Greed. Lies. Bribery and kickbacks. Everyone in Chicago is talking about three naughty little B-words: Barbara Byrd-Bennett. The former CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) pled guilty to one count of wire fraud yesterday and faces 7 1/2 years in prison for plotting to profit 10 percent on $23 million worth of no-bid contracts that she awarded to her former employer, SUPES Academy. The initial 43-page indictment included nearly two dozen counts of corruption charges, acts that were chronicled in private emails that showed Byrd-Bennett trying to line her own pockets with millions of taxpayer dollars while simultaneously closing 50 neighborhood schools to purportedly save the district money. “I have tuition to pay [for her twin grandsons] and casinos to visit,” she secretly wrote to SUPES CEO Gary Solomon, an alleged co-conspirator who is also expected to plead guilty to corruption charges.

What Went Wrong?

Byrd-Bennett’s leadership story spans more than 30 years, and I shudder to think that she might have started her teaching career passionate and hopeful about helping underserved children of color learn. After 12 years in a New York City classroom, she became a principal, and then gradually rose the ranks to run school districts in Brooklyn, Cleveland and later Detroit. SUPES recruited her to come to Chicago in 2012, where she helped negotiate the end of the first teachers union strike in 25 years. The strike effectively pushed Jean-Claude Brizard out of the top spot at CPS, allowing Byrd-Bennett to step effortlessly into the position. With a new $250,000 salary, Byrd-Bennett was earning a good living, even collecting pensions from her previous high-paying jobs. I can’t help but wonder when came the turning point, the defining moment, when she consciously chose prestige and power over being a genuine public servant? I want to ask her if she ever, even for a second, realized that taking kickbacks was essentially stealing from CPS children, 86 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged. Did she convince herself that she was underpaid? Or did she rationalize that taking the bribes was a victimless act? I have questions for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, too. He hand-picked Byrd-Bennett, calling her a “proven leader and educator” and “the best of the best” despite her questionable fiscal record in Cleveland. Now, he acts like he barely even knew her, saying:
There’s no doubt, in selecting [Byrd-Bennett], I played a role. But Barbara and the officials at SUPES, they concocted this and, in fact, my staff did the right thing by asking hard questions and directing those questions to the people trying to pursue that contract.
He added that he does not get involved in departmental contracts. So why is it that the Chicago Tribune is suing the mayor’s office under the Freedom of Information Act for the release of two dozen emails pertaining to SUPES that have either been redacted or withheld? On Oct. 24, 2012, the mayor-appointed school board voted Byrd-Bennett in as CEO and they also voted unanimously to give SUPES its first-stage contract worth $2.09 million. According to the indictment, Byrd-Bennett had plotted to get kickbacks from the SUPES contract even as she anticipated being appointed to run CPS. She lied on official documents stating that all financial ties to SUPES had been severed. Nine months later, and just one day after Byrd-Bennett closed the last of 50 neighborhood schools in predominantly black neighborhoods to “save” the district money, she encouraged the school board to push through a second, $20.5 million no-bid contract to SUPES who had again arranged to give her a secret cut. Worse, the expensive SUPES principals training program was notoriously bad, with many school administrators complaining that it was a gross waste of their time. The mayor’s office and the school board either turned a blind eye to Byrd-Bennett’s suspicious activity or they trusted her to a fault. When Mayor Emanuel’s chief education advisor Beth Swanson raised questions about the deal, Byrd-Bennett angrily pushed back in an email about being “second guessed” and “micromanaged” and hinted that she was willing to quit. Apparently Swanson backed off. With Mayor Emanuel on his second CPS CEO and wanting so many schools closed all at once—and presumably preferring a black person to do it—Byrd-Bennett probably felt untouchable. Thank goodness for investigative reporter Sarah Karp who broke the story in Catalyst, grabbing the attention of the CPS Inspector General who then called the FBI.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The news of Byrd-Bennett’s indiscretions could not have come at a worse time. CPS is begging the state of Illinois for $480 million just to make it through the current school year, and news that its CEO deliberately tried to squander $23 million on worthless contracts won’t inspire downstate lawmakers to offer a bailout. It also may give the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) good reason not to accept an up to 7 percent pay cut and vote for a strike. Why should the CTU have any faith in a mayor, a school board and central office leaders who knowingly let the CEO of schools deliver millions of precious school funding to her former business partners? That $23 million could have provided salary and benefits to about 230 teachers. It could have funded my K-8 school for four years. It could have paid for every CPS high school student to tour multiple college campuses. And what about the 11,000 low-income kids who were displaced when Byrd-Bennett closed their neighborhood schools? They are unlikely to ever have a college fund, and yet Byrd-Bennett was willing to pilfer what little money the government set aside for their education to pay college tuition for her two grandsons. Worse, she was eager to hit the slot machines and gamble it all away. Byrd-Bennett issued a statement accepting full responsibility, and with tears in her eyes told reporters, “I am terribly sorry, and I apologize to [the children, parents and teachers]. They deserve much more, much more than I gave to them.” Actually, BBB, it’s not what you weren’t able to give that hurts, it’s what you took.  
Marilyn Rhames has taught in district and charter schools in Chicago for the past 11 years and currently serves as alumni support manager at a K-8 charter school. A former New York City reporter, Rhames’ award-winning education commentary is featured in Education Week and on Moody Radio in Chicago.