Barbara Byrd Bennett scandals continue... Ten Years later, the same pattern of malfeasance and incompetence that Byrd-Bennett showed in Cleveland is showing in Chicago

In a report Substance News has worked for a few months now, we have obtained two report synopses of a Barbara Byrd-Bennett scandal from 2004 that forced her to lose her job when she was Cleveland School District CEO. The reports come from Resource Center of the Investigative Reporters and Editors Organization. Investigative Reporter Tom Merriman documented the corruption under CEO Byrd-Bennett. In Cleveland, Byrd Bennett claimed a "fiscal crises" and fired 800 teachers — yet was wasting $3,600,000 to keep 206 spare bus drivers on the payroll.

Former Cleveland Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd Bennett was brought into Chicago by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to replace Jean-Claude Brizard following the Chicago Teachers Strike of 2012. Byrd Bennett was brought to Chicago on the recommendation of the Broad Foundation and other corporate privatization supporters after she had completed a stint destroying and privatizing the Detroit public schools. Above, Byrd Bennett presenting a report to the Chicago Board of Education at the Board's December 19, 2012 meeting. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Parents, politicians, community members and even the hearing officers hired by Chicago Public Schools are questioning the data and justification for the closing and reorganization of 100 schools in Chicago, the largest in this nation’s history. Yet CEO Byrd-Bennett continues to say that her data is correct and she is doing what is best for Chicago — just as she claimed back in 2004 before for she was forced to quit her job.

The name of investigative series was “School Bus Bloat” and “School Bus Bloat 2005.” The website for the organization that still is reporting the original 2004 corruption of CEO Byrd-Bennet is

The Cleveland investigation “triggered extensive firings, $4,000,000 worth of cost savings, the repayment of $729,000 in ill-gotten state transportation funding, a criminal indictment, an outside performance audit, an Ohio Department of Education investigation, and the hiring of a private firm to reform the management of the transportation department. During the course of this investigation, Cleveland voters overwhelmingly defeated two school levies. CEO Byrd Bennett ultimately announced her resignation.”

The two full reports on the series are reprinted below: “School Bus Bloat” WJW Cleveland

1. Title and People Involved: “School Bus Bloat”

Tom Merriman, Investigative Reporter Greg Easterly, Executive Producer Mark DeMarino, Producer Dave Hollis, Videographer Matt Rafferty, Avid Editor Chuck Rigdon, Avid Editor

2. Dates of Broadcast: October 6 - 8, 2004. November 15 - 16, 2004

3. Synopsis:

After laying off 800 teachers and slashing transportation services for children, the I-Team found the Cleveland Municipal School District was paying over $3,600,000 to keep 206 spare bus drivers on the payroll. The 206 spares were allegedly kept busy assisting the District’s 233 regular drivers. As the Mayor and School District CEO campaigned for a $68,000,000 tax increase, we began researching records documenting what the spares actually did to earn a paycheck. We found, on a typical day, transportation supervisors could not account for the whereabouts or activities of 136 spare drivers. Our hidden cameras found the depots packed with drivers shooting pool and playing charades at 8:45 AM.

After our first story aired, Mayor Jane Campbell demanded reform and School District CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett promised to impose strict controls to account for the whereabouts and activities of “every bus, every driver, and every spare every minute of the day.”

That proved to be a promise she couldn’t keep. Five weeks later, we aired the story of bus driver Robert Knox who spent his days chauffering his wife around town in a big, yellow school bus. This follow-up story, holding the CEO accountable, forced the District to take meaningful action in response to our investigation.

4. How it got started: This series of stories began with a tip from a bus driver.

5. FOIA Requests: Under Ohio’s open record laws, we obtained copies of the daily bus depot logs. Ironically, it’s what wasn’t in the records which proved to be most revealing. While there were detailed hand-written entries next to many of the spare drivers’ names, most spares had blank spaces next to their names.

6. Human Resources:. The reporter devoted a majority of his time over the course of two months documenting this story. An I-Team producer and videographer participated in the hidden camera and surveillance aspects of this project.

