District 65 Superintendent Steering Contracts to Business Partners
Superintendent formed a company in 2020, by 2022 three of his four business partners were awarded no-bid contracts with District 65
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In this post, I detail a conflict of interest whereby District 65 awarded more than $150,000 worth of contracts to individuals that were business partners with Dr. Horton, the District 65 Superintendent. These contracts, like others I have documented, were hidden from the public and the school board reporting.
On 8/27/2020, District 65 Superintendent Horton incorporated an LLC, National Stand Up LLC, with four individuals (Antonio Ross, Samuel Ross, Alfonzo Lewis, and Raymond Jones). The formation was two months after he was hired as Superintendent in June 2020.1 According to the Secretary of State, the company was involuntarily dissolved on 2/10/2022. View a PDF of the filing.
Within two years of the formation of National Stand Up, his business partners were awarded no-bid contracts with District 65 totaling over $150,000.
Connecting the Dots Leadership Initiative, LLC. Owned by Antonio Ross, of Chicago. Signed 10/27/21, renewed 4/22/2022. $76,500 Paid to Date. View the FOIA’ed Contract.
New Flight 35 Sports and Academic Academy LLC. Owned by Alfonzo Lewis, of Chicago. Signed 12/16/2022. Contract amount $24,500. It is worth noting the background check provision was red-lined in this contract. View the FOIA’ed Contract.
Asset Protection Specialist, LLC. Owned by Samuel Ross, of Berwyn. Paid to date $48,500. Signed 2022.
These contracts were awarded without the bidding process required for contracts over $25,000 according to 105 ILCS 5/10-20.21. The District cites an exemption for “individuals possessing a high degree of professional skill” which you can read below. So far I’ve documented the District citing this exemption for individuals conducting a web survey, dancing with preschoolers, securing a warehouse, interviewing staff members, and assessing the athletic facilities. In the six months since I started this project, I am unaware of any contract going through the proper bidding procedure for contracts above $25,000. Surely, the Illinois Legislature did not intend this exemption to be a loophole in this manner. Under this board definition, essentially any service involving a human can be considered exempt from bidding requirements.
Hidden from Board and the Public (Again..)
Two of the three contracts were over $25,000 (the other was $24,500). The law (105 ILCS 5/10-20.44) requires posting publicly on this page and including it in the monthly “$25,000 Contracts” report to the board. Like previous contracts I’ve documented these contacts were omitted from this public reporting.
Illinois has a rich history of public officials abusing the process for awarding contracts. This law exists to give the public and the board insight into large dollar contracts awarded by the administration, even if those contracts are fully budgeted services. I’ve documented thoroughly here and in other posts, a pattern of deliberate omission of particular contracts from reporting.
District 65’s Response
Below is the full unedited response from District 65.
The company referenced (National Stand Up LLC) was immediately dissolved upon formation. The company never had any clients, performed any work, nor took in any revenue. In this regard, there was no conflict of interest. The company does not exist and did not exist at the time the contracts below were executed.
As it relates to all three contracts, Board Policy 4:60 authorizes the Superintendent to purchase services that are budgeted. All are budgeted expenses.
The contract with New Flight Academy was entered into for support and strategic consulting on the launch of new elementary athletic programs for fourth and fifth grade students across the district. This contract was under $25K and did not require approval by the Board nor bidding.
In regards to the work performed by Connecting the Dots, this was focused on culture and climate work across the district and relationship building in the wake of the pandemic. This includes training for lunchroom supervisors, culture and climate coordinators, FACE liaisons, and school concierges.
This work was publicly discussed at the July 13, 2022 Special Board Meeting.
Asset Protection has worked closely with our Buildings and Grounds Department to assess work structures, build a warehouse management system, and strengthen processes for inventory. This falls under the umbrella of loss prevention.
In regard to all three referenced contracts, under Illinois School Code (105 ILCS 5/10-20.21(a)(i)), bidding is not required for contracts with individuals possessing a high degree of professional skill where the ability or fitness of the individual plays an important part.
All of these individual consultants have years of experience working with public school districts and other organizations and specialize in the work conducted. In addition, each company has been thoroughly vetted through the district’s contractual process including insurance requirements and protections for the district.
The fact that these contracts were not posted on the District website were an inadvertent clerical omission on our part and we are working to rectify it immediately. Further we are going to great lengths to put a rigorous, standardized process in place for contract requests, including approvals, which did not previously exist in District 65 and still does not in many other public school districts. We are not perfect but continue to strive for transparency and accountability.
I asked a follow up question regarding whether they could prove they had dissolved the business in 2020.
In speaking with Dr. Horton, this was a mutual decision by all parties to dissolve the business in 2020, shortly after its formation. There was not a formal resolution to dissolve the business based on a recommendation of legal counsel to the LLC at that time that the license would automatically expire if it was not formally renewed (six months after the expiration date). As stated, the business was never in operation nor were any revenues collected.
This is a Conflict of Interest
I’ve formed and dissolved businesses in my life and believe the District is not being entirely honest regarding this. As far as the State of Illinois is concerned, the business was dissolved on 2/10/2022. It is accurate that the license does automatically expire, however, the event which triggers the automatic expiration is the lack of filing an annual report. It’s evident they did not file the 2021 annual report and the business was dissolved in Feb 2022. The District claims no business was conducted during this operating period, but I cannot verify those facts.
These points are a red herring, though. It doesn’t matter when the business was dissolved - awarding no bid contracts to former or current business partners, in any fashion, is a conflict of interest. Even if these consultants were the only people on Earth capable of providing such services, this remains a conflict of interest. I would argue that awarding contracts to former coworkers, as the District also does2 is also a conflict of interest, even without having formed a business together. There are plenty of processes to handle this type of conflict of interest, all of which the District elected not to do.
In 2021, Evanston Roundtable approached the District 65 School Board with a similar case regarding Sagebird Consulting and the District’s policy regarding awarding contracts (policy 2.170).
“We will be revisiting policy 2.170 at a future policy meeting.”
Section 4.60 provides, “No purchase of contract shall be made or entered into as a result of favoritism….”
And they quote a Board Member;
At the end of the Board’s Finance Committee meeting on Feb. 8, Mr. Hailpern said that a Board Policy provides that contracts over $25,000 must be brought to the Board for approval. He said he wanted the Finance Committee to discuss lowering that amount, “specifically so that purchases cannot be done without Board approval at a lower threshold.
“I think for me, that’s just one way that we can slow the rate of spending, and bring a little bit more oversight to the financial interests of the District long term.”
Sounds like the follow-up meeting never happened.
Per D65’s website, “In June 2020, Evanston/Skokie School District 65 welcomed Dr. Devon Horton as its new Superintendent of Schools.” I also find the founding of a new business, immediately after he was hired by the Board to itself, worrysome.