Three school systems fire PROACT search firm over CEO controversy, federal probe

Norwalk Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons stands behind PROACT.

Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons stands behind Norwalk’s use of PROACT in its superintendent search.

NORWALK, Conn. – The CEO of the superintendent search firm that brought erstwhile super Manny Rivera to Norwalk and was rehired to find Rivera’s replacement is under federal investigation over a no-bid contract involving a related business.

Also, at least three school systems in three states have fired PROACT after reading reports out of Chicago of the CEO’s use of racial slurs and allegations of inappropriate conduct with students when he was an educator several years ago.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, PROACT Chief Executive Officer Gary Solomon was forced out of his former school after his bosses accused him of inappropriate conduct, including allegations he kissed a female student and covered up students’ drug and alcohol use.

The paper also reported that, “in an email to a former female student who had recently graduated, Solomon allegedly referred to African-American people as ‘mooks, shines, burrheads, yard apes, porch monkeys,’ and several other racially offensive terms.

“He also wrote that black people ‘will never set foot in his house,’ according to a transcript of a state hearing held because Solomon initially fought efforts to remove him from the school.

“And, in a personal journal he kept on a school computer, Solomon described another school administrator as an “uppity n—–,” a lawyer for District 219 alleged, according to the transcript.”

The Sun-Times also reported in April:

“Federal subpoenas released by CPS, dated April 13 and 14, extended to a close corps of (Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara) Byrd-Bennett loyalists who worked with her in Cleveland and Detroit before taking six-figure jobs at CPS. Sherry Ulery, the CEO’s $175,000-a-year chief of staff and Rosemary Herpel, a $140,000-a-year ‘executive director of leadership development’ in CPS’ HR department, are due before a federal grand jury on Tuesday.

“Investigators have demanded to see records regarding ‘financial benefits, gifts, honoraria, meals and reimbursements’ from Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, the owners of the SUPES Academy, which scored the $20.5 million no-bid contract in June 2013.  Documents from Solomon and Vranas’ other north suburban companies Synesi Associates and PROACT Search are also sought.”

According to separate reports from news media in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Kentucky, at least three school systems have fired PROACT since early May.

WKYT in Lexington, Ky., reported, “After hours of review and discussion, the Fayette County Board of Education team has voted to move forward with the search for the next superintendent with another search firm. … Last Sunday, the board voted to end the contract with PROACT Search, which was fired back in February. The concerns of the school board came about after allegations revealed in a recent newspaper article. That article by the Chicago Sun-Times reported allegations about PROACT Search CEO, Gary Solomon, going all the way back to 1999.”

In Dakalb, Ill., Decaturish.com reported, “The DeKalb County Schools system has abruptly ended its relationship with ProAct amid concerns about some racist remarks allegedly made by its CEO. SUPES Academy, a company related to ProAct, is under investigation by the FBI over a no-bid contract it received from Chicago Public Schools.”

And in Lancaster, Pa., Lancasteronline.com reported, “The School District of Lancaster is cutting ties with the firm it hired in February to conduct a superintendent search. School directors will terminate a $24,000 contract with Illinois-based PROACT Search at a May 19 board meeting, according to a district press release sent Friday. … ‘Within the past week, disturbing allegations have surfaced concerning the firm’s CEO. While this individual has not been involved in the district’s search, the board strongly opposes continued support of his firm.'”

Norwalk Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons, responding to an earlier comment on another NoN story, said Norwalk is satisfied with PROACT.

“… There is indeed a controversy involving 16-year-old racially charged statement made by the president of its parent company (Gary Solomon). PROACT informed the Board about this weeks ago. Solomon is not involved in the Norwalk superintendent search. Our primary PROACT representative, Michael Hinojosa, is a Latino and former superintendent of the Dallas schools. Steve Kupfer, who worked with us on the Rivera search, is also involved in this one. The candidates brought us by PROACT this time include men and women, white, Latino and African-American. There isn’t the slightest hint of any kind of racial misconduct by Hinojosa or Kupfer, and the multicultural group of candidates they have brought to us attests to that. Obviously confidentiality obligations prevent me from talking any more about those candidates, but no one on the Board wanted to sever our relationship with Mr. Hinojosa, who is doing an outstanding job for us, because of emails sent by his parent company’s president 16 years ago, long before PROACT even existed. We are at the very last stages of a critically important superintendent search, and are not going to disrupt that because of news articles reporting on ancient emails that have nothing to do with the PROACT people we’re actually working with.”