7. Results: a. Within hours after our story aired, Mayor Jane Campbell ordered Cleveland School District CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett to immediately dismantle the massive bullpen of spare bus drivers.

b. Dr. Byrd Bennett:

1. Eliminated the positions of 129 spare bus drivers;

2. Fired bus driver Robert Knox and referred him to the county prosecutor for criminal prosecution;

3. Disciplined four transportation department supervisors;

4. Ordered the immediate removal of all pool and ping pong tables from the depots (the Union has filed a grievance);

5. Brought in the Council of Great City Schools to conduct an audit of the transportation department;

6. Following the audit, adopted the auditor’s 15 point plan to overhaul the management of the department.

7. Announced at the most recent School Board meeting her intent to develop a plan to privatize pupil transportation. This could ultimately result in turning the entire operation over to a private company.

8. Corrections: None. In fact, the auditors confirmed our findings.

9. Advice to Other Journalists: When a public official promises sweeping reform in response to your investigation, the story isn’t over. Launch a second investigation to verify whether they’ve kept their promise.

10. Difficulty or Uniqueness of Effort: School transportation is a world filled with bureaucratic jargon and doublespeak. It was important to engage school district officials early in our investigation to begin to cut through to the truth. Initially, the transportation director assured us he had 50 spare drivers. Through a series of off-camera interviews, we were able to pin him down by challenging various buzz words and labels to get at the real number. If we had waited for an on-camera interview to begin the discussion, we would have never been able focus our questioning upon the bogus explanations he had concocted to justify the multi-million dollar expenditure on spare drivers.

11. Length of Time: It took one month to prepare the original story. Three months after our original broadcast, we are continuing to develop stories on waste and mismanagement in the Department.

12. Computer-Assisted Reporting


“School Bus Bloat 2005”

Tom Merriman I-Team Reporter Mark DeMarino I-Team Producer

Greg Easterly I-Team Executive Producer/News Director

Dave Hollis I-Team Photojournalist

Matt Rafferty Avid Editor Chuck Rigdon Avid Editor


2/08/05 -12/20/05


Over the course of fourteen months, the WJW I-Team aired 25 original stories about the Cleveland Municipal School District’s transportation department. Our reports documented millions of dollars in waste, gross mismanagement, and the use inflated data in applications for state transportation funding. Standing at the center of this controversy was arguably the most powerful political figure in the city of Cleveland- CMSD’S Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd Bennett.

Ultimately this project evolved into six distinct investigations. Each an effort to verify the public statements and promises made by CEO Byrd Bennett and her staff in response to our prior stories. Through the use of extensive public record requests, video surveillance, hidden cameras, and source development, the WJW I-Team documented the school district:

1. Spending $3,600,000 to employ over 200 “spare” bus drivers who were paid to do nothing more than show up and punch a time clock;

2. Failing to account for the whereabouts or activities of over one hundred employees, some who spent their working hours shooting pool or playing charades, one who used a school bus to go grocery shopping with his wife;

3. Cutting transportation service for thousands of children while operating buses which averaged 61% empty seats; 4. Violating state law by submitting transportation ridership reports without ever counting the number of children actually riding Cleveland school buses;

5. Intentionally inflating school bus ridership figures in state funding reports after being ordered by the Ohio Department of Education to conduct a count of actual riders;

6. Spending over $1,000,000 transporting student athletes short distances in chartered luxury coach buses and taxi cabs while the district’s spare bus drivers and hundreds of extra yellow school buses sat idle.


After the district laid off 800 teachers and slashed school bus transportation

service in an effort to plug a $100,000,000 deficit, the WJW I-Team began investigating an anonymous tip that the district’s transportation department was padding its payroll. In the Fall of 2004, we aired several stories documenting the district’s employment of over 200 “spare” bus drivers. Those initial stories were recognized as a finalist in the 2004 IRE Awards. (Although they are a critical component of this overall investigative project, they are NOT included in this submission)

During our interviews with district officials, they repeatedly claimed the spares were needed to assist on buses which were now filled with over 60 children per run. Our research of depot logs revealed most of the spares actually never left the building. Given the district’s deceptive answers about the spare drivers, we set out to verify their claim that Cleveland’s school buses were packed with kids. Over the next seven months, the simple question of how many children actually ride yellow school buses exploded into a high profile financial scandal.


