CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett Takes A Leave


Barbara Byrd Bennett, CEO, CPS steps away
Barbara Byrd Bennett, CEO, CPS steps away

The Eagle flew Friday in Chicago and before the sun set and  the woman under the scrutiny of a federal investigation  stepped down.   The Feds are looking into Byrd-Bennett’s the inner circle of advisers Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett brought with her to Chicago, as well as a no-bid, $20.5 million principal-training contract to a company that once employed her, wide-ranging subpoenas released Friday show.

And as Byrd-Bennett stepped aside Friday pending the outcome of the federal probe, replaced by Jesse H. Ruiz, the Board of Education’s vice president who lead the investigation. It is stated that FBI agents have searched Byrd-Bennett’s homes in Chicago and a Cleveland suburb.

The scandal that won’t go away— just days after Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s run-off re-election — sees Ruiz take over as CPS’s fifth leader since 2010. Interesting isn’t it, the timing isn’t it and that Ruiz just happens to be Latina. Ummm. We won’t speak but you connect the dots.

The idea that Byrd-Bennett hired people she knew is not new. Most people in high positions  do business with people they know and hire them to work in positions requiring trust and loyalty.  As long as they are qualified this is not a problem.  So what’s really going on here? If they fail to perform as expected then fire them.  The way it is being handled one could be led to believe that there’s some real hanky panky  amidst all this and cause for real concern.  It’s obvious that the Mayor’s camp had to know that the investigation was going on.  Did Byrd-Bennett not know? And what on earth was she thinking if in fact anything is found not to be integral. For BBB’s sake I sure hope she’s clean. So is she the sacrificial lamb?  Somebody has to pay  . . . but for what?

Federal subpoenas released by CPS, dated April 13 and 14, extended to a close corps of 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. And though this is obviously true the question should be are they qualified and are they performing well in their positions?

According to sources, the investigators have demanded to see records regarding “financial benefits, gifts, honoraria, meals and reimbursements” from the owners of the SUPES Academy, Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas,  who scored the $20.5 million no-bid contract in June 2013.  They also demanded that documents from Solomon and Vranas’ other north suburban companies Synesi Associates and PROACT Search are also sought. Neither were available to respond.

The investigators seem to be pulling out all the stops so they want to see employment records for Byrd-Bennett, Ulery, Herpel and Tracy Martin, the $170,000-a-year head of a special network Byrd-Bennett created at CPS to oversee struggling neighborhood schools with help from Synesi Associates. Ulery and Martin also worked under Byrd-Bennett in Cleveland and in Detroit, according to records.

Neither Martin nor Byrd-Bennett have been called before the grand jury, and neither has been accused of any wrongdoing. None of the investigated  has sought to make a public statement   It’s just hard to believe that people who are smart like Barbara Byrd-Bennett would do something so visibly wrong if in fact we find out that it was discovered that she has been negligent and committed a crime.

Also subpoenaed are records from the politically powerful Chicago Public Education Fund. Fund officials offered no comment Friday afternoon.

CPS released the subpoenas to reporters shortly before notifying the bond market about them in advance of next week’s plans to borrow another $296 million.

It now on Ruiz to stop a potential  teachers strike, stave  bankruptcy at CPS and appeal to the Illinois General Assembly to grant CPS the pension relief it needs.

With  or without Byrd-Bennett at the helm CPS faces a $1.1 billion budget deficit and a $9.5 billion pension crisis. The teachers’ contract expires this summer.

Ruiz, a partner at Drinker Biddle who often had to recuse himself from board votes because of his law firm’s connections, will not collect a CPS salary.

Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale pointed to the district’s need for help from Springfield as the reason Ruiz was chosen over board members and former principals Mahalia Hines and Carlos Azcoitia.

Ruiz has no  classroom experience, but served from 2004 to 2011 as the state board of education chairman. He has also served on a U.S. Department of Education panel and on the district’s desegregation commission.

“I want to speak directly to every CPS parent, student, teacher and member of the CPS family,” Ruiz told reporters at CPS headquarters. “I want them to know they have my full commitment, focus and passion to ensure that we deliver on that promise to create a better future for all our students.”

Both Ruiz and Vitale defended their June 2013 votes to approve the no-bid three-year $20.5 million deal that raised eyebrows even before principals began complaining about the SUPES program’s poor quality. Hundreds of competitors — including many Chicago non-profits — offer similar services. Question, did they or did hey not do their due diligence? If she did not do this act independently but rather with their approval, shouldn’t they all be brought to the table? After all they are suppose to serve as the check and balance in the  approval process. Should they not have recognized some flags, raised some questions and vetted the recommended consultants? Is that not a part of their job? Why then is Ruiz rewarded  as interim CEO? Why should we trust that he can do a better job of managing?

Questions, questions, questions.

Ruiz and Vitale both said they were aware of Byrd-Bennett’s work for SUPES as a trainer.

“Many of us . . . engage with organizations which we no longer have a relationship with, which may still provide quality services to Chicago Public Schools,” he said.

Ruiz added after the press conference, that he voted for SUPES because “I thought it would be a prudent action to make.”

Neither would speculate on the future of Byrd-Bennett’s $250,000-a-year employment at CPS; her contract is set to expire at the end of June. And yet we can all speculate that there will be no renewal.

Though not charged with anything Byrd-Bennett  hired defense attorney Michael Scudder, a former federal prosecutor and partner in the Chicago office of the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom this week.

Byrd-Bennett wrote a letter Friday morning to Vitale, asking to take a leave of absence.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett letter of leave to Vitale
Barbara Byrd-Bennett letter of leave to Vitale

“In light of the attention given to my position as chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools, I believe that my continuing as CEO at this time would be a distraction,” the letter read. “Although this is a very difficult decision personally, it is one I believe is in the best interests of the children of CPS that I am so fortunate to serve.”

Her letter was no less than what we’d expect from her.

Ruiz says, “Byrd-Bennett will be using her accumulated leave time while she is off.”  CPS officials have yet to release how many days that is and what will happen if she’s off more days than she has.

Most likely the Chicago Teachers Union, which is usually quite verbally critical of the district, refrained  from calling for Byrd-Bennett’s resignation because of Byrd-Bennett  bond shared with CTU President Karen Lewis who she helped negotiate an end to the 2012 teachers strike. However they did not mince words reminding us  of her legacy– the her role she played at the mayor’s hand in the closing  50 neighborhood schools in 2013.

CTU vice president Jesse Sharkey said Byrd-Bennett was being “singled out” among “widespread practices by the mayor’s Board of Education appointees,” such as  investments by board member Deborah Quazzo in companies doing business with CPS and Vitale’s ties to banks as he negotiates bond ratings.

“In a school district that seems to be all about privatization, private entities continue to play a major role in its operations,” Sharkey said, “and if Barbara is the first to fall, then perhaps there are many others who should follow.”

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