Mitchell: Barbara Byrd-Bennett joins Hall of Shame
Subscribe for unlimited digital access.
Try one month for $1!
Subscribe for unlimited digital access. Try one month for $1!
I don’t know what upsets me the most about Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s stunning downfall:
The fact that she thought she could waltz into Chicago and get away with a multimillion-dollar kickback scheme or that this life-long educator cared more about stuffing her own pockets than about improving the public education system for Chicago’s children.
Let’s not even talk about her sending an email to a former boss that makes her look like a gambling addict.
Byrd-Bennett was supposed to be someone education advocates could trust to be straight with them, especially when decisions were being made around the closing of 50 Chicago schools.
But the former schools chief was forced to take a leave of absence, then resign, over the investigation into $23 million in no-bid contracts given to her former employers.
On Thursday, Byrd-Bennett was charged with mail fraud and wire fraud. She is expected to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors.
Her cohorts and former employers, Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, owners of The SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates, also were charged.
In 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel picked Byrd-Bennett to lead Chicago’s predominantly African-American school system after a school strike pushed out Jean-Claude Brizard.
Apparently, Byrd-Bennett wasn’t in the seat for even one hot minute before she figured out a way to grow her hefty six-figure salary with a kickback scheme.
Some of the responsibility for this breach falls on the Chicago Board of Education for not challenging Byrd-Bennett’s request to give a former employer millions in no-bid contracts in the first place.
It’s also fair to knock Emanuel for missing the red flags these deals should have raised.
Where were his watchdogs?
The mayor has the last word on what’s happening with CPS. Byrd-Bennett’s indictment shows he took his eyes off the prize.
Obviously, Byrd-Bennett, 66, is the biggest culprit. She has been in the education business a long time. This isn’t a case of her not knowing the legal boundaries.
According to the feds, Byrd-Bennett actually discussed kickbacks in detailed emails.
In Chicago, she will be remembered for two things: for closing 50 schools and for telling an ex-boss the authorities say also was involved in the scheme: “I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit.”
That certainly doesn’t sound like someone who cares about her own reputation or the affairs of a school district that was headed toward bankruptcy.
While Byrd-Bennett is the first Chicago schools CEO to be charged with corruption, we’ve seen the dynamics for this kind of corruption play out before.
In 1996, James Harney, a former administrator, was convicted of taking kickbacks from four construction companies.
People were outraged, in part because Harney siphoned off already-scarce resources at a time Chicago’s dilapidated school buildings were making headlines.
Obviously, the mayor can’t do anything about personal greed. But he can make it harder for potential grafters by sending a clear message that everyone is going to be held accountable.
In this instance, the mayor’s appointed school board treated his appointed schools chief like she could do no wrong.
The indictment gives proponents of an elected school board an even stronger argument.
Sadly, Byrd-Bennett, who was in a position to inspire parents and ensure that public school children get better educational opportunities, turned out to be just another taker.