By J. Coyden Palmer, Chicago Crusader
Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Dr. Barbara Byrd-Bennett was sentenced to four- and- a-half years in a federal prison Friday for her role in a scheme to steer contracts to a friend in exchange for kickbacks. Byrd-Bennett, 67, was facing multiple years in prison. She pleaded guilty to in the scheme along with Thomas Vranas who received an 18 month sentence a few hours earlier.
As she did in previous hearings on the matter, Byrd-Bennett was contrite and apologetic towards the court, often sobbing. She told U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang “I ought to be punished.” Byrd-Bennett previously issued a somber apology to CPS students and parents, when she was first indicted on fraud charges. But on an overcast day in downtown Chicago, Byrd-Bennett, spoke for 10 minutes, telling about how the job was tougher that she expected and that she was dealing with an ailing mother at the time of her crimes.
“I stand here at the most difficult moment of my life. What I did was wrong. I am ashamed (inaudible). I have no one to blame but myself. I am responsible,” said a sobbing Byrd-Bennett.
Byrd-Bennett came to Chicago after running the school systems in Detroit and Cleveland. She was Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s second pick as CPS CEO after Jean Claude-Brizzard was fired. The mayor elevated her to the role of CEO because of the way she handled negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) during a strike in 2012. Emanuel’s office released a statement after the sentence was announced.
“Barbara betrayed the public trust. She broke the law. She turned her back on the very children she was entrusted to serve, and the children of Chicago are owed much better than that. Today’s decision is a reminder that no one is above the law, and with justice now served the entire CPS community can continue to focus on building on the record academic success of Chicago students,” read the statement.
Attorneys for Byrd-Bennett believed she should not have received more than three-and-a half years. She pled guilty in 2015 to one count of wire fraud as part of a plea deal. She had agreed to testify against Vranas as the person believed to be the mastermind of the scheme Gary Solomon, who is currently appealing the seven year sentence he was given. Byrd-Bennett will have to turn herself in to U.S. Marshals on Aug. 26. She will serve her sentence at a prison in West Virginia.
Jalisa Wright had two children in CPS schools. She said she was disappointed in Byrd-Bennett and said she was glad she got a prison sentence. She said one of her children attended a school Byrd-Bennett closed in 2013 during the controversial school closings to save money.
“I think about how many school teachers lost their jobs,” said Wright, as she was walking by the federal building and asked why all the media was there. “Janitors, lunchroom workers, counselors all lost jobs because CPS said they had no money. And she allowed herself to get played and agreed to be a part of a devilish scheme. I’m ashamed of her. I took my kids out of CPS and put them in private schools because of the dysfunction. She was a part of that dysfunction.”
The CTU took a broader look at the Byrd-Bennett sentencing and saw it as more of a city-wide culture of embarrassing behavior. CTU is currently hoping to stave off a plan by the Mayor to close the schools on June 1, three weeks earlier than originally scheduled. The move would be made to save money, according to the city. But CTU believes CPS is just one part of the mismanagement and corruption that was eaten away at Chicago’s fiber.
“Today’s sentencing of former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett joines the shuttering of 50 schools in predominantly Black and Latino communities, the cover-up in the shooting death of Laquan McDonald, the closure of city-run mental health clinics, and an ongoing email scandal on a list of embarrassments and transgressions Chicagoans have endured under the Rahm Emanuel administration,” the statement began.
“Byrd-Bennett’s tenure as the head of CPS, in addition to her and Emanuel’s destruction of dozens of school communities in 2013, cost the district $20 million in cronyism and privatization, which continues to this day. Six-figure salaries and administrative costs have doubled under current CPS CEO Forrest Claypool, while spending on instruction has plummeted.
“As Claypool spends millions on sick day audits of hardworking teachers, clinicians and paraprofessionals, and violates CPS Office of Inspector General orders regarding district residency requirements, he is complicit in the same corrupt practices the district claims to be addressing in the wake of Byrd-Bennett’s prosecution. This hypocrisy and example of one set of rules for leadership, and another set for the rest of us, is why our union, parents and public education activists continue to lobby for an elected, representative school board.”