Analysis: Fate of Barbara Byrd-Bennett could sting Rahm Emanuel

SHARE Analysis: Fate of Barbara Byrd-Bennett could sting Rahm Emanuel

Mayor Rahm Emanuel names Barbara Byrd-Bennett as the new CEO of Chicago Public Schools at a news conference in October 2012. | John H. White/Sun-Times file photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is lucky the FBI investigation targeting his hand-picked schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett came to light one week after the election instead of one week before it.

But everything else about the timing stinks.

Emanuel is trying desperately to avert another teachers strike, fend off bankruptcy at the Chicago Public Schools and persuade the Illinois General Assembly to grant CPS the pension relief pivotal to avoid going broke.

RELATED: Union says SUPES deal just part of ‘cloud of unethical behavior’ at CPS

The last thing he needs is to have a corruption scandal that hands lawmakers a convenient excuse not to help close the $1.1 billion budget shortfall and solve the $9.5 billion pension crisis by ending the double-standard that forces Chicago taxpayers to pay for their own retired teachers and for those outside the city.

“He can’t afford to have a CEO with a cloud hanging over her head. She’ll never be able to hold a press conference, sit at the bargaining table or be in a room with people whose support she needs to build” while the federal investigation drags on, said a mayoral confidante, who asked to remain anonymous.

“He’s got to let her go. Hopefully, she’ll do the right thing and resign because this isn’t about her. But if she refuses to go voluntarily, then the mayor will have no choice but to force the issue. Otherwise, the rallying cry in Springfield will be, `Your CEO is under investigation for giving a $20.5 million no-bid contract to a training company where she used to work.’ People who want an excuse not to help will have their excuse.”

Another political observer noted that Byrd-Bennett’s exit, if it happens, would be complicated by the fact that she has developed a close working relationship with Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, with whom Emanuel hopes and needs to chart a new course.

Byrd-Bennett and Lewis became such good “girlfriends,” they had breakfast together every few weeks — even during the time when Lewis was plotting to run for mayor against Emanuel.

The bond was forged when Byrd-Bennett replaced her predecessor, Jean-Claude Brizard, at the bargaining table and helped negotiate an end to the 2012 teachers strike that was Chicago’s first in 25 years.

If Emanuel decides to cut Byrd-Bennett loose, he needs to find somebody else who can quickly develop a similar bond with a union that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to defeat him and with an ailing union president who persuaded Jesus “Chuy” Garcia to take her place after Lewis was diagnosed with brain cancer.

“It looks bad if he moves too far in front of this. How does it look when you walk away from your second African-American schools CEO and throw her completely under the bus?” the political observer said.

“Rahm Emanuel’s home run would be to get her to resign and say, `I’m innocent, but I don’t want this to be a distraction.’ Short of that, he’s in a trick bag.”

The mayor’s political dilemma is evident by the comments of Ald. Will Burns (4th), who helped put together a rejuvenated ground game in several South Side wards that helped Emanuel capture 57.3 percent of the African-American vote in the April 7 runoff.

Burns argued that it would be both unfair and unwise for Emanuel to pull the rug out from under Byrd-Bennett.

“She hasn’t been indicted. We don’t know expressly what wrongdoing she’s being accused of. There’s an investigation. People are innocent until proven guilty. We should wait and see what happens before we start jumping to conclusions. Her contract isn’t even up [until June].  There’s time before the board and the mayor have to make a decision,” Burns said.

“One thing that’s good about Barbara is her relationship with Karen Lewis. That’s certainly helpful in terms of creating a united front for more money from Springfield. It’s too early to begin calling for resignations and making moves.”

A former state representative, Burns said he does not believe CPS has a “reputation in Springfield for being a corrupt system with profligate spending.” His former statehouse colleagues are more concerned with “making sure CPS does not go bankrupt in the way Gov. Rauner wishes it to,” Burns said.

“That’s a much larger issue than the federal investigation of Barbara Byrd-Bennett. The broader issue is making sure the system is solvent and has the resources to educate our children,” Burns said.

“I don’t think declaring CPS bankrupt is a good thing for CPS or the children of Chicago. It’s not necessary. The state can generate the revenue. The governor has made the decision to hold the state budget hostage in return for his war on labor. This is a politically motivated crisis that, quite frankly, is unnecessary.”

On the day she replaced Brizard as schools CEO, Byrd-Bennett declared that the revolving door days were over at the Board of Education’s Clark Street headquarters.

“I’m here for the long haul. . . . I don’t know what to do other than sign in blood. I’m here. I’m not gonna say ‘I’m outta here.’ That’s not who I am,” the New York native said on that day.

Brizard had been one of Emanuel’s showcase hires. He resigned by “mutual agreement” after just 17 months after angering the mayor by going on vacation in the run-up to the teachers strike and by falling short as a manager.

At the time, Emanuel denied his decision to send Brizard packing with a $291,662 severance package was a political embarrassment. Now, he faces an even bigger political headache with the woman he calls “B3.”

Publicly, Byrd-Bennett has been a “good soldier,” particularly during a just-concluded mayoral campaign dominated by education issues.

She presided over the political bloodbath of a record 50 school closings concentrated in predominantly black neighborhoods on the South and West Sides.

She went along with the mayor’s decision to open new charter schools and unveil plans to build new schools and school additions, with the educational largesse heavily concentrated on the North Side.

That includes a $17 million addition to Walter Payton College Prep and a new, $60 million selective-enrollment high school nearby initially named after President Barack Obama.

Emanuel subsequently dropped the Obama name saying he “made a mistake” in his “rush to honor” his former boss. Black elected officials had taken offense, citing Obama’s roots on the South Side.

But behind-the-scenes, Byrd-Bennett’s relationship with the mayor has shown signs of strain.

“She’s smart and independent. Because of that, they butt heads at times,” one insider said.

Another source said Byrd-Bennett has taken “a lot of steps to insulate herself” from City Hall’s iron-fisted control by hiring “personal friends” without clearing it with the mayor’s office.

The $20.5 million contract with Wilmette-based SUPES Academy that’s the focus of the federal investigation raised eyebrows even before principals started complaining about the poor quality of training.

That’s because there seemed to be no legitimate reason to award a no-bid contract in a field with hundreds of competitors across the nation doing the same thing.

Only time will tell whether it turns out to be a case of bad judgment by Byrd-Bennett ratified by Emanuel’s hand-picked school board or something more nefarious than that.

The only question is whether the mayor is willing to wait for the verdict before showing the door to his second schools CEO in four years.

School Board President David Vitale, Vice President Jesse Ruiz and board member Andrea Zopp could not be reached for comment.

Emanuel was out of town on a brief, post-election vacation. Peppered with questions about the investigation earlier this week, the mayor conspicuously refused to give Byrd-Bennett a vote of confidence.

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