Chicago News Literacy Lessons - Evaluating the Evidence: Barbara Byrd-Bennett & Chicago Public Schools’ questionable contracts

CNL News Lesson

Lesson Outline

Date: November 4, 2016

By: Alexandria Johnson

News Literacy Concept:

Source evaluation: five-step test used to deconstruct a story and assess reliability and strength of information sources in a story:
1) Independent, 2) Multiple, 3) Provide Verifiable information, 4) Authoritative or Informed and 5) Named.

Lesson Objective:

Students will utilize the IMVA/IN test to evaluate the reliability of sources used to report questionable circumstances surrounding a no-bid, $20 million contract for Chicago Public Schools. Former chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, went on to plead guilty to wire fraud for steering multimillion-dollar no-bid contracts like this one to a former employer in exchange for millions of dollars in kickbacks.

Students should be able to identify the credibility of sources used in this news story, which initiated the investigation into Byrd-Bennett’s corruption and bribery scandal.

Discussion Questions:

  • Who does the reporter interview in this story?
  • Are there any missing perspectives in the story?
  • What sources are the most independent? Why?
  • What sources might be biased or promoting an agenda?
  • Why did some sources likely decline interviews? Why is it important to say they declined to comment?

Summary of the lesson / Lesson Outline:

Students will read the news story, “$20 million no-bid contract raises questions about Supes Academy,” by Catalyst Chicago which initiated the investigation into Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s bribery scheme.

Students should analyze the multiple sources the reporter utilized to discuss the questionable circumstances around the $20 million no-bid contract given to Supes Academy.

The first piece of evidence the students should discuss is the fact the contract was the “largest no-bid contract awarded in at least the past three years.” Students should identify the source: board of education documents analyzed by Catalyst Chicago. Then students should use the IM/VAIN test to determine if the source is credible. The students’ analysis should reveal that official documents from an organization responsible for oversight of the Chicago Public Schools is a highly credible source.

  • Independent?  Yes, official documents provided by the Board of Education.
  • Multiple?  Yes, the journalists analyzed and compared multiple documents to conclude that this contract was the largest since 2010.
  • Verifiable?  Yes, the statement “largest no-bid contract awarded in at least the past three years” should be confirmed by reviewing documents with amounts for non-bid contracts.
  • Authoritative/Informed?  Yes, the Board of Education is a reputable organization responsible for supervising and overseeing governance of the Chicago Public Schools.
  • Named?  Yes, the reporters cite the information from the Board of Education documents.

Students can repeat the process for the source: Andy Shaw, president and CEO of the Better Government Association. Students should find that Shaw is a reliable source that works for a nonprofit, independent organization.

Andy Shaw, president and CEO of the Better Government Association. says that a large, no-bid contract such as this one deserves scrutiny.

“No-bid contracts should be reserved for extraordinary circumstances that demand highly specific skills in a short time frame,” Shaw says. “It’s too early to say if this one qualifies. But Catalyst has raised enough other questions to merit a review by the CPS inspector general.”

  • Independent? Yes, Andy Shaw works for the Better Government Association, a nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog organization focused on holding public officials accountable.
  • Multiple? No, Shaw cites his own expertise and general knowledge about no-bid contracts but does not refer to multiple sources.
  • Verifiable? This information could be verified upon research of policies for no-bid contracts at in other school districts or educational settings.
  • Authoritative/Informed? Yes, the Better Government Association is a well-regarded and well-established organization. Shaw is an experienced journalist and authoritative source in government accountability.  
  • Named? Yes, this quote is attributed to Shaw.

Students could discuss another source: Wendy Katten of the parent advocacy group, Raise Your Hand. Discussion should reveal that Katten is an informed source but is works with an advocacy group that has an agenda.

Wendy Katten of the parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand, whose group has tracked school budget cuts, is critical as well.

“A $20 million no-bid contract … is a questionable use of funds at a time when our students have 94 less art positions, 58 less [physical education] positions, and 54 less music positions for the fall, and CEO Byrd-Bennett is in the press discussing online courses for these programs,” she says. “We have to ask where the priorities of this district are right now.”

  • Independent? Maybe, Wendy Katten is associated with a parent advocacy group, Raise Your Hand, which has an agenda dedicated to looking out for what’s best for students.
  • Multiple? Yes, Katten cites a variety of numbers regarding decreases in positions at schools throughout the district.
  • Verifiable? Catalyst Chicago should’ve confirmed that all of these numbers of decreased positions at schools are accurate. This could be done through analysis of Board of Education documents.
  • Authoritative/Informed? Katten is an informed advocate but not necessarily an authoritative source. She is not the leader of the organization and is speaking from an advocate’s perspective.
  • Named? Yes, this quote is attributed to Katten.

Another source to analyze: University of Illinois at Chicago professor Steven Tozer. Tozer is an independent and authoritative source, unaffiliated with the story.

While the CPS price tag might seem steep, University of Illinois at Chicago professor Steven Tozer stresses that research proves principals are the best lever for improving schools.

“It is an okay price to pay if Chicago can produce good leaders,” Tozer says.

  • Independent? Yes, Tozer is a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and does not have direct involvement or self-interest in this issue. He’s an outside expert.
  • Multiple? No, Tozer refers to research that indicates the value of investment in school principals; however, we don’t know the quantity of sources he is referring to.
  • Verifiable? Yes, Catalyst Chicago could confirm this information by comparing prices of other similar contracts.
  • Authoritative/Informed? Yes, Tozer is a professor and expert educational source.
  • Named? Yes, this quote is attributed to Tozer.

Source: Kelley Quinn, CPS Spokeswoman. Quinn is an informed and authoritative source qualified to speak on behalf of Chicago Public Schools, but she is not an independent source and likely to defend the actions of her employer.

Byrd-Bennett denies that she ever worked for PROACT and was surprised that her name was used, according to CPS spokeswoman Kelley Quinn. Quinn says the e-mail address was “generic.”

CPS spokeswoman Kelley Quinn says that Supes will provide the most comprehensive leadership development ever done in the system and that through coaching, principals will get “differentiated” support. Principals will attend 10 workshops throughout the year and will be contacted by the coach weekly.

“Principals face different challenges and bring different sets of expertise and experience to their role, so we need to provide specialized support for each,” Quinn says. “For principals who are getting positive traction in their schools, we want to expand their reach. For principals who are struggling to move their schools in one or two aspects of their performance, we want to assist them in course-correcting and provide diverse strategies and tactics to address the issues with which they’re faced.”

  • Independent? No, Kelley Quinn represents Chicago Public Schools, the entity whose leader is under question.
  • Multiple? No, Quinn just references CPS’s reasons for accepting the no-bid contract.
  • Verifiable? Yes, Catalyst Chicago could confirm the number of workshops and services offered by Supes and confirm information by comparing prices of other similar contracts.
  • Authoritative/Informed? Yes, Quinn is a representative of CPS and would be considered a credible source to speak up on the views of the school system.
  • Named? Yes, this information is attributed to Quinn.

Source: Board President David Vitale

Vitale says the Supes Academy contract went through the district’s “extensive” no-bid contract process, in which officials look to see if other companies or organizations can do the job. Like all contracts that are not let through a competitive process, it was reviewed by the Non-Competitive Procurement Review Committee that has representatives from Procurement and Contracts, Law, Information Technology, the Chief Education Office and Chief Executive Office.

Vitale says officials concluded two things made Supes unique: It has a roster of 125 sitting superintendents who can provide coaching to principals and network chiefs, mid-level administrators who oversee groups of schools; and it is the only organization in the country with an official superintendent certification program.

  • Independent? No, David Vitale serves as the Board of Education President who approved the contract.
  • Multiple? Yes, Vitale refers to a number of departments who approved the contract and also provides information about Supes’ offerings.
  • Verifiable? Yes, Catalyst Chicago could confirm the number of superintendents participating in the program. The approving departments could also be determined through review of Board documents.
  • Authoritative/Informed? Yes, Vitale is a leader and representative of the Board, making him an authoritative and informed source.
  • Named? Yes, this information is attributed to Vitale.

The class can also discuss that the reporter offered opportunities for the leaders of the organization under question, Supes Academy, to comment but they decline. This might be upon the recommendation of lawyers or a desire not to be associated with a negative story. Catalyst notes the lack or comment in order to be transparent with readers about who they contacted and how.

Solomon declined to be interviewed by telephone and asked Catalyst Chicago to e-mail questions, but did not respond. Vranas also did not respond to a phone call or e-mail.


The Takeaway:

  1. Catalyst Chicago produced a well-researched story about about the $20 million no-bid contract that Chicago Public Schools awarded to Supes Academy, utilizing multiple sources. This story helped initiate an investigation into ex-CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and leaders of the Supes Academy, which discoverd that Byrd-Bennett orchestrated a bribery scheme to award millions of dollars in contracts to the Academy in return for kickbacks. Through thorough research and strong sources, this story helped hold public officials like Byrd-Bennett accountable for her unethical and illegal actions that affected public school students.
  2. Students should practice using the IM VA/IN test and determine that most sources were very reliable and credible. Students should be able to identify the sources with weaknesses in their reliability.

References/Media Used/Additional Resources: