In the summer of 2013, Mayor Emanuel’s handpicked lineup of school board appointees featured the best and the brightest of corporate Chicago, including two lawyers, one banker, a venture capitalist, and the retired president of Northwestern University.
Yet for all their smarts, apparently the board couldn’t figure out that schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and her pals from Supes Academy were up to no good with their $20.5 million principal-training scam.
Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges Tuesday after a scathing indictment was handed down last week. The feds accused Byrd-Bennett of steering $23 million worth of consulting contracts to Supes officials in exchange for “hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes and kickbacks.”
But the indictment came more than two years after Sarah Karp, education reporter for Catalyst Chicago, figured out the whole scam—in less than a month.
So we have to ask ourselves: Why couldn’t our public school watchdogs see what was staring them in the face? The answer, my friends, is that it’s hard to see when you have your eyes closed.
I haven’t seen such willful neglect since various police and state’s attorney officials looked the other way after Mayor Daley’s nephew R.J. Vanecko killed David Koschman outside a Rush Street bar.
Karp’s exposé, published just a few weeks after the board unanimously approved the Supes deal, tells you almost everything you need to know about the sordid affair that probably will probably send Byrd-Bennett and Gary Solomon, her chief confederate at Supes, to federal prison.
OK, that’s not entirely true. The one thing Karp didn’t have back then was access to personal e-mails exchanged by Byrd-Bennett and Solomon. Those are cited in the federal indictment.
Like the one in which Solomon writes Byrd-Bennett that “When this stint at CPS is done and you are ready to re re re retire, we have your spot waiting for you. Hopefully, with even more work and more opt.”
Or the one in which Byrd-Bennett writes Solomon that she’s looking forward to getting her kickbacks because “I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit.”
No, it took the subpoena powers of federal prosecutors—whose investigation was spurred by Karp’s article—to unearth those nuggets.
But still. Karp revealed that Byrd-Bennett had worked for Supes before she came to CPS. And that she maintained a questionable affiliation with the company after she was CEO. And that Solomon himself had been accused of “sending sexually explicit emails to students,” during his stint at a dean of students at Niles Township High School.
And again, Karp revealed all of this way back in the summer of 2013.
The point is that Karp raised enough red flags about Supes, Solomon, and Byrd-Bennett’s relations with both to prompt the mayor, his school aides, or any responsible official to halt the contract.
But they didn’t. Not one person spoke up. CPS officials and board members defended the deal for months, even after principals openly complained that the training sessions were a waste of time.
The board didn’t suspend payment on the contract until April 21 of this year—about a week after word broke that the feds were investigating. By then it had been almost two years since the board approved the deal. Roughly $12.4 million had already been paid to Supes.
You could hire a lot of special-ed teachers with $12.4 million.
For all their triumphs in the corporate world, when it comes to the schools, these board members are little more than mayoral flunkies. If this scandal doesn’t kick-start the movement for an elected school board, nothing will.
It’s clear from the highly redacted e-mails that Emanuel only grudgingly released to the Sun-Times and the Tribune that the mayor struggled over whether he should have the board approve the Supes deal.
At the time, Mayor Emanuel had to decide between what was good for the schools and what was good for his political hide.
On the one hand, the Supes deal was obviously a waste of millions. As one CPS press aide put it in an e-mail to city officials, “There is some concern that we’re spending a large sum on some principals while laying off others, and teachers.”
You can say that again.
On the other hand, the mayor’s political credibility was on the line. He had recently closed 50 schools, mostly in black south- and west-side neighborhoods.
Byrd-Bennett was the public face of his PR campaign to assure a very skeptical public that the closings were in the best interests of these children and communities.
It would have been embarrassing for the mayor if Byrd-Bennett were to leave before the new school year started. She vaguely threatened to do so in some of her e-mails to City Hall officials.
“I wear all of the problems,” Byrd-Bennett wrote in an e-mail to an Emanuel aide that was quoted in both papers. “Either people think I can do this or…….what do they want Can you call me?????”
In short, Byrd-Bennett had the mayor by the balls and she squeezed.
And so Supes got the contract. Byrd-Bennett stayed onboard. The mayor won reelection. And everyone in City Hall and at the CPS central office pretended all was good in the world.
Obviously no one was banking on the wretched details of this scam to go public. Guess the formidable Sarah Karp messed that up—eh, Mr. Mayor?
And now we have to wonder where the scandal will go. If Byrd-Bennett wanted to, she could do for the mayor what Bridgegate did for New Jersey governor Chris Christie.
But my guess is she’ll take the fall—just as she did with the school closings—thus bringing the investigation to a screaming halt. The mayor’s been slamming Byrd-Bennett since she got indicted. But in the end, she may prove to be the best friend he ever had. v