Chicago taxpayers paid almost $900,000 for three and a half years’ work by disgraced former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.
And though she’s a felon since pleading guilty in a contract rigging scheme at CPS, she still stands to cost taxpayers in districts that employed her more than $140,000 in annual public pensions.
Byrd-Bennett’s decades-long education career effectively ended in Chicago in April after federal subpoenas looking into her and a $20.5 million no-bid deal she gave a former employer, The SUPES Academy, became public. She resigned June 1, was indicted in October and pleaded guilty to a single count of wire fraud within a week of being charged. She faces prison time and has vowed to cooperate in the ongoing investigation.
The former teacher and principal’s work began in her native New York. And for that stint — from 1970 as a teacher until 1998 when she left as a supervising superintendent — the 66-year-old collects $95,000 a year from the Teachers’ Retirement System of the City of New York, a spokesman confirmed.
She then moved to Ohio to head the Cleveland Public Schools for eight years. The State Teachers Retirement System of Ohio confirmed she has been collecting a pension but wouldn’t say when it began or specify how much she receives. They did release a pension formula of 2.2 percent per year of service times the average of her three highest salary years. When Byrd-Bennett left Cleveland in 2006, she was earning $278,000 annually — or $28,000 more than her base salary in Chicago — so a ballpark calculation works out to $48,928 a year in pension payments.
State law in Ohio halts pensions if a public employee is convicted of certain crimes related to their work such as bribery, theft in office or engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, said Edmund Brown, an attorney in Ohio who has represented public schools.
“However this provision appears to only apply to Ohio public officials,” Brown said, adding that the statute as written considers Byrd-Bennett an Illinois official.
There have been no suspicions of misconduct against Byrd-Bennett in New York or Cleveland. The FBI is looking into her role in what it believes was a bid-rigging deal for a $40 million contract Detroit Public Schools awarded to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, as the Sun-Times has reported, but no charges have been filed.
After Cleveland, Byrd-Bennett took a contract position in Detroit, a district spokeswoman said, so her $18,000-a-month paycheck didn’t come with pension benefits.
As for Chicago, Byrd-Bennett’s three years as CEO fall short of the 10 needed to become vested, so when she cashed out in August, she walked away only with her contributions minus taxes.
That’s about $27,000, according to the Municipal Employees’ Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago for CPS administrators.
Byrd-Bennett also took contributions she made to a CPS retirement account, though the district couldn’t pinpoint that amount.
In all, Byrd-Bennett cost CPS at least $893,765 to work here.
Her contract allowed a $250,000 base salary, a cost-of-living raise, life insurance and a one-time $30,000 moving bonus. She was paid another $152,801.20 for six months of consulting she did before Mayor Rahm Emanuel made her CEO, $7,764 for expenses and $25,201.23 the Board of Education made in pension payments on her behalf, CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner said.
Byrd-Bennett’s attorney declined to comment. She did not reply to messages seeking comment.
“What was this woman spending on and buying, that she needed SUPES to pay for her grandkids?” Raise Your Hand director Wendy Katten asked, alluding to the contract that promised but never delivered 10 percent kickbacks to Byrd-Bennett, some of which she earmarked for her grandsons’ college funds.
Katten said she had no issue with paying people well as long as they were qualified.
“It would all be fine if we hadn’t hired a con artist and criminal to run our school system,” Katten said. “The bigger picture is, how did a person like this ever get into running the system and what can we do as stakeholders to make sure that people are vetted properly?”