Lyons did not address the federal investigation stemming from a 2013 report by a Chicago online news site that caused the Chicago Public Schools inspector general to open an investigation.

In December, the Norwalk BoE voted 7-0 to rehire PROACT to conduct its superintendent search at a cost of $33,500 plus expenses. PROACT was paid $19,000 for the search that brought Rivera to Norwalk in 2012. Other firms under consideration for the current search had bid between $18,000 and $19,000.

Requests for comment from the rest of the Norwalk Board of Education members brought no response. A request for comment from PROACT was not immediately answered.

Also see: Costs mount for firms at heart of federal CPS investigation



Olivia May 21, 2015 at 8:44 am

How do people like this infiltrate their way into the education sector? I guess the same way they infiltrate themselves everywhere else!

MarjorieM May 21, 2015 at 9:36 am

Thank you for this article! It is clear that other districts have chosen not to continue to support PROACT. Our district seems to have kept this information a secret. ( reference “confidential information” in the same Lyon’s response mentioned above ) At least we now have transparency, thanks to you, Mark.

Bill Dunne May 21, 2015 at 10:18 am

It’s sad — almost tragic — that NoN should throw this feces against the wall at such a critical time in the BOE’s search for a new superintendent.

I don’t know what happened in Chicago 16 years ago. Who does? But it’s well known that the Chicago Sun-Times carries water for the teachers union, and it appears that these accusations and innuendos have never been substantiated or tested as to their validity. So any fair observer must be suspicious about where they came from and why they are suddenly being resurrected now.

Does the Norwalk BOE not have enough to do in trying to find a worthy successor to Manny Rivera that it must also spend time fending off these smears?

Bill Dunne May 21, 2015 at 10:21 am

Question to “Olivia” and “MarjorieM”: Who are you? Why don’t you take the hoods off?

Olivia May 21, 2015 at 10:58 am

@Bill. I know exactly who you are and I’m sure you know me, as well. If you don’t remember, I ran for Common Council two years ago (Google it). I met you during my campaign run. Anyway, FYI…I’m not hiding, nor do I have on a “hood.” I’m not particularly sure what your question was insinuating about my character, but I refuse to attend this argument you’re attempting to invite me to. Have a great day!

Suzanne May 21, 2015 at 11:16 am

Mr. Dunne, While your defense of the BOE and their search for a new superintendent is laudable, castigating NON for reporting the news is not.

Mr. Lyons seems quite capable in explaining why, in spite of the various issues with PROACT, the search will continue with them in spite of what you describe as a “smear,” somehow highjacking the process.

Perhaps it is more appropriate to see that everything is good all the way ’round: The article is clear as to the context of PROACT’s problems. Mr. Lyons is clear as to the benefits PROACT provides Norwalk.

No “feces” here, just informative reporting every Norwalk citizen has a right to know.

Bill Dunne May 21, 2015 at 1:19 pm

Dear “Olivia”, has it occurred to you that there might be more than one Olivia in town?

LWitherspoon May 21, 2015 at 2:17 pm

The racial language is extremely disturbing and deserves to be reported. If memory serves, the Board of Ed voted unanimously to rehire PROACT at a higher price than other bidders because the Board was very pleased with PROACT’s prior work, they felt it was important to move quickly, and because they believed the circumstances surrounding Rivera’s departure would make candidates less eager to apply, thereby necessitating more work on PROACT’s behalf.

The above are all good reasons, especially if the Board was not aware of the racial comments and the federal investigation. I would think PROACT is not likely to be involved in future paid searches after the current one.

Oldtimer May 21, 2015 at 5:01 pm

Bill Dunne
Has it occurred to you that Olivia and Marjorie M, and I, have no interest in entrusting you with our specifics, as in, names and addresses ? Some of us think that information is none of your business, as your opinion about a Chicago paper and it’s relationship with a teacher’s union, even if true, is none of our business. I suspect if the story about Mr Soloman was known sooner, our BOE might have hesitated to us this company.

