The FBI is investigating a $20.5 million no-bid contract the Chicago school district awarded to a company that trains principals and once employed the district’s CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, according to multiple Chicago media reports.
The news of the probe broke on Wednesday, and officials with the Chicago School Board confirmed to the media that there was an FBI investigation underway though it did not confirm the scope of the investigation or what investigators were looking into.
Citing unnamed sources, The Chicago Sun-Times said the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago had been looking into the contract for about a year and investigating the role that Byrd-Bennett might have played in it.
In its story on the investigation, The Chicago Tribune stressed that Byrd-Bennett has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
“We take any allegation of misconduct seriously, and we are fully cooperating with investigators who requested that we not discuss any specifics regarding the ongoing investigation,” David Vitale, CPS’ school board president, said in The Chicago Sun-Times. Vitale confirmed the existence of an investigation, but shared no information about its scope or target.
He said that the investigators had asked to speak to several school district employees, according to the Tribune.
Byrd-Bennett worked at the company, SUPES Academy, before she was tapped as an adviser to her predecessor, former CEO Jean-Claude Brizard. She was picked by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2012 to head the district, the nation’s third largest.
The $20.5 million contract was awarded in June 2013 to SUPES Academy to provide training to network chiefs, deputy chiefs, principals and assistant principals, according to The Chicago Tribune.
But The Chicago Sun-Times reports that the principals were unhappy with the services provided and complained to their union, the Chicago Principals & Administrators Association. The complaints were featured in the association’s newsletter.
From The Chicago Sun-Times:
“The quality of the workshops is the most serious and frequent complaint we receive,’' the newsletter reported. Other gripes: “The principals feel the presenters are not sufficiently knowledgeable regarding developing high-quality leadership in such a large/diverse urban district.”
The district apparently agreed to meet with the association about the program’s shortcomings, according to the paper.
CPS’ critics, seizing on the district’s financial troubles, had also pounced on the deal with SUPES Academy.
A spokesman for SUPES Academy confirmed to the media that investigators had taken files from the company as part of an investigation and that the company was cooperating with authorities. On its website, the SUPES Academy touts the leadership academy programs it runs in Chicago as “a notable model for the future development of local academies across the nation.”
Ms. Byrd-Bennett’s $250,000 contract with the district expires in June, and it has not yet been renewed, according to the papers.
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.