ANALYSIS: Aldermen insist Rahm ‘wear the jacket’ for CPS scandal
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Mayor Rahm Emanuel has proposed a seemingly endless string of ethics reforms to erase the bitter memory of the Hired Truck, city hiring and minority contracting scandals that cast a giant cloud over former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s 22-year reign.
Emanuel campaigned for re-election, in part, on his ability to accomplish what Daley could not: convince a federal judge to release Chicago from the 42-year-old Shakman decree and the costly constraints of a federal hiring monitor.
All of that good will — and more — was washed away in a single, 43-page indictment expected to culminate in a guilty plea.
Barbara Byrd-Bennett — Emanuel’s second permanent choice to run a Chicago Public School system drowning in red ink — was accused of engineering a scheme to get a ten percent kickback on all CPS contracts she could steer to her former employer.
The plotting was outlined in emails remarkable for their detailed audacity, even in the annals of a city that has grown almost immune to political corruption.
The scheming began even before 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.
Emanuel has responded to the long-awaited indictment by telling reporters he was “disappointed” and “saddened by the details” of the scheme. The mayor accused Byrd-Bennett of violating the sacred bond government officials have to uphold the public trust. But, he argued that the scandal “doesn’t take away from all the advances” in public education on his watch.
Ald. John Arena (45th) was outraged by the mayor’s tepid response.
“I am appalled that a man who has a reputation for using four-letter words is not using them in this situation. He is only ‘saddened’ by this. [Newly-appointed Schools CEO] Forrest Claypool is saying, ‘This was yesterday,’” Arena said Friday.
“Where are the heads? Where are the firings of anybody who was associated with the SUPES contract? I don’t know the names. He does. This is his school board. This is his CPS. Every dollar that was used erroneously is on his head. He needs to show us that he is going to take serious action in the face of these very serious charges.”
Arena said he is not about to let Emanuel off the hook politically.
Not when Catalyst Magazine started raising questions more than two years ago about the SUPES contract, the conflict of interest posed by Byrd-Bennett’s past employment and about the poor quality of principal training.
Not when Arena’s Northwest Side ward has two schools with special needs kids forced to endure larger classes and fewer support personnel because of budget cuts that may not have been necessary without the no-bid contract.
“Twenty-three million dollars goes to that while I have special needs students needing wrap-around services. Every alderman in here has the same situation. And the response is laughable. This stuff happens in this administration’s government, and he’s OK with it? I’m not,” Arena said.
“He handpicked her. He handpicked two in a row who were abject failures. This one is a criminal. … He’s a very poor judge of character. His [former] comptroller fled to Pakistan and had to be extradited. Now, Barbara Byrd-Bennett. Maybe he needs to stop being the one to make these decisions. Maybe what we need is an elected school board … with people who will do a better job of judging character. Either he can own it, or he doesn’t get to control it. He doesn’t get in between.”
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), another member of the City Council’s anti-Emanuel Progressive Caucus, said the CPS scandal is so devastating and ill-timed, it’s got to stick to Mayor Teflon.
“He appointed all of those people. He stood by all of those people when a lot of these poor decisions were made. And when you look at the special needs children’s cuts being made right now while they’re giving out a SUPES contract of over $20 million, they made that choice. He made that choice. He signed off on it. He needs to own it,” Waguespack said.
Waguespack argued that the no-bid principal training contract at the center of the Byrd-Bennett scandal would never have passed muster with an elected school board.
“You would have had parents who’ve come up through local school councils and understand what impact these ridiculous contracts have on each one of the individual schools. Those people would understand that you do not go forward on these kinds of contracts,” Waguespack said.
Emanuel is trying desperately to avert another teachers strike and fend off bankruptcy championed as the solution by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. The mayor signed off on a school budget that assumes $480 million in pension help from Springfield. Without it, thousands of teachers will be laid off in the middle of the school year, sending class sizes through the roof.
Now, Byrd-Bennett’s indictment has handed lawmakers a convenient excuse not to help.
Emanuel’s campaign to convince the City Council to impose a $45 million property tax levy for school construction — even after raising property taxes by $543 million for police and fire pensions — may also be in jeopardy.
“It hurt ‘em tremendously in Springfield. Springfield is probably looking at it saying ‘You can’t get rid of the corruption that’s created by your own system. We can’t fathom helping you,’ ” Waguespack said.
The political outrage was not confined to the mayor’s knee-jerk opponents.
Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th), whose Southwest Side ward helped seal Emanuel’s re-election, was equally disgusted.
“We’ve got a fight on our hands on so many fronts with education in this city. This is just going to make it that much more difficult. To those legislators that are Downstate, this makes it easy for them to not want to be part of the solution,” O’Shea said.
Gary Solomon, the SUPES Academy owner who was indicted along with Byrd-Bennett, played a pivotal, behind-the-scenes role in convincing Emanuel to hire Byrd-Bennett, Brizard has told the Chicago Sun-Times.
That has some aldermen wondering why the mayor of Chicago — a man who served as White House chief of staff under President Barack Obama — had any relationship at all with a former high school dean who was forced out of Niles Township School District 219 after being accused of “immoral and unprofessional” conduct.
That included allegations that Solomon kissed a female student, covered up students’ drug and alcohol use and sent “sexually suggestive, predatory” emails to students.
Solomon was further accused of using offensive, racist language and keeping a journal at school about his inappropriate relationships with female students.
“He’s the mayor. He’s in charge of the schools. He’s got to make sure moving forward that we can restore the public trust and that we have the right people in place,” O’Shea said.
“We go out to our schools and tell our parents, ‘We’re trying to make it better. We’re fighting for more funding. We’re fighting for additional programming. We’re fighting for partnerships.’ Then once again, another [scandal]. It’s frustrating. This is sad for me because Barbara Byrd-Bennett was good to the struggling schools in my ward.”
One week after leading the surprising call for Emanuel to fire Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, was not about to saddle the mayor with blame for the Byrd-Bennett fiasco.
“She fooled a lot of us. She fooled me. I’m not going to get into that blame game. The blame rests solely with her. When you’re choosing leaders, you try to do the best you can and sometimes, you make a wrong decision. So, you cut bait and try to correct it as fast as you can,” Sawyer said.
“I just think we need to be a little bit more careful in picking the CEO for CPS because you do have access to a lot of resources. And you don’t want to be lured into fast money at the risk of our children.”
Byrd-Bennett may well have lasted as long as she did because she was 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.
“I sat across the table from Barbara Byrd-Bennett. She had a track record of making a difference in other cities. She had a resume to back it up. The whole thing is so sad — and shocking. Did someone not think that this would be uncovered?” O’Shea said.