Vallas, Rauner’s pick for CSU, vouched for figure in CPS scandal

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When former Chicago Public Schools chief Paul Vallas was recruited to revive the schools in hurricane-battered New Orleans, he asked for help from back home, newly obtained records show.

In a series of letters to Louisiana officials who oversaw the New Orleans district, Vallas vouched for Synesi Associates, an education consulting firm that recently had been started in Chicago by a former high school teacher named Gary Solomon.

“This out-of-state provider has a record of demonstrated effectiveness,” Vallas wrote in 2007, citing the “unique experience” of the firm’s staff.

Synesi landed two no-bid contracts worth nearly $893,000 in New Orleans during Vallas’ time running the Recovery School District from 2007 to 2011, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.

Now, nearly a decade later, Vallas appears set to be named to a top leadership post at financially troubled Chicago State University.

And Solomon is scheduled to report to federal prison July 11 to begin an 84-month sentence. Solomon was convicted of bribing Barbara Byrd-Bennett, one of Vallas’ successors heading CPS, who arranged for Synesi and another of his companies to land $23 million in business with the Chicago school system.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and former Democratic Illinois Senate President Emil Jones have called for Vallas to take a leadership role at the South Side university.

It would be yet another reclamation job for the man who came to prominence in the 1990s as Mayor Richard M. Daley’s first schools chief when Springfield gave City Hall control over Chicago’s financially troubled schools.

After leaving CPS, Vallas ran a losing campaign for Illinois governor. Then, he headed the Philadelphia schools before going to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Two years ago, amid the CPS bribery scandal, Vallas tried to distance himself from Solomon, downplaying the education consultant’s role during his tenure in New Orleans.

Synesi had said on its website it participated in “the successful implementation” of Vallas’ goals in New Orleans and headed efforts that resulted in a private foundation awarding a $10 million grant for the schools there.

Amid the investigation that would result in the convictions of Byrd-Bennett, Solomon and Solomon’s business partner Thomas Vranas, Vallas said this and other assertions by Synesi were vast exaggerations. “He played no role in policy development,” Vallas said then.

Vallas promised in a 2007 letter to Louisiana state officials that Solomon’s company “will provide guidance and counsel to the superintendent and the deputy superintendents in the development of an organization structure for the . . . central office.”

According to another letter from Vallas, written in 2008, Synesi was then given a second contract to “ensure implementation of the high school reforms” and again advise Vallas and his top aides.

Paul Vallas wouldn’t answer questions about what he called a “non-story” but pointed out that “New Orleans honored me with the key to the city” — and sent this photo of the key.

Vallas says his involvement with Solomon is a “non-story” and notes that the contracts with “the vendor in question” were “vetted and approved by the elected Louisiana board of education.”

He also says, “New Orleans honored me with the key to the city, while those involved in CPS are about to be locked up” — and emailed a photo of the key.

The records also show Vallas played a key role in bringing in Solomon’s company there, arranging for Synesi to land its first contract, which was effective just four days after Solomon formed the company in Chicago on July 27, 2007.

Officials approved that deal after Vallas sent them a letter providing “justification for an external contractor.”

Vallas told officials the New Orleans school system didn’t have anyone who could do the same work as Synesi, according to documents from the New Orleans district. And he urged that the Solomon company be hired without requiring that competitive bids be sought from others, as well, because of Synesi’s “unique experience.”

The contract was to last for five months and pay $172,800 for “counsel and academic administrative assistance,” according to the letter from Vallas.

Before that deal expired, Vallas arranged a contract extension through July 2008, records show, promising Synesi an additional $624,000.

To get approval of the extension, Vallas wrote to the Louisiana school board saying Solomon and a Synesi colleague met the criteria to be hired “without a competitive bidding process.”

Synesi got its second no-bid contract in New Orleans in 2008, this one for $96,000. The funding for that came from the Walton Family Foundation, founded by the late Walmart mogul Sam Walton.

Solomon’s lawyer says Synesi did “exemplary” work.

Synesi and other Solomon companies went on to work for schools across the country until the CPS inspector general and federal investigators uncovered the bribery scheme involving Byrd-Bennett.

READ MORE:

Former rivals Rauner, Vallas unite for Chicago State overhaul, Jan. 18, 2017


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