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Byrd-Bennett’s departure amid federal probe puts spotlight on hiring

Chicago schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s decision to step down late last month amid a federal investigation has raised new questions about the hiring process that brought her to power.

Big city schools systems in Philadelphia, Miami and Los Angeles all have vetting processes in place that call for a public review of candidates for their top job, in some cases lasting months.

In contrast, some Chicago Board of Education members weren’t told that Mayor Rahm Emanuel planned to promote Byrd-Bennett from second-in-command to CEO until just before the mayor announced her appointment in October 2012, sources with direct knowledge of the situation told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Within one day of being given Byrd-Bennett’s $250,000-a-year contract, Board of Education members were asked to approve it, the sources said. They did so by a vote of 6-0, with one member absent.

David Vitale | Sun-Times file photo

David Vitale | Sun-Times file photo

Even then, the sources said, the contract was presented as a done deal following maneuvering to promote Byrd-Bennett by David Vitale, the board’s president since Emanuel appointed him upon taking office in May 2011.

In other cities, officials describe a more public vetting process though they acknowledge they haven’t always followed it.

In Philadelphia, the appointed School Reform Commission hires that city’s schools superintendent. Then-Commissioner Wendell Pritchett chaired a search committee of 14 people that brought in William Hite in 2012 as that city’s top schools official in the wake of a scandal involving Hite’s predecessor, Arlene Ackerman.

The Philadelphia board called finalists for the top schools job to two public forums at which anyone could ask them questions, according to Pritchett. He said Philadelphia’s mayor wasn’t brought in until the pool of finalists had been selected months into the search.

“We made a conscious decision it was worth the effort to spend some time searching for the right person,” Pritchett said.

Philadelphia also sought help from a search firm that screened candidates for free, Pritchett said. Then, the commission hosted about a dozen sessions around the city to gather public comments on who should get the job, he said.

In South Florida, the Miami-Dade County school board appoints the head of the school system. Unlike Philadelphia, its nine members are elected by voters.

That, as well as Florida’s stringent government-in-the-sunshine laws, helps ensure that the process is carried out in the open, said Martin Karp, a school board member who represents part of downtown Miami and Miami’s beach towns.

Still, in 2008, after a superintendent suddenly stepped down, the Miami-Dade board began suggesting names at a public meeting and ended up agreeing that same day to promote Alberto Carvalho, a longtime district official who’d served as associate superintendent, to the top job, according to Karp.

“I think, in that particular case, a decision needed to be made,” Karp said. “If you feel you have qualified candidates right at your feet, right there, you save the expense of the search firms. They’re valuable. But, in this particular case, time was of the essence, and the board felt they had qualified people right there. He proved to be a great choice.”

But there’s a danger in setting aside the public vetting process, according to Steve Zimmer, a member of Los Angeles’ elected school board. Last October, a superintendent the L.A. board had chosen after deciding to skip its usual public vetting process ended up resigning amid a $1.3 billion purchasing scandal.

“I understand that public processes … require a certain amount of patience and persistence,” said Zimmer, who voted against skipping the formal vetting. “While there’s always the possibility that something could be missed, the chances that a screening and vetting process like this will yield the best results is much higher than any other type of process.”

Emanuel hasn’t said how he plans to handle the search for a replacement for Byrd-Bennett, who resigned May 29.

Asked whether the mayor will make any changes in the selection process, Emanuel’s education chief, Arnie Rivera, declined to comment.

Emanuel spokeswoman Kelley Quinn also wouldn’t discuss how the new schools chief’s hiring will be handled nor say whether the mayor has set a timetable to find a successor to Byrd-Bennett.

For now, attorney Jesse Ruiz, an Emanuel appointee to the Board of Education who is a former Illinois State Board of Education president, is filling in as schools chief but has said he doesn’t want to be considered for the job as Byrd-Bennett’s permanent successor.

Byrd-Bennett resigned six weeks into a paid leave of absence after the revelation April 17 by Chicago Public Schools officials that they’d been subpoenaed by federal prosecutors. The authorities were seeking records concerning her, three top aides she brought to Chicago after working with them elsewhere, and SUPES Academy, a north suburban consulting firm that was handed a $20.5 million, no-bid contract to train CPS principals and other administrators shortly after she was named CEO.

Federal authorities have refused to discuss the ongoing investigation.

Before being hired by CPS in May 2012, initially as chief education officer, Byrd-Bennett worked for SUPES Academy, owned by Gary Solomon, a former teacher and dean at Niles West High School in Skokie, and his former student Thomas Vranas.

While working for SUPES, Byrd-Bennett was brought in by CPS to coach Noemi Donoso, a top CPS official she ended up being hired to replace when Donoso left the school system.

In all, six people familiar with the behind-the-scenes maneuvering to put Byrd-Bennett in the top schools job spoke with the Sun-Times, agreeing to interviews only on the condition of being granted anonymity.

They said that although Byrd-Bennett’s elevation was sudden, it was clear by then that Jean-Claude Brizard — Emanuel’s first schools chief — would soon be out in the wake of a divisive September 2012 teachers strike that shut down the city’s schools, keeping 400,000 students out of classes for a week and a half.

At the time, neither the mayor nor Vitale had a good relationship with Karen Lewis, the charismatic leader of the Chicago Teachers Union, two of the sources said — but Byrd-Bennett did, and she was already working for CPS.

But in moving quickly to install Byrd-Bennett, her hiring got little scrutiny by the full Board of Education, they said.

One of them said Vitale “was the one who managed her contract. He was very, very supportive of Barbara.”

The other said “the board — at least the rank-and-file board members — are not involved in [picking] the CEO.”

Vitale’s leading role wasn’t unusual, other sources said, one of them characterizing the board generally as “president-centric.”

On June 1, Emanuel said he was appointing four new Board of Education members. Three of them will replace members whose terms of office will expire June 30: Deborah Quazzo, Henry Bienen and Carlos Azcoitia. In an interview, Quazzo said she told the mayor’s office earlier this year she didn’t want to stay on for another term.

A fourth board member whose term would have been up June 30, Andrea Zopp, resigned in late May to seek the Democratic nomination to challenge U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois.

All but Azcoitia, who was absent, had voted in favor of the SUPES deal that, according to the subpoenas received by the Board of Education in April, is now under scrutiny by federal authorities.

Three holdovers remain on the board: Vitale, Ruiz and Mahalia Hines.

Vitale, who is also chairman of Urban Partnership Bank, did not respond to questions emailed to him.

CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said Vitale was aware the Sun-Times was trying to reach him. McCaffrey said Vitale had consulted with other board members before Byrd-Bennett was appointed CEO.

“David does not make decisions without the advice and input of other board members, and he spoke with each board member individually regarding the former CEO’s contract,” McCaffrey said.

Byrd-Bennett, who has hired a criminal defense lawyer, didn’t respond to interview requests. Her lawyer, Michael Scudder, declined to comment.

Describing his own hiring, Brizard said he believes he was screened for several weeks before anyone got in touch with him.

“My guess is they came up with a short list of individuals and vetted them behind the scenes,” he said in an interview. “A lot had gone on behind the scenes that I was not aware of.”

He said Solomon had called to urge him to consider taking the Chicago schools post. Brizard, who at that time was superintendent of the Rochester, New York, schools, said at first he didn’t think Emanuel would hire an educator, rather than someone with experience in government, to run the nation’s third-largest school district. After meeting with Emanuel after his election but before he took office, and also talking multiple times with him by phone, Brizard said he was offered the job.

“The whole thing took a month from the time I was first contacted, then to them offering me the job,” he said. “It was very much about the mayor making a decision.”