When the boss becomes the problem, the boss steps aside.
It doesn’t matter what the boss might or might not have done that was right or wrong. Those are matters for another day. For the sake of organization, the boss steps aside.
Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, agreed Friday to take a paid leave of absence, which was the right thing to do. The U.S. attorney’s office is investigating what part she played in awarding a no-bid contract worth $20.5 million to a company that once employed her.
Working under such a cloud, there simply was no way Byrd-Bennett could be the aggressive leader CPS requires right now to contend with such enormous challenges as upcoming teacher contract negotiations, a $1.1 billion budget shortfall, a $9.5 billion pension crisis and a continued push — sure to pick up energy now — for an elected school board. If the cloud remains, it is also inconceivable that her contract would be renewed when it expires in June.
Less than a week ago, Gov. Bruce Rauner uttered the word “bankruptcy” with respect to Chicago’s public schools. Scary. As if the schools don’t have image problems enough. What message to parents would a bankruptcy send?
Clearly, this is no time for anything but the most effective possible CPS leadership.
We wish our best to Board of Education Vice President Jesse Ruiz, who is expected to be appointed interim CEO.
But what are we to make of this big contract to SUPES Academy, which runs principal training programs? Frankly, who knows? So few details of the deal have been revealed at this point.
That said, we’d sure like to understand why anybody at CPS thought awarding a $20.5 million contract without seeking competitive bids made any sense at all. It’s not as if SUPES Academy, based in Wilmette, was the only company that offered principal training. It’s a competitive field.
As a rule, no-bid contracts in government are a chump’s game, taxpayers being the chumps. Without waiting on any action by the Feds, the school board can address this issue right now. The rules on no-bid contracts should be revised to restrict them to only the smallest contracts or in cases where clearly — as publicly discussed and approved at a school board meeting — there is only one obviously appropriate vendor.
Byrd-Bennett has been a strong CPS leader. That should be said. She steered the school system through earlier tough negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union and oversaw the unpopular closing of 50 schools. She attempted to mend relationships with union leaders and community groups that had been frayed by her boss, Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Byrd-Bennett had a reputation for listening in an administration not famous for listening.
But now the dark cloud hovers. And, as City Hall Reporter Fran Spielman noted Friday, even a hint of a scandal is all the excuse some members of the Illinois General Assembly will need to deny CPS legislative relief from its pension burdens. Mayor Emanuel is seeking to end what he calls a “double standard” by which Chicago taxpayers pay for their own retired teachers and those outside the city.
Chicago is the engine of Illinois. The city’s future is the state’s future. The Legislature and Gov. Rauner would be wise to work with Chicago to resolve CPS’ financial crisis, as well as the city’s financial crisis.
And let’s be clear: Any legislator who tries to make hay of this latest scandal really is playing games. Byrd-Bennett stepped down. And this financial crisis is bigger than that.