One of Mayor Emanuel's inner circle has been interviewed by the FBI in connection with the SUPES Academy investigation. Credit: Mark Van Scyoc/shutterstock.com
Jesse Ruiz

Two days after the revelation that she faces a federal investigation into her relationship with a company that received a $20 million no-bid contract, embattled CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has taken a leave of absence.

Board President David Vitale said Byrd-Bennett is using her built up “leave” days to continue to get paid.

Also, the deadline has passed for the board members to tell Byrd-Bennett that they don’t intend to extend her contract. She has yet to tell them if she wants an extension. Her contract does include a broad termination clause that allows her to be fired for everything from immorality to criminal activity.

Byrd-Bennett has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued a statement saying that he supports the decision by Byrd-Bennett to take a leave. “Though there have been no formal allegations, the Mayor has zero tolerance for any type of misconduct from public officials and welcomes today’s decision to help ensure this issue does not distract from the incredibly important work happening in our neighborhood public schools,” said spokeswoman Kelley Quinn in a statement.

Board Vice President Jesse Ruiz has been named interim CEO, taking the helm as the district faces tough union negotiations and another looming budget deficit. Ruiz is a lawyer with the firm Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, and often has had to abstain from votes because of his law firm’s connections. Ruiz became the first Latino to serve as chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education in 2004 and served in that position until 2011, when he was appointed to the Chicago School Board.

“Ruiz has the unique ability to guide CPS because of his statewide perspective,” Vitale said.

The federal investigation

Byrd-Bennett hired defense attorney Michael Scudder earlier this week. Scudder, whose specialties include white collar crime, declined to answer questions regarding the federal investigation, subpoenas or reported searches of Byrd-Bennett’s homes in Chicago and a Cleveland suburb.

Scudder shared a letter sent by Byrd-Bennett to Vitale earlier today, in which she requests a leave of absence starting next Monday.

“Although this is a very difficult decision for me personally, it is one I believe is in the best interest of the children of Chicago Public Schools that I am so fortunate to serve,” the letter from Byrd-Bennett stated.

Byrd-Bennett’s ties to SUPES Academy, the for-profit firm that received the contract in 2013, are the focus of the investigation, sources say. Byrd-Bennett worked for SUPES prior to taking over CPS. Catalyst Chicago wrote about the contract, the largest no-bid contract in at least five years, in 2013. And earlier this week, the company acknowledged that it was cooperating with a federal investigation.

During a Friday press conference, reporters pressed Vitale and Ruiz about why they voted for the contract. Vitale said board members were assured at briefings that the contract went through the proper procurement process, but he noted that the board is going to bring in a third party to look at the non-competitive bid process.

CPS officials shared a copy of the federal subpoena with reporters.

Prosecutors demanded CPS attorney James Bebley appear before a grand jury on April 14, the day they sent him the notice. Byrd-Bennett’s chief of staff, Sherry Ulery, and  Rosemary Herpel, executive director of leadership development, must appear on April 21. Chief of Strategic School Supports Tracy Martin must appear a week later.

Byrd-Bennett had previously worked with Ulery, Martin and Herpel in her former posts in Cleveland and Detroit schools, and brought all three with her to CPS. All three make at least $140,000 a year in CPS.

CPS also must turn over a number of documents related to SUPES, including contracts, e-mails, receipts, meeting notes, and information about gifts and honorariums. The document — dated Tuesday, exactly one week after the city’s historic mayoral runoff election — also names other programs related to SUPES and its owners, including the Chicago Executive Leadership Academy (CELA), Synesi Associates, and Proact Search.

In addition, authorities are asking for all CPS records related to The Chicago Public Education Fund – a major player in Chicago’s education reform movement. The board’s directors include some of the city’s top movers and shakers, including Gov. Bruce Rauner, billionaire hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin, Vitale and CPS board member Deborah Quazzo.

The Fund paid for SUPES training for network chiefs and deputies before the district awarded the Wilmette-based company contracts.

In 2013, Catalyst wrote about how Byrd-Bennett brought Herpel to CPS to lead the CELA initiative.

Tumultuous times

Carlos Azcoitia, a board member and former Chicago principal, said he didn’t know about Byrd-Bennett’s leave until a few minutes before it became public and that he is glad she won’t be a distraction anymore. “We’re going to support this transition and see what happens later,” Azcoitia says.

Ruiz will serve in what is expected to be a tumultuous time. The district is facing an estimated budget deficit of $1.1 billion and has yet to give principals their school-level budgets, which could include steep cuts. Also, the district is in the midst of contract negotiations with Chicago Teachers’ Union.

CTU President Karen Lewis says that she has had a good relationship with Ruiz. “I get along with him,” she says. “He seems reasonable.”

But she notes that he is a political appointee, not an educator. She also points out that he voted “yes” on the $20.5 million contract that is the focus of the federal investigation.

Ruiz also approved the closings of 48 elementary schools, but voted no on closing one, Von Humboldt, after visiting the Humboldt Park school twice.

Ruiz is the father of two school-age sons, who attend the University of Chicago’s Lab School, the same private school attended by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s children.

