD 150) in Illinois the provides telling evidence about how Vallas and the Corporate Education Reform Industry works.

BBB, Rahm, Vallas & Soloman
The December 13, 2007 headline in the Rockford Star newspaper proclaimed, Vallas will ‘assess and evaluate’ District 150 – for free. The story read,

School reform trailblazer Paul Vallas is willing to assess the educational program at District 150 and develop a “vision” to effectuate change, all for free.
“My role would not only be to assess and evaluate but also to lay out a comprehensive vision for the district. … Given the fact that I would do it for free, there’s certainly no loss of investment,” the New Orleans superintendent said Wednesday.
But the question remains: Will District 150 take advantage of his services or hire consultants he has recommended to assist the district in reform efforts?
Vallas met with district leaders in November, and he and consultants offered educational services to the district. The consultants are Gary Solomon and Phil Hansen, of Synesi Associates.
Vallas is willing to help for free, but the consultants have a cost. School Board President David Gorenz said Synesi has quoted the cost of its consulting services at $600,000.
Vallas, the former head of schools in Philadelphia and Chicago, emphasized Wednesday that he is not affiliated with the consultants and doesn’t benefit financially from their services. They are, however, among a group of people he recommended be part of a successful school reform process.
“Should they decide that they want my help and should they decide that they want me to recommend a full team to come in and do the job … I will be very specific in identifying the people I feel (are) some of the best people out there to come in,” Vallas said.
The superintendent of Recovery School District in New Orleans said he’s inclined to help districts when he can. Plus, he has always enjoyed Peoria, and the city is close to his permanent home — his wife still lives in Chicago.
Days later, on December 22, 2007, the paper expanded its coverage reporting Vallas will meet with Peoria District 150 officials after Christmas,

Noted education leader Paul Vallas was in town Friday talking to local business leaders about school reform, and he plans to meet with District 150 officials sometime after Christmas.
Vallas has offered to help the district reform its educational system and bring in consultants to help implement changes. He first made the offer to district officials in November, after being asked to come to town by Mayor Jim Ardis.
The superintendent of Recovery School District in New Orleans stopped by Peoria on his way home to Chicago for the holidays. He spoke at a meeting of the CEO Roundtable Friday morning and met with the Journal Star editorial board afterward.
“All I’m going to do is try to tell them what I think works and what doesn’t work and to try to provide them with some guidance. The rest is going to be up to them,” Vallas told the editorial board.
Vallas is willing to help for free, but the consultants that he would recommend would have a cost. School Board President David Gorenz has said that a consulting firm that was represented at the November meeting quoted the cost of its services at $600,000
And while Vallas said he would work for free … who were the consultants that District 150 would need to hire?

The consulting firm that is in contact with District 150 is Synesi Associates. Company officials Gary Solomon and Phil Hansen were both at the November meeting. But Vallas said there are multiple people he is willing to bring to District 150, people he referred to as “the best seasoned educators around.”
As the Chicago Scandal played out in the news this year, the Chicago Tribune reported that,

“No contract was ever signed in Peoria and Vallas disputed the assertion that he had pitched work specifically for Solomon’s firm.”
But there is often more to these types of situations then meets the eye.

Earlier this summer, Paul Vallas and his relationship to Illinois Public School District 150 surfaced yet again. The local PJ Star newspaper reported, Efforts for independent review of District 150 continue despite rejections,

PEORIA – … the current School Board already had rejected at least two attempts at outside evaluations orchestrated by Mayor Jim Ardis, with help from his recently retired education adviser Bill Collier and Peoria County Regional Superintendent of Schools Beth Derry.
The Illinois State Board of Education apparently declined to get involved in a request made by Collier, according to Freedom of Information Act requests. Derry backed off after the school district attorney questioned the legality of her office’s involvement.
But Ardis and Collier haven’t given up on getting the board to agree to an independent review. The School Board’s make-up will change Wednesday with the seating of two new members who support the idea. Either the board or Superintendent Grenita Lathan could have a change of heart, Ardis said last week.
“Support has started to build,” Collier added. “It’s really for altruistic reasons.”
Local business leaders would have donated about $60,000 for a third-party evaluation conducted by a team led by nationally-known, but controversial, education reformer Paul Vallas, who has been school superintendent in Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Bridgeport, Conn.
According to Vallas, he met with Derry and the teachers’ union leadership, all of whom were supportive. Ardis and Collier presented the proposal to school officials.
Board members were wary of the motives behind what Ardis, Collier and Derry say were sincere efforts to gain an unbiased analysis of District 150’s strengths and weaknesses.
“It was presented as a fait accompli,” said District 150 Chief Legal Officer Rick Rettberg. “The consultant had already been chosen, the scope of the review had already been decided and there was no disclosure of who was paying for it.”
By April, Derry was planning to incorporate the Vallas team’s evaluation into the standard compliance review her office conducts for all Peoria County school districts every four years. That plan was dropped after Rettberg pointed out an expanded compliance review was beyond the scope of her authority.
“What you are proposing in your letter is both extraordinary and problematic,” Rettberg wrote to Derry, reminding her the ROE’s office does not have authority to conduct a quality review, much less delegate it to a private consultant.
The letters between Rettberg, Lathan and Derry were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The letters show the district filed its own FOIA request to obtain copies of a contract and correspondence between the ROE’s office and Developmental Specialists Inc., or DSI, the consulting firm Vallas recently joined.
Vallas emphasized he was providing his services for free, a favor he has done for Ardis in the past…
The $60,000 cost would go to the four-person team he assembled to conduct the review.
So while the federal government was closing in on the contract and kickback scheme involving Chicago School CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Gary Solomon this summer, Paul Vallas was a few miles up the road telling local officials in Illinois’ Public School 150 that he was willing to, once again, work for free. All local taxpayers had to do was pay a hand-picked company selected by Vallas.

But this time Vallas was instructing them that they would have to pay a company that he had publically joined about sixty days earlier.

…READ Jonathan Pelto's piece in its entirety, here.

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