We began our records research by requesting a download of any database indicating the number of riders on each bus run. The database enabled us to identify all buses which allegedly carried more than sixty children. When our surveillance revealed that none of the buses carried anything close to sixty riders (in fact, most were more than half-empty), the district admitted they had never really counted the number of actual riders on their buses. Since this was a violation of state law (funding is based on actual ridership), the Ohio Department of Education ordered the district to conduct a count of actual riders.

After the district submitted new ridership numbers to the Ohio Department of Education, we requested copies of all hand-written tally sheets filled out by each bus driver during the state-ordered five-day count. We then built a spreadsheet comparing the average daily ridership reported on each bus driver’s tally sheets with the numbers submitted to the state on the district’s funding report. We found the numbers were inflated on 199 buses and overall ridership was inflated by at least 2700 children. The Ohio Department of Education then ordered Cleveland to recalculate and refile their funding report based upon our investigation. ODE auditors found the district had overstated ridership by 3241 children.After the district CEO insisted the bogus numbers were the product of “sloppiness” and fired two managers in the transportation department, we requested copies of all internal documents related to the district’s transportation report. This request ultimately produced an e-mail revealing fired business manager Lou Marcelino had been ordered to inflate the numbers.

The most difficult record to obtain was the tape-recorded interrogation of Lou Marcelino conducted by the district chief counsel on the day of Marcelino’s termination. In our on-camera interview, Marcelino claimed he told the chief counsel of the scheme to inflate the numbers during the interrogation. We made repeated requests for the tape (including an on-camera request), but the school district insisted it was protected by attorney-client privilege. After we aired a story detailing our effort to obtain the tape, Mayor Jane Campbell intervened and publicly demanded that the school board (which she appoints) turn it over to WJW. The district then released a transcript which confirmed Marcelino’s claim that he had informed the chief counsel of the scheme to inflate ridership.


Throughout November, December, and the beginning of January, an I-Team reporter, producer, and two photojournalists spent about two hours per day counting children stepping onto buses throughout the city. At one point, we used the station’s helicopter to assist in this effort.

The rest of this project involved the review of extensive public records and the analysis district data.


As detailed in the attached impact statement, our reports have triggered extensive firings, $4,000,000 worth of cost savings, the repayment of $729,000 in ill-gotten state transportation funding, a criminal indictment, an outside performance audit, an Ohio Department of Education investigation, and the hiring of a private firm to reform the management of the transportation department. During the course of this investigation, Cleveland voters overwhelmingly defeated two school levies. CEO Byrd Bennett ultimately announced her resignation.


Our investigation proved unequivocally that the district intentionally inflated school bus ridership figures on the state funding report. We also proved CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett’s public explanations about the bogus numbers were not truthful.Our reports also raised the question of whether the district acted with the intent to defraud the state of Ohio. That proved to be a question which was never completely resolved. An attorney retained by the school board concluded district managers believed they had been told by state officials that the practice of adding four non-existent riders to every bus run was permissible. A competing investigation by the Ohio Department of Education found that ODE staff had specifically instructed the same Cleveland officials that the practice was illegal. Ultimately, Cleveland was ordered to repay $729,000 in transportation funding.


What makes this project unique is that every story grew out of the public statements made by officials attempting to make our last story go away. This was not a “drive by investigation.” Our advice to journalists is to keep each report narrowly focused, but review every statement, sound bite, and document to see if it may be a spring board to a future story. This investigation began with a simple tip about spare bus drivers shooting pool, it evolved into a full-blown scandal which challenged the credibility of the highest paid public official in the state of Ohio.


While the logistics of counting children getting on buses at multiple locations proved to be more difficult than you might imagine, the real challenge of this project was confronting a public relations machine which was willing to use spin, deception, delay, and legal intimidation to keep us from getting at the truth.


We began this project in September 2004 and continued to turn original investigative stories through June of 2005. We followed with updates announcing results of various reviews and reform efforts through December 2005. (See attached timeline) Some of these stories took months to prepare, others were turned in a matter of hours.While this series began airing in October 2004, the majority of stories were broadcast in 2005. In compliance with contest rules, we have only included investigative reports which aired in 2005.


As explained above, we used a spreadsheet to compare the bus drivers’ hand-written tally sheets with the numbers submitted by the district on their state funding report.