Emanuel has said that he did not know of the investigation into Byrd-Bennett until she told him about it Wednesday during a luncheon organized by The Fund, which ironically was about principal development. At that luncheon, she had originally said she would talk to reporters, but wound up leaving without doing so.

Sources have told Catalyst that the grand jury is looking into the contract with SUPES Academy, which was hired to engage current and former school leaders from across the country to do principal training and provide mentoring for principals. Prior to being hired by CPS, Byrd-Bennett conducted workshops and consulted with SUPES.

The apparent conflict of interest was first detailed by Catalyst in July of 2013. The CPS inspector general then launched an investigation.

The board can terminate the contract with SUPES with 30 days notice, according to the contract. Principals say they have been told that the training session planned for this weekend is cancelled.

What the future may hold

CPS and the Mayor’s Office would not say how long the district can continue to have Ruiz sit in as the CEO without a permanent replacement. During Friday’s press conference, Ruiz said he won’t be paid “a penny” for the work.

But if Byrd-Bennett is gone for good, it will mean that, since former CEO Arne Duncan’s long tenure ended in 2009, the school district has had four CEOs. Rahm Emanuel’s first pick for CEO, Jean-Claude Brizard, lasted only 17 months.

When she was appointed on October 12, 2012, Byrd-Bennett had promised that she was not going to jump ship quickly. “I plan to be here for the long haul,” she said.

One big question is whether her promise on a five-year moratorium on closing schools holds once she is gone. She also promised not to allow any charter schools to open in school buildings shuttered in 2013.

Advocates wanted to have these promises included in an amendment to a state law that allowed the district to change the school closing timeline, but she reportedly didn’t want them in writing.

Reached in D.C. on Friday, Brizard says he is dismayed to see the school district go through another change in leadership so quickly. “I was hoping that there would be some stability,” he says. “It is not good for principals, it is not good for children, it is not good for the city.”

Brizard says that Byrd-Bennett, who is 64, is known nationally as a traditionalist. He says she does not write extensively or do presentations and therefore is not well known by younger educators.

Brizard had brought Byrd-Bennett to Chicago to support Noemi Donoso, who was struggling after her move from Denver Public Schools, which is one-fifth the size of CPS. When Donoso left in May of 2012, Byrd-Bennett assumed the role of chief education officer, but as a consultant. She made $152,000 for six months, according to board reports.

With speculation swirling that Emanuel was unhappy that teachers went on strike, Byrd-Bennett became the public face of the administration during negotiations. Less than a month later, she took over Brizard’s post, with a salary of $250,000.

Byrd-Bennett’s legacy

In some ways, Byrd-Bennett was an unusual choice. She has often said that she is a supporter of neighborhood schools, even as the board approved more charter schools.

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey notes that Byrd-Bennett will likely be remembered as the CEO who oversaw the closing of an unprecedented number of schools. Yet he says she might not have been completely on board with the plan.

“I guess she didn’t stand up against it,” he says.

Sharkey and others also hope this situation will be a wake-up call to the mayor and district officials that the culture needs to change at CPS. Sharkey called it a “culture of a conflict of interest.”

At a press conference on Thursday, he pointed out that board members Quazzo and Vitale, as well as Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley, all have relationships with companies that have board contracts.

Outspoken Blaine Principal Troy LaRaviere says that he does not foresee Byrd-Bennett having a legacy outside of Emanuel. “She was here to follow his agenda,” he says. Even if a federal grand jury decides that Byrd-Bennett did not do anything illegal with the SUPES contract, he adds, awarding the company $20 million to provide principal training was irresponsible.

“That is $20 million in resources that is not going to our children,” LaRaviere says.

The SUPES training was originally mandatory, but last year principals were given a chance to opt out. LaRaviere says he sent in his opt-out form, but many were nervous about doing so because Byrd-Bennett wanted the form to go directly to her.

Raise Your Hand’s Wendy Katten says that she is hopeful that Byrd-Bennett’s legacy will be that her exit triggered changes in how the district and the board conduct business. Katten also is looking for the next CEO to be someone from Chicago.

One of the persistent concerns about Byrd-Bennett was not only that she wasn’t from Chicago, but also that she didn’t really move to the city.

Early on in her tenure at CPS – before she became CEO — the critical teachers’ publication Substance News raised questions about whether Byrd-Bennett actually lived in Chicago or instead commuted from her home in suburban Cleveland. It’s a sensitive issue because most teachers and other CPS employees are required to live in the city.

But when she was named CEO of schools in October 2012, the Board stipulated that she establish residency in Chicago within six months. She got a $30,000 stipend for “relocation and transitional” expenses.

Records show she last voted in Ohio that fall, but by February 2014 had registered to vote here in Chicago. According to the voter rolls, she lives in Columbus Plaza, a downtown apartment building along the Chicago River. The building’s management company declined to say whether Byrd-Bennett’s two-bedroom apartment is one of the pre-furnished corporate suites.

Sarah Karp

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

Melissa Sanchez

Melissa Sanchez is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at msanchez@chicagoreporter.com and follow her on Twitter at @msanchezMIA.

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