BBB IS OUT! Barbara Byrd Bennett goes on 'leave' after desperate try to fend off corruption charges or get public legal support... Jesse Ruiz to head CPS during interim...

The 'Chief Executive Officer' of the nation's third largest school system, Chicago's Barbara Byrd Bennett, has taken a leave of absence from the Chicago Public Schools, according to informed sources. Board of Eduction Vice President Jesse Ruiz, a LaSalle St. lawyer who had been a Board member since his appointment by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in May 2011, will reportedly take over as the school system's top official while the city searches for a new chief for its schools.

Chicago Public Schools 'Chief Executive Officer' Barbara Byrd Bennett stepped aside into a leave of absence on April 17, 2015, following three days of public revelations that a federal grand jury is hearing testimony against her on corruption charges. Above, Byrd Bennett eyed a Substance photographer during the March 2014 meeting of the Board. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.The dramatic announcement that Byrd Bennett was out came after two days of public discussion following the revelation that she was under federal investigation for corruption two years after the recommended that the Board of Education award a no-bid contract for principal and administrator training to a north suburban organization called "SUPES Academy". Prior to her taking the top job at Chicago's schools, Byrd Bennett had worked for SUPES Academy.

The revelation that Byrd Bennett was out came near midday on April 17, 2015, when various media began receiving copies of a letter she had just presented to Board of Education President David Vitale. In the brief letter, Byrd Bennett said she was taking the leave of absence, during which she will continue to be paid her quarter million dollar annual salary, to avoid being a "distraction" during the federal investigation. Her leave of absence begins on Monday, April 20, according to the letter.

The letter from Barbara Byrd Bennett requesting a leave of absence, dated April 17, 2015.Sources told Substance that Byrd Bennett spent her final day in the CPS central offices closeted with private lawyers, after she was informed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel's staff that CPS lawyers and city lawyers would not be paid by public funds to represent her.

Byrd Bennett is the second 'Chief Executive Officer' appointed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel since he was sworn in to his first term in May 2011. Both have been from outside Chicago.

Byrd Bennett was brought to Chicago as the highest paid consultant in the school system's history in the Spring of 2012, while the Chicago Teachers Union and the school board were negotiating what would become the first union contract between the new Board and the new leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union (which had been elected in June 2010). Byrd Bennett actually took part in the 2012 negotiations while Emanuel's first pick to head the schools was excluded from the bargaining sessions.

After the contract was finally ratified, following the first union strike in a quarter century, Brizard was ousted and Byrd Bennett became CEO of the nation's third largest school system by a vote of the Board of Education at its November 2012 meeting. Like Brizard, she was paid a quarter million dollars per year, plus performance bonuses which have not been made public.

Chicago Board of Education Vice President Jesse Ruiz (above during the November 20, 2014 meeting of the Board) will become the school system's interim Chief Executive Officer following the April 17, 2015 announcement that Barbara Byrd Bennett is going on leave during the federal grand jury investigation into corruption in her administration. Although he has no Chicago teaching or administrative experience, Ruiz had previously served as head of the Illinois State Board of Education. Substance photo by David Vance.Emanuel announced that he was choosing Rochester New York Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard to be CEO of CPS in April 2011, a few weeks before Emanuel himself was sworn in as the city's mayor following more than a quarter century of Mayor Richard M. Daley. Brizard was at his first Board of Education meeting on June 11, 2011, at which time he told the Board that the school system was broke and couldn't afford the four percent raise owed to union workers in the final year of a five-year contract negotiated in 2007 under a previous Board, a previous mayor, and a previous Chief Executive Officer.

Brizard immediately made it clear that he was completely under the thumb of the mayor.


Embattled Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has agreed to take a leave of absence pending the outcome of a federal investigation into the role she played in awarding a no-bid, $20.5 million principal-training contract to a company that once employed her.

The move happened as news came to light that her homes in Chicago and the Cleveland area had been searched by the feds, and that investigators had issued broad subpoenas for records at CPS concerning Byrd-Bennett, several employees close to her and the Wilmette-based company that received the no-bid contract, SUPES Academy.

Chicago Board of Education Vice President Jesse Ruiz has been appointed interim CEO to replace Byrd-Bennett and get on with the serious business of averting another teachers strike, fending off bankruptcy at the Chicago Public Schools and persuading the Illinois General Assembly to grant CPS the pension relief pivotal to avoid going broke. Ruiz will not receive a salary.

There was no way Byrd-Bennett could confront those issues with any credibility with a legal cloud over her head, City Hall sources said.

Byrd-Bennett has hired a defense attorney, Michael Scudder. Subpoenas from the feds are seeking a large array of records concerning SUPES Academy as well as related firms, and two key players at SUPES. The feds also wanted any records showing honorarium or financial benefits received by CPS employees related to SUPES, as well as personnel records for Byrd-Bennett and several high-ranking employees who have worked with her at other schools districts in her career as well as at CPS.

Scudder said Byrd-Bennett wrote a letter to Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale Friday morning requesting the leave so as not to be �a distraction.� It is effective Monday. Scudder declined to comment on the investigation.

�This week I learned of an investigation being conducted by federal authorities in Chicago . . . In light of the attention given to my position as chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools, I believe that my continuing as CEO at this time would be a distraction,� according to the letter read by Scudder.

�Although this is a very difficult decision personally, it is one I believe is in the best interests of the children of CPS that I am so fortunate to serve. I remain deeply committed to the mission of CPS but believe my taking a leave of absence under these circumstances best serves