MarjorieM May 21, 2015 at 7:27 pm

These problems with PROACT have been in the news a very long time. Our BOE wanted to keep it confidential. Other districts are firing the firm now because they don’t want to fill the CEO’s pockets with money, considering his disgusting behaviors. The money does go into his pockets….

Mike Lyons May 21, 2015 at 8:45 pm

Marj, the first Chicago Sun Times article reporting on Solomon’s racial comments was published on April 30. Maybe you subscribe to the Sun Times, but no one on the Board does, and we were first told about that article two weeks ago. Two weeks isn’t a “very long time” for most people

MarjorieM May 21, 2015 at 9:43 pm

Considering the (quotes in the story), I would think two weeks is time enough to stop the outlay of money to this Horrible racist:

This post was edited to remove a restatement of the quotes in the story. They were offensive enough the first time. There was no need to reprint them in their entirety when they appear in this very article.

Mike Lyons May 21, 2015 at 11:29 pm

Marj, Solomon’s comments are reprehensible, but the people from PROACT working with us (Hinojosa and Kupfer) are good people who haven’t done anything wrong. We have three African-American board members, all fully informed of this, none of whom have indicated any concern with continuing to work with Hinojosa and Kupfer. Will we do so until the new superintendent comes aboard.

MarjorieM May 22, 2015 at 9:21 am

Mike, it’s not the people with whom you are working, it’s the fact that this reprehensible man gets to profit. Why do you think at least three districts fired this company when they heard about him?

Joanna Cooper May 22, 2015 at 1:14 pm

This situation stinks. Solomon’s comments from years ago are reprehensible even today. Clearly the BoE members were unaware of this when the firm was hired. Solomon is not involved with the NPS search. Not happy he may profit but we are too far into the process to dump this firm and delay our search. That would be costly in more ways than the obvious. The BoE members seem to be working well together on the process and have narrowed the candidate pool. We are in the home stretch. I don’t think Solomon’s behavior has effected the search process for NPS so my thought is that it should not be interrupted. Likely Solomon is going to pay a price for his deeds with this new federal investigation on the no bid contract with the Chicago Schools. Karma will catch up to him.

MarjorieM May 22, 2015 at 7:22 pm

Joanna, two to three weeks ago, we were not that far into the process. The candidates were not yet skyped. I would understand if we only learned about this racist today, but not three weeks ago.

MarjorieM May 23, 2015 at 10:30 am

Editor’s note: This comment was not allowed. Please do not post full stories from other publications (in this case, a Georgia newspaper). You may use short excerpts or links. Furthermore, this story added nothing to the conversation, mentioning a Georgia school system that once used PROACT many years ago and that later fired its superintendent with no relation to the current story.

Truth to Power May 23, 2015 at 11:36 am

The National Basketball Association removed an owner, Donald Sterling from the league due to the same …. this guy did.
Some of our so called community leaders are making excuses to keep this company where the racist owner benefits from Norwalk taxpayer dollars.
We as a community at some point must realize many of our local politicians, and of course many residents have hidden attitudes towards racism that will never change or be brought into the light.
Until these so called community leaders (politicians) are gone and new forward thinking individuals take their places, nothing will change and that’s a fact.
Like it or not Ms. Mosby may just be right.

Mike Lyons May 24, 2015 at 8:46 pm

Truth – Ms. Mosby has agreed to retain Proact to completion of our search. Is she a racist for doing so?

Amanda May 24, 2015 at 10:20 pm

Mark, don’t you ever get tired? I’m exhausted reading your inner NPS comments, and I don’t have kids in the school.

Charlie June 14, 2015 at 6:35 am

As a Hartford teacher for more than a quarter of a century I have seen many, many superintendents come and go. They all promise the moon and stars. If they are slick enough they get the local media in their pocket and become great self promoters. Adamowski was a master at this so its easy to be fooled into thinking about the moon and stars coming to the Norwalk school system.

Did Adamowski work miracles in Hartford like some groups might proclaim? Are there lasting changes in the education system that have improved the outlook for Hartford students?

Is teacher morale important to the Norwalk BOE? Have board members really done the research on Adamowski or are you relying on a questionable search firm to give you the unvarnished truth?

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