When Barbara Byrd-Bennett took the helm of Chicago Public Schools in 2012, she promised to restore public trust deeply damaged during the first teacher’s strike in 25 years and help smooth the way as school leaders prepared for a historic round of painful school closings.
Instead, she’s now epitomizes public distrust in Chicago’s struggling school system. The corrupt former schools chief will be remembered most for her infamous email demanding a bribe: “I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit,” she said, adding a smiley face.
Byrd-Bennett will be sentenced in federal court Friday after pleading guilty in 2015 in a kickback scheme involving $23.5 million in no-bid contracts for her former employer.
She pleaded guilty to a single felony count of wire fraud in a deal with federal prosecutors, who requested a seven years and four month prison term. Prosecutors said she sold out both her integrity and Chicago’s children. Byrd-Bennett claimed to have cooperated with prosecutors, but they said she only came around after lying to authorities on multiple occasions.
She is seeking just three and a half years in prison. She is also asking for community service that would include talking to school district officials about how to “adhere to complete integrity and transparency, particularly in procurement processes,” according to documents submitted to the court.
“Barbara wants to help others to learn from her mistakes,” her attorney Michael Scudder wrote in the sentencing memo.
Byrd-Bennett’s corruption case surfaced just as the school system’s financial crisis kicked into high gear, with the district scrounging for every dollar available. CPS is threatening to end school three weeks early in June to save money. Byrd-Bennett is being sued by the school district for $65 million, money CPS is unlikely to ever receive.
Byrd-Bennett’s sentencing was delayed until her two co-defendant’s cases were resolved. They admit crossing ethical and legal lines but argue in court documents that the underlying relationships in this case -- where contractors and superintendents help each other out -- are common. In fact, several other school districts also contracted with the company at the heart of Byrd-Bennett’s case while their superintendent consulted with that company.
A federal corruption conviction is a stunning fall for Byrd-Bennett, a veteran and nationally-known school leader. Mayor Rahm Emanuel tapped her to take over the school district after his first pick, Jean Claude-Brizard, resigned under pressure. Byrd-Bennett helped end the teachers strike.
A former school teacher and top administrator in New York City, she spent eight years as superintendent in Cleveland. She then went to help steer the troubled Detroit school system.
In 2012, after leaving Detroit, she started consulting for a company called SUPES. That Wilmette-based company hired school leaders to train current administrators. Its owner, Gary Solomon, worked with Emanuel’s administration as the mayor hired CPS’ leadership team.
After Byrd-Bennett took over at CPS, Solomon’s SUPES got $23.5 million in no-bid contracts to run a principal training program. Emails show that Byrd-Bennett expected a cut of those contracts after she retired from CPS.
Solomon was sentenced last month to seven years in prison, with U.S. District Judge Edmond E. Chang telling him: “I believe that this is motivated by greed and not need.”
Prosecutors tried to paint Solomon as the mastermind of the bribery scheme, while Solomon’s attorneys countered that Byrd-Bennett called the shots because she “repeatedly and aggressively” asked Solomon for money.
Before handing down the sentence, the judge offered some insight into who he believed was most responsible.
“On one hand, I don't think Solomon was the mastermind the government made him out to be,” Chang said. “He was a savvy businessman who saw an opportunity to enter into a standard agreement in which Barbara Byrd-Bennett would do everything she could to get business for SUPES and Synesi,” he said, referring to a second Solomon company.
SUPES’ co-owner, Tom Vranas, will also be sentenced on Friday. He is expected to fetch a shorter sentence because he only learned of the bribery scheme after it was already underway.