If any corrupt public official ever deserved the maximum prison sentence, it was former Chicago Public Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett.
The 66-year-old educator pleaded guilty this week to seeking to pocket more than $2 million in kickbacks for no-bid contracts even as she was closing schools by the dozen and laying off teachers by the hundred.
This in a city becoming known as Chiraq, where officials had to mark off 53 safe passage routes with 600 civilian sentinels so students from closed schools could walk to their new schools without being attacked by gangs.
But rather than receive the maximum 14 years under federal sentencing guidelines, Byrd-Bennett will not even serve the 11-year minimum for violating a bond of trust with 400,000 schoolkids. She will instead get 7½ years in exchange for cooperating with prosecutors.
When Byrd-Bennett first took the $250,000-a-year Chicago job three years ago, she declared, “As CEO of Chicago Public Schools, my focus every single day will be on our children, nothing more.”
But in truth, she wanted more, more, more for herself. She at one point emailed an alleged co-conspirator, “I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit.”
She had started out more than a quarter-century before as an elementary school teacher in New York City, having responded to a recruiting postcard mailed to her Harlem home. She had risen to principal and then a district administrator before going on to become head of the public schools in Cleveland and in Detroit.
In Cleveland, Byrd-Bennett had proved to have a taste for first-class travel, four-star restaurants, and high-class hotels. But she had also raised test scores and lowered dropout rates.
From there, she had gone to work for SUPES Academy, an educational consulting firm owned by Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas.
The next job was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. She promised to restore trust in a system plagued by waste and incompetence and indifference. She cited a tenet she learned during her early years in Harlem.
“I grew up in public housing, and your word is your bond,” she told an interviewer during an event at the Chase Auditorium in Chicago. “If you say it, you do it.”
She added, “You work toward building credibility and trust.”
One of the big challenges, Byrd-Bennett told the interviewer, was establishing fiscal responsibility.
“The district has basically lived on a charge card,” she noted. “We just weren't paying attention to finance, which is…one of the reasons we’re in the situation we’re in.”
At another point in this videotaped interview, she offered tender memories of her students when she was starting out as a teacher in Harlem. She described one who had been very bright but whose homework looked “like hieroglyphics” because he had no electricity in his building and had to do it by candlelight. She spoke of another student who had put his brilliance in mathematics to work taking numbers for the illegal lottery.
Byrd-Bennett’s seemingly heartfelt sincerity becomes pathological when you consider that all these years later she had been using a little basic math to answer this problem: How much is a 10 percent kickback on $23 million in no-bid contracts for “leadership academies” to be set up by SUPES, her previous employer?
As the math whiz could have instantly determined, the answer was $2.3 million. Some of the cash, $254,000, was disguised as payments for work she purportedly performed before she came to Chicago. It was divided into accounts in the names of two relatives, apparently her twin grandsons.
“I would like for the accounts to be equal,” she said in an email to SUPES co-owner Solomon. “I would like the flexibility to use funds for whatever reasons as needed.”
“Accounts are set up,” Solomon replied in an email to Byrd-Bennett.
The rest was to be a delayed payment, disguised as a “signing bonus” made after she left the Chicago schools and at least ostensibly returned to her previous employer.
“If you only join for the day, you will be the highest paid person on the planet for that day,” Solomon said in an email. “Regardless, it will be paid on day one.”
With such an arrangement, SUPES did not hesitate to email Byrd-Bennett when the firm failed to receive prompt payment after submitting a $450,000 invoice for “Initial Work for 2012-2013 Leadership Academies.”
“I am on it,” Byrd-Bennett emailed back.
At the same time, she was targeting schools for closing. The speakers at a public hearing included 9-year-old Asean Johnson, a fourth-grader at one of the endangered schools, Marcus Garvey Elementary. He was but 4 feet tall and had to clamber atop a chair to reach the microphone.
“You should be investing in these schools, not closing them. You should be supporting these schools, not closing them,” Asean said in his impassioned speech. “We shall not be moved today. We’re going to City Hall; we are informing [Chicago Mayor] Rahm Emanuel [that] we are not toys. We are not going down without a fight.”
Byrd-Bennett was observed to smile and wipe away a tear.
“An articulate, learned young man, and that is exactly what we want for all of our students,” she was quoted as saying afterward.
Asean’s school was spared, but 50 others were not.
Meanwhile, the kickback scheme continued. Byrd-Bennett also asked SUPES for tickets to NBA games and baseball games. SUPES picked up the tab for her holiday party.
Smarter crooks might have anticipated that suspicions would be aroused by $23 million in no-bid contracts with the CEO’s former employer for “leadership academies” at a time when schools were being shuttered wholesale and teachers fired in droves.
The Chicago Public Schools inspector general began to nose around. Solomon emailed Byrd-Bennett to suggest she join SUPES in acquiring software to delete their online exchanges.
But the FBI was able to recover them. Byrd-Bennett resigned in May, five months ahead of last week’s indictment naming her, Solomon, and his partner, Vranas. The co-owners of SUPES pleaded not guilty. She quickly decided to plead guilty on the promise of a reduced sentence if she agreed to tell all.
“Defendant agrees she will fully and truthfully cooperate in any matter in which she is called upon to cooperate by a representative of the United States Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of Illinois,” the plea agreement reads. “At the time of the sentencing, the government shall make known to the sentencing judge the extent of the defendant’s cooperation.”
After she formally entered a guilty plea in Chicago federal court on Tuesday, Byrd-Bennett was released pending sentencing at the start of next year. She stepped outside the courtroom and offered an apology to the schoolkids and their families.
“I am terribly sorry and I apologize to them,” she told reporters. “They deserve much more, much more than I gave to them.”
She had tears in her eyes, just as she had after hearing little Asean make his plea. She was by all accounts every bit as convincing as she had been that other day when she promised to restore trust in the system.
Her betrayal of 400,000 schoolkids in a time of dire need should have earned her the maximum penalty the law allowed.
Instead, she had been promised less than the minimum as she headed out into the streets of Chiraq, where the cops can only do so much and the schools could do so much more.
At least Chicago is blessed with Asean Johnson.