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Federal Probe in Chicago Schools Includes Non-Profit Education Fund

Federal officials investigating a $20.5 million no-bid contract in the Chicago Public Schools are also looking at The Chicago Public Education Fund, a non-profit made up of big names aligned with the Chicago mayor and Illinois governor that provided the start-up funds for the principal-training program at the center of the probe, according to The Chicago Tribune.

Last week, Chicago schools officials confirmed that federal authorities were conducting an investigation in the district, but declined to specify the scope.   

Unnamed sources told Chicago media that the probe related to a $20.5 million contract that the district approved in June 2013 to hire SUPES Academy to run a principal-training and professional-development program for network chiefs, principals, and assistant principals.

The Wilmette, Ill.,-based SUPES Academy once employed Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett as a consultant, and last Friday Byrd-Bennett took a leave of absence from the job.

"In light of the ongoing federal investigation and its impact on her ability to effectively lead Chicago Public Schools, Barbara Byrd-Bennett is taking a leave of absence from Chicago Public Schools effective immediately," Board President David Vitale said in a statement on Friday, which also announced that Jesse Ruiz, the board's vice president, would lead the district in the interim.

The district on Friday also released a copy of a federal subpoena that had been  issued to obtain materials related to the SUPES Academy from district employees, including Byrd-Bennett; Tracy Martin, the district's chief of strategic school support; Sherry Ulery, Byrd-Bennett's chief of staff; and Rosemary Herpel, the executive director of leadership development.

The subpoena also sought information related to the Chicago Executive Leadership Academy (CELA), and others relating to Synesi Associates and PROACT Search. The latter two companies are affiliated with the owners of SUPES Academy, The Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Byrd-Bennett has not been accused of any wrongdoing, but the current investigation prompted the Chicago Teachers Union to release a statement to reiterate its call for an elected school board and decry what it called a "culture of conflict of interest," that it contends plagues the district's leadership.

The Chicago Education Fund, an education reform group made up of individuals from the business, civic and academic communities, also includes influential  business people who are aligned with both Chicago's Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois' Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, The Chicago Tribune reported this weekend. As mayor, Emanuel appoints the city schools district's CEO and school board members—Byrd-Bennett is his appointee.

Tony Smith, a former Oakland, Calif., superintendent and Rauner's new selection for Illinois' superintendent of schools, also serves on the fund's board of directors, according to The Tribune. Smith's name does not appear on the section of the fund's website listing the members of the board of directors. That list, however, includes Vitale, the president of the Chicago school board, and Deborah Quazzo, a board member. 

The governor himself is a former director of the group's board, the paper reported. Penny Pritzker, the U.S. Commerce Secretary, is a former chair of the fund's board. 

Meanwhile, The Baltimore Sun reported that SUPES Academy also has a $875,000, three-year contract with the Baltimore County school district, which expires on July 1, and that Superintendent Dallas Dance worked as a consultant for the company in a part-time capacity after the Baltimore County district's contract had been approved.

Dance was among the education leaders around the country tapped by SUPES Academy to work on the $20 million deal with Chicago, according to the paper. Dance did not inform the Baltimore County Board of his part-time work with SUPES Academy, but after The Baltimore Sun reported on the contract, he said that he would donate the money to charity. He also gave up the consulting gig. An ethics review found that he had "broken the rules," but the district has not released the full report, the paper reported. 

The federal investigation and Byrd-Bennett's leave of absence come at a difficult time for the Chicago district, the nation's third largest. It is facing a projected $1 billion deficit, its teachers' union contract expires this summer—the last time the teacher's union contract expired, negotiations broke down and the teachers went on strike—and it's unclear whether Byrd-Bennett, whose contract also ends this summer, will return.

Byrd-Bennett had also declared a moratorium on school closures, after the district closed nearly 50 schools 2013, and many community advocates are now wondering whether that promise would hold.

If Byrd-Bennett leaves this year, she would be the fourth CEO to depart since U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan left the helm of the district to come to Washington in 2009.

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