Investigative journalist Jeff Bryant has published a bombshell article about entrepreneurs who operate superintendent searches, then call on their Superintendents to buy professional development, technology, training, and other services. The conflicts of interest and self-dealing are shocking. Districts lose millions of dollars and buy services they don’t need, while the search service continues to pay them.

Most of us are familiar with the case of Barbara Byrd-Bennett, former Superintendent of Chicago Public Schools, who is currently serving a jail sentence for taking kickbacks.  But the web of corruption has involved many superintendents and school districts.

Bryant writes:

In July 2013, the education world was rocked when a breaking story by Chicago independent journalist Sarah Karp reported that district CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett had pushed through a no-bid $20 million contract to provide professional development to administrators with a private, for-profit company called SUPES Academy, which she had worked for a year before the deal transpired. Byrd-Bennett was also listed as a senior associate for PROACT Search, a superintendent search firm run by the same individuals who led SUPES.

By 2015, federal investigators looked into the deal and found reason to charge Byrd-Bennett for accepting bribes and kickbacks from the company that ran SUPES and PROACT. A year-and-a-half later, the story made national headlines when Byrd-Bennett was convicted and sentenced to prison for those charges. But anyone who thought this story was an anomaly would be mistaken. Similar conflicts of interest among private superintendent search firms, their associated consulting companies, and their handpicked school leaders have plagued multiple school districts across the country.

In an extensive examination, Our Schools has discovered an intricate web of businesses that reap lucrative school contracts funded by public tax dollars. These businesses are often able to place their handpicked candidates in school leadership positions who then help make the purchasing decision for the same businesses’ other products and services, which often include professional development, strategic planning, computer-based services, or data analytics. The deals are often brokered in secrecy or presented to local school boards in ways that make insider schemes appear legitimate.

As in the Byrd-Bennett scandal, school officials who get caught in this web risk public humiliation, criminal investigation, and potential jail time, while the businesses that perpetuate this hidden arrangement continue to flourish and grow.

The results of these scandals are often disastrous. School policies and personnel are steered toward products that reward private companies rather than toward research-proven methods for supporting student learning and teacher performance. School governance becomes geared to the interests of well-connected individuals rather than the desires of teachers and voters. And when insider schemes become public, whole communities are thrown into chaos, sometimes for years, resulting in wasted education dollars and increased disillusionment with school systems and local governance.

Bryant lays out the evidence of collusion, corruption, and conflicts of interest. He reviews districts in Illinois, Maryland, and elsewhere. The evidence is devastating.

Nashville was victimized by entrepreneurs who manipulated the district and the process.

One of the first school districts to become entangled in the conglomeration of firms Wise and Sundstrom assembled was Nashville, which in 2016 chose Jim Huge and Associates to help with hiring a new superintendent. The following year the board hired Shawn Joseph, whom Huge had recommended.

Shortly after Joseph arrived in Nashville, according to local News Channel 5 investigative reporter Phil Williams, he began pushing the district to give $1.8 million in no-bid contracts to Performance Matters, a Utah-based technology company that sells “software solutions” to school districts.

Williams found Joseph had spoken at the company’s conference and he had touted the company’s software products in promotional materials while he was employed in his previous job in Maryland. Williams also unearthed emails showing Joseph began contract talks with Performance Matters two weeks before he formally took office in Nashville. What also struck Williams as odd was that despite the considerable cost of the contract, district employees were not required to use the software.

In addition to pushing Performance Matters, Williams reported, Joseph gave an “inside track” to Discovery Education, a textbook and digital curriculum provider and another company he and his team had ties to from their work in Maryland. With Joseph’s backing, Discovery Education received an $11.4 million contract to provide a new science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) program even though a smaller company came in with a bid that was a fraction of what Discovery proposed.

By June 2018, Nashville school board member Amy Frogge was questioning Joseph about possible connections these vendors might have to ERDI. A district audit would confirm that ERDI’s affiliated companies—including Performance Matters, Discovery Education, and six other companies—had signed contracts totaling more than $17 million with the district since Joseph had been hired.

Frogge also came to realize that all these enterprises were connected to the firm who had been instrumental in hiring Joseph—Jim Huge and Associates.

“The search that brought Shawn Joseph to Nashville was clearly manipulated,” Frogge told Our Schools in an email, “and the school board was kept in the dark about Joseph’s previous tenure in Maryland and his relationships with vendor companies.”

Frogge said some of the manipulation occurred when the search firm told school board members that disputes among current board members—over charter schools, school finances, and other issues—indicated the district was “‘too dysfunctional’ to hire top-level superintendents and therefore needed to hire a less experienced candidate.”

But previous investigations of school leadership search firms conducted by Our Schools have found companies like these frequently forego background checks of prospective candidates they recommend, promote favored candidates regardless of their experience or track record, and push board members to keep the entire search process, including the final candidates, confidential from public scrutiny.

“Too often, national search firms are also driven by money-making motives and/or connections with those seeking profit,” Frogge contended. That conflict of interest is a concern not only in Nashville but also in other districts where school leaders with deep ties to education vendors and consultants have resulted in huge scandals that traumatized communities and cost taxpayers millions…

Frogge noted school boards have alternatives to using private search firms that promote tainted candidates willing to feed the search firms’ side businesses.

“School board members need to become better informed and more savvy about profit motives and organizations that seek to influence their selection,” she wrote. “School boards can instead opt to hire a local school boards association (for example, the Tennessee School Boards Association) or a local recruiter with a reputation for personal integrity to conduct a search. They can also choose to hire from within.”