The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

SUPES Owner's Sketchy Past Revealed As Scandal Deepens for Byrd-Bennett

By Margaret Paulson in News on May 2, 2015 4:00PM


The SUPES scandal just keeps getting worse for Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who took a paid leave of absence as CEO of Chicago Public Schools on April 17 after a federal investigation began into the $20.5 million no-bid contract she awarded to SUPES Academy. Turns out, SUPES Academy owner and Byrd-Bennett’s former employer, Gary Solomon, is one of the most repulsive people ever, according to information the Chicago Sun-Times was able to gather under a Freedom of Information Act request.

According to court records, while Solomon was the dean of Niles West High School, where he began working in 1992, he was accused of “immoral and unprofessional” conduct, which included using racial slurs, covering up drug and alcohol use by minors, sending sexually explicit e-mails and preying on the most vulnerable female students—Solomon was even caught kissing one of them. He also apparently kept a diary on a school computer, describing his fantasies and writing of one female student, “She is there for the taking.”

(If you don’t have the chills yet, head over to this Sun-Times article to read more about the creepy scumbaggery of Gary Solomon.)

Solomon was ousted from Niles West in 2001 after the district spent $200,000 in legal fees and paid a $50,000 settlement just to get rid of him. In a February 2001 Chicago Tribune article, school board president Robert Silverman explained the decision to settle:

"I am glad it is over," said Silverman, who also noted the settlement terms included an agreement that Solomon will never work for the district again. "We did not have 100 percent certainty that we would win the case. Yet we won 100 percent in certainty that he will not teach in our district again."

After the trials of that case, you might think Solomon would be ruined … but you would be wrong. He was never charged with a crime and actually went on to form three companies with similar missions of consulting for K-12 schools—SUPES Academy, PROACT Search and Synesi Associates—with former Niles West student, Thomas Vranas.

This all leads us to the question: Really, Barbara Byrd-Bennett? What were you thinking? Byrd-Bennett worked for Solomon under SUPES so it’s hard to believe she wouldn’t know of his at-best questionable and at-worst downright abominable past. And in the event that Byrd-Bennett was working in a gossip-free vacuum, there’s also this thing called Google, which one can use for due diligence before hiring someone.

But that’s not even the point. People “do business” with shitty people all the time. The real point is that awarding a no-bid contract when CPS has a $1.1 billion budget deficit is just fucked up.

Mainstream news organizations didn’t seem to pay it much mind back when the contract was awarded in June 2013, perhaps thinking, “No-bid contracts? Pish posh. That’s the Chicago way!” But Catalyst Chicago, an independent reporter on all things related to urban schools, took notice. They analyzed board documents and found that the three-year contract was the largest no-bid contract awarded in three years or more. They also scrutinized Byrd-Bennett’s employment as a coach for SUPES, which she did until she started working as a consultant for CPS.

The contract also got the attention of several well-respected educators and researchers. Diane Ravitch, an educational policy analyst, wrote in a blog post in August 2013: “Chicago has several excellent institutions of higher education that could have done the same job for far less money.”

And Chicagoan Mike Klonsky, a former UIC professor and leader of the Small Schools Movement, noted in a July 2013 blog post:

“A few principals attending the Chicago Supes training now in progress are texting me, telling me what a joke it is. It's not that the sessions are all that bad. It's that the principals themselves have taken it over. They are running it - ‘sharing stories,’ they text me.

‘Inmates have taken over the asylum,’ says one south-side principal … Supes, she says, brings nothing to the table. Any one of a number of local groups or university people could have easily facilitated.
Another text: "We (the intellectually and skill bereft cohort) are now creating the sessions."

Federal investigation into Byrd-Bennett’s staffers and her relationship with SUPES and the other companies owned by Solomon is ongoing. The Chicago Board of Education announced April 20 that it has suspended its principal leadership training contract with SUPES Academy, though $13 million has already been paid out to the company. Currently, CPS school board vice president Jesse Ruiz is serving as interim CEO—the fifth leader of CPS since 2010—and it should be noted that Ruiz voted for the SUPES contract back in 2013.