The Chicago Teachers Union on Thursday called a no-bid contract awarded by Chicago Public Schools, now under investigation by the FBI, just the latest in a string of insider dealings at the district in recent years.
But Vice President Jesse Sharkey stopped short of calling for the resignation of schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett, whose role in the SUPES Academy deal also is being examined, saying he didn’t fully understand what federal investigators were considering.
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“Our initial reaction to this is that we’re concerned about the effect this has on the integrity of the district,” Sharkey said at CTU headquarters. “. . . “It’s disappointing that there’s this cloud of unethical behavior that follows our district around. If it was just this one allegation and this one story of federal investigation, that would be one thing. But we’ve been complaining about a pattern of questionable ethical practices for a while.”
Sharkey pointed to Board of Education president David Vitale, who heads a bank while negotiating financial deals for the district. Vitale did not respond to a request for comment. Board member Deborah Quazzo has invested in companies that do business with CPS and with charter schools she has voted to authorize, as the Chicago Sun-Times has reported, and Chief Academic Officer Tim Cawley now deals with the Academy for Urban School Leadership, which used to employ him, Sharkey said. Quazzo did not immediately respond to a request for comment and Cawley could not be reached.
“There’s a culture of conflict of interest that’s extremely destabilizing and hurts the public trust,” Sharkey said before heading to a contract negotiating session with the board.
Chicago Public Schools spokesman Bill McCaffrey declined to comment on the union’s accusations. He confirmed that Byrd-Bennett remains as CEO of CPS, though a source told the Sun-Times she was not seen in her office at district headquarters Thursday.
Two City Hall sources have told the Sun-Times that Byrd-Bennett’s $250,000-a-year contract, set to expire in June, has not yet been renewed, nor will it be unless the investigation is cleared up.
Federal officials are looking into the contract, awarded to Wilmette-based SUPES weeks after nearly 50 schools were permanently closed, and what role Byrd-Bennett played in it, according to a source familiar with the matter. Before Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed her as CEO of the financially troubled district, Byrd-Bennett previously worked for SUPES, which trains school principals. The contract immediately drew sharp criticism for its expense, and principals complained about the quality of the training they received.
Though the union has frequently called for the resignation of board members and other district leaders, Sharkey would not ask for Byrd-Bennett’s resignation. But if she stops leading the district, CPS would have its fifth leader in four years, he said, a lack of stability that he called “damaging.” The next CEO also should come from inside CPS and from a career in public education, he said.
Complaints about SUPES are nothing new, Sharkey said, adding that the appointed school board never should have approved that three-year contract, which “has a smell of not being ethical.”