Chicago Public Schools Suspends No-Bid Contract Amid Federal Investigation

CHI-TOWN RUMBLES: It’s been crisis whac-a-mole for Chicago Public Schools (CPS) lately.

On Wednesday, CPS suspended a $20.5 million professional development contract with SUPES Academy, an arrangement that in the past week exploded as news broke that the US attorney’s general office has been scrutinizing the relationship.

Last week, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced she would take a paid leave of absence during the federal investigation. Board of Education Vice President Jesse Ruiz was appointed as interim CEO. Byrd-Bennett was appointed to her job in 2012 by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The federal probe centers on the no-bid contract with SUPES Academy—a leadership training center for principals. Byrd-Bennett had worked as a “mentor-coach” for the academy before she was hired by CPS, a fact that was known by the education board before the district hired her.

"Many of us have prior lives in which we’ve engaged with organizations with which we no longer have relationships, which can still provide quality service to the Chicago Public Schools," School Board President David Vitale said, according to NBC Chicago, which also notes that Byrd-Bennett listed prior relationships with at least five such entities on her resume.

CPS awarded the no-bid contract to SUPES in 2013, but some argue that the claim of sole source is unfounded and that other organizations should have been considered for competitive bids. CBS Chicago reports that education departments at Loyola and the University of Illinois-Chicago already train and coach some CPS principals.

Meanwhile, CPS is facing a financial debt crisis in the billions. In March, Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings dropped the school board’s rating to Baa3—the lowest investment grade above junk—which delayed a planned $372-million bond sale intended to alleviate some of the debt. CPS has a projected $1.1 billion-budget gap for the next fiscal year.

In a statement last week to the press, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner said the school system is in such bad shape that it may need bankruptcy protection, an option that Chicago Mayor Emanuel said he “firmly disagree(s) with.” 

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