The Big SUPES Payout: SUPES Academy CEO Gets 7 Year Prison Sentence
(Written by a contributing writer for The Baltimore Post.)
Big news broke in Chicago yesterday regarding a former educational consultant who, with two others, pleaded guilty to fraud and federal corruption last year. After a two-hour argument, U. S. District Judge Edmond Chang handed Gary Solomon his fate – a seven year prison sentence in a federal penitentiary. Solomon, who is the former CEO and co-founder of The SUPES Academy, received his final “payout” yesterday for defrauding Chicago Public Schools (CPS) with the help of his partner, Thomas Vranas, and former CPS CEO, Barbara Byrd-Bennett. Vranas and Byrd-Bennett are scheduled to be sentenced next month.
But what does this have to do with Baltimore County? Why would the Baltimore Post report it? And what is The SUPES Academy, anyway?
Baltimore County and Chicago have a long and cozy history together, likely longer than is currently known, and going as far back as former Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Joe Hairston. (More on that later.) This Chicago/Baltimore County relationship was first discovered when details emerged following the investigation into a mysterious contract at Chicago Public Schools in July 2013. After Chicago’s Board of Education approved a sole source contract in excess of $20-million with The SUPES Academy, a contract for the professional development of Chicago principals for their CELA program (Chicago Executive Leadership Academy), it caught the attention of a parent and investigative journalist, Sarah Karp. Karp’s reporting on this contract ultimately triggered an internal school system investigation, caught the attention of the Illinois Attorney General, and ultimately led to FBI involvement, indictments, and convictions.
What it also led to was a quasi-avalanche of other superintendents falling – or sort of falling – as at least six aspects to this story hang in the balance, or off a cliff, awaiting resolution. (See The Better Government Association’s article on SUPES Scandal Having Fallout Across the U.S.)
According to The SUPES Academy’s former website, the organization’s mission was to “identify, develop, and support a new generation of outstanding leaders for America’s school systems who will provide our children with the skills they need to live as successful adults in a world of global competition.” This included training principals to become superintendents, and aspiring principals to become principals. School systems would hire SUPES Academy for its curriculum and in-person/online training for employees’ professional development and ascension up the ranks. Aspiring superintendents would attend 10 superintendent sessions that would prepare them to become leaders of school systems across the county. The consultants and master teachers that SUPES Academy proprietors hired as teachers were current and former school system leaders. And so, just as quickly as SUPES Academy could pump out a graduate, that graduate could quickly start training a new generation of aspiring leaders.
One of those students-turned-teachers is Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent, Dr. Dallas Dance.
The SUPES Academy had a brilliant business model. Its proprietors also birthed two sister companies: Synesi Associates and PROACT Search. Those two companies, along with SUPES, were the perfect trifecta of school system headhunters, school employee training consultants and teachers, as well as providers of a turnaround plan for underperforming schools in a school system.
Where this model went awry, and what has led to three federal convictions, was fraud, greed, waste, and abuse of taxpayer money that reduced funds that could be used for schools and took advantage of disadvantaged or unsuspecting communities. And where those six school systems come into play is that, while some of their employees were busy enjoying the perks that came with working as SUPES master teachers – which in some cases included the school systems paying the travel tabs, while their employees made money being SUPES consultants – one or more of the trifecta (SUPES, Synesi, or PROACT) found nice contracts in schools systems for which those superintendents worked, or once worked.
Dr. Dance proposed – and Baltimore County’s Board of Education voted in favor of – a SUPES Academy contract for Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) on December 4, 2012, with a spending authority of $875,000. Dance also worked as a consultant and master teacher for The SUPES Academy CELA program for Chicago Public Schools while that contract was in place with BCPS. While this led to an ethics violation for not obtaining the Board’s permission to have the side job, what is still unclear are the details that led to BCPS’s contract with SUPES.
Questions remain regarding this contract BCPS had with the SUPES Academy, especially considering Dance’s association with former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Barbara Byrd Bennett, who worked alongside Dance’s predecessor, Dr. Joe Hairston, as a SUPES Master Teacher the same year that Dance went through the training and became a graduate himself.
What also remains a mystery is the impact SUPES Academy has had on Baltimore County Public Schools, with a graduate (and master teacher) at the helm. According to its former website, The SUPES Academy prepared aspiring superintendents in a variety of ways, including the following outcomes:
- Identify strategies to manage local, regional, state and national politics.
- Develop the political skills required to orchestrate needed changes and survive in the role.
- Establish strategies that will establish and maintain a productive working relationship with the board.
- Utilize technology and partner organizations to bring technology into classrooms.
While all notable aspirations for SUPES graduates, it does make one wonder about how cozy Baltimore County has been with Chicago, as well as how influenced BCPS has been by agendas of those outside of the school system, including those having to do with integrating technology and working with “partner organizations” in order to make STAT, BCPS’s digital initiative, a reality.