CHICAGO (CBS) — Faced with a growing federal investigation, Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett will take a paid leave of absence.
Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale confirmed Byrd-Bennett will temporarily step aside.
“In light of the ongoing federal investigation and its impact on her ability to effectively lead Chicago Public Schools, Barbara Byrd-Bennett is taking a leave of absence from Chicago Public Schools effective immediately,” he said. “Board of Education Vice President Jesse Ruiz is taking the responsibilities of the chief executive officer while Byrd-Bennett is on leave. As board vice president for almost four years, and a former chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education, Ruiz has both the legal and educational expertise and experience to guide the district at this time while ensuring students and teachers continue to make academic gains in the classroom.”
Ruiz will serve as interim CEO as the district prepares to negotiate a new teachers’ contract this summer and deal with budget and pension shortfalls.
“In light of the attention given to my position as chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools, I believe that my continuing as CEO at this time would be a distraction,” Byrd-Bennett wrote in a letter sent to Chicago Board of Education members and released to the Associated Press. “Although this is a very difficult decision for me personally, it is one I believe is in the best interests of the children of CPS that I am so fortunate to serve.”
Byrd-Bennett, along with at least three other CPS aides, is a focus of the federal probe, along with the Wilmette-based SUPES Academy, which offers leadership training to principals. SUPES received a $20 million no-bid contract in 2013, right after CPS closed 50 schools.
The three other CPS officials are: chief of staff Sherry Ulery; Tracy Martin, head of strategic services; and Rosemary Herpel, a senior project manager.
The Chicago Teachers Union has said the investigation centered on Byrd-Bennett reflects a broader ethics problem at CPS, particularly among leaders.
“What Barbara is being singled out for is sadly just one incident among widespread practices by the mayor’s Board of Education appointees, and the turmoil caused by yet another top-down leadership scandal is a grave concern for all of us as the district faces a crippling financial deficit,” union president Jesse Sharkey said in a statement. “There is a culture of conflict of interest that is severely disruptive to the lives of both educators and the parents and students they serve, and it does nothing but create a climate of pervasive mistrust.”
Byrd-Bennett’s bio states she’d been a coach and trainer for SUPES Academy, but her economic interest forms don’t mention it.
In 2012, she claimed no outside income. Yet she was listed as a senior associate for PROACT, owned by the same man who owns SUPES.
In 2013, she listed three outside jobs paying more than $1,200: Homer Glen’s Education Research Development Institute, where today she’s listed on its website as a senior advisor; the Broad Institute in Los Angeles, as an executive coach; and the Pittsburgh Public Schools.
SUPES Academy is housed in a nondescript Wilmette office building. According to its website, the academy trains and coaches school principals on leadership.
Sources tell CBS 2 it was Byrd-Bennett who strongly pushed the Chicago Board of Education to hire SUPES Academy to do principals training, arguing only that firm was qualified to fill that task.
CPS watchdogs like Wendy Katten from the parents group Raise Your Hand say that’s simply not true.
“The fact that this outside group that almost no one I talked to at the time knew of was being brought in, and Barbara Byrd-Bennett worked for this company raised a lot of questions,” she says.
Sources say Byrd-Bennett claimed no other contractor in the country could do the training SUPES Academy would supply. That was the justification for not putting the deal out for competitive bids.
In fact, education departments at Loyola and the University of Illinois-Chicago are already involved in training and coaching CPS principals.
In March, Bennett’s $250,000 contract was renewed for another year.