Taxpayers are on the hook for an extra year of Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s $250,000 annual contract because the Board of Education decided to skip a key deadline that automatically extended the Chicago Public Schools CEO’s employment.
But whether Byrd-Bennett will return to the district — or taxpayers will actually have to pay her that money — remains unclear.
Byrd-Bennett has been on paid leave since she stepped down April 17 amid a federal probe of her role in CPS’ decision to award a $20 million no-bid contract to a company she previously worked for. She’s using leave she has accumulated since Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed her to head the country’s third-largest district in October 2012, CPS says.
The CEO’s original contract required the Chicago Board of Education to inform her by March 1 if it intended to terminate her deal. When CPS failed to do so, the contract automatically rolled over for another full year at the same annual salary of $250,000, plus benefits worth an additional $63,276.
CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said Board intended to keep Byrd-Bennett as of the deadline. The Board wasn’t told about the investigation until April 14, president David Vitale said in a statement.
“It is important to remember that no formal allegations have been made, and when drafting the contract, the board included multiple taxpayer protections, including clauses for termination that may still be exercised,” such as criminal activity, negligence or other serious misconduct, Vitale wrote.
Byrd-Bennett has not been accused of any wrongdoing. She did not return email messages Friday seeking comment. Her attorney said he was not aware of any ongoing negotiations between her and the district. He declined to comment on the investigation.
Byrd-Bennett’s paid leave will last through at least June 30, McCaffrey said, declining to comment on what will happen beyond that. In the meantime, interim CEO Jesse Ruiz is collecting no salary from CPS.
City Hall sources told the Sun-Times that Emanuel had wanted the woman he affectionately called “B3” to help him negotiate the new teachers contract and hammer out pension reform.
Byrd-Bennett enjoys a strong bond with Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, with whom Emanuel has had a contentious relationship.
That bond was forged in 2012 when Byrd-Bennett replaced her predecessor, Jean-Claude Brizard, at the bargaining table and helped negotiate an end to Chicago’s first teachers strike in 25 years. Brizard left after just 17 months “by mutual agreement,” clutching a $291,662 severance package.
But the mayor’s plans changed in an instant in the early morning of April 14. That’s when FBI agents showed up unannounced at Byrd-Bennett’s Chicago home and at her CPS office to search for documents, hard-drives and other potentially incriminating evidence.
On that day, sources said Byrd-Bennett answered questions from FBI agents for nearly two hours without an attorney present.
City Hall sources expressed confidence that Chicago taxpayers would be “protected” by the so-called morality clause in the contract.
Of course, that assumes that the federal investigation will come to a head sooner rather than later. If it drags on for another year with no charges filed, CPS could be forced to pay Byrd-Bennett $250,000 to do nothing.
A protracted investigation appears to be unlikely. Searching the home or homes of the target of a federal investigation is normally one of the last pieces of the puzzle — not one of the first — to fall in place before charges are filed.
Taxpayers are unlikely to be on the hook for the full $250,000, if any of it, said Ald. Pat O’Connor, Emanuel’s City Council floor leader.
“I tend to agree there’s no jeopardy [to taxpayers]. Not to pre-judge anything,” he said. “But we just have to hope that this thing comes to a head one way or the other rather quickly.”