News & Politics » Ben Joravsky on Politics

Will the next schools chief please stand up—to Rahm?

Barbara Byrd-Bennett steps down after overseeing school cuts and closings.



For the last several days I've been trying to think of something nice to say about Barbara Byrd-Bennett's three-year tenure as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. The best I could come up with is that she put a genial face on the dumb ideas that popped out of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's brain.

Oh, wait—that's what I said about the previous CEO, Jean-Claude Brizard, whom the mayor affectionately called J.C. He was dumped by Emanuel after the teachers' strike of 2012, ushering in the era of Byrd-Bennett, whom the mayor affectionately calls B-3.

I guess the other nice thing I can say about B-3 is that she occasionally had breakfast with Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, thus keeping that line of communication open. Also, she had a clever way of acting as though she found many of the mayor's cuts and closings distasteful, even if she never stopped them.

Like, I said, I'm really trying.

As you probably know, Byrd-Bennett took a paid leave of absence last week, just a couple of days after word broke that the FBI was investigating her role in the awarding of a $20.5 million no-bid principal-training contract to a company called Supes Academy, for whom she once worked.

And I thought Rahm said stuff like this ended with Mayor Daley.

"I believe that my continuing as CEO at this time would be a distraction," Byrd-Bennett said in a statement. "Although [stepping down] is a very difficult decision personally, it is one I believe is in the best interest of the children of CPS that I am so fortunate to serve."

Why is it that so many school officials do things in the best interests of the children, yet it's always the children who seem to be getting ripped off?

Perhaps the school board can dole out a no-bid contract to study that conundrum.

In the category of good news, only a few months remain on B-3's $250,000-a-year contract. In contrast, Brizard had about 14 months left on his contract when the mayor ran him out of town.

So for a while we—the taxpayers—were shelling out more than $550,000 a year in salaries for school chiefs. And this is the mayor whose fiduciary wizardry is going to save us from becoming Detroit.

Just so you know, I've long advocated that we stop hiring schools CEOs, since whoever gets the job is just another mayoral rubber stamp. Let's let the mayor run the schools—since he does anyway—and spend the CEO salary on something we really need.

We can start with teachers, since they actually work with those children whose best interests the bureaucrats have at heart.

In addition, we can probably find someone else to have lunch with President Lewis. Hell, I'll volunteer for that job. We can go to Manny's.

There's certainly never been a CEO in my lifetime who stood up to the mayor when it comes to how billions of taxpayer dollars get spent.

At the moment, CPS is facing a deficit of more than $1 billion—and that's not even taking into consideration the other billions it owes the teachers' pension fund.

Of course, being broke is nothing new for CPS. It certainly doesn't help that district officials stand by and watch as more than $200 million a year in property taxes is diverted into the mayor's tax increment financing slush fund.

In fact, over Emanuel's first four years in office, the TIF program has taken about $1 billion in property taxes that might otherwise have gone to the schools. Yet the mayor has spent only about $105 million of that TIF money on school projects, according to city records.

I don't need a consulting contract to tell you the schools are getting the bad end of that deal. But B-3 and J.C. never uttered a peep of protest.

It was also on Byrd-Bennett's watch that CPS signed on to the deal that doubled the cost of a pre-K program by borrowing the money instead of paying for it right out of the budget. As a result the lenders will get as much as $17 million in interest that could have been used to fund other school programs.

I still can't believe the mayor had the chutzpah to brag about that deal in his reelection commercials.

That brings me back to the harebrained Supes contract, which was unanimously approved by the board at its meeting on June 26, 2013—just one month after the board unanimously voted to close 50 schools on the grounds that the system couldn't afford to keep them open.

Yet somehow the board was able to throw $20.5 million to Byrd-Bennett's old colleagues at Supes. All in the best interests of the children, I'm sure.

Let's pause to give credit to Sarah Karp, the investigative reporter for Catalyst, who blew the whistle on the Supes deal.

Hey, there's an idea: make Sarah the schools CEO! I bet you she wouldn't let the mayor get away with those TIF diversions.

The Supes training sessions have been widely mocked as a waste of time by the principals who have to attend them.

As one principal told me: "I went to that training for four days—for six to eight hours each day. I became less intelligent after I went through that."

After Byrd-Bennett stepped down, Jesse Ruiz, the school board's vice president, was named interim CEO.

So far the mayor has refrained from giving Ruiz a nickname. Let's hope that's a sign of progress.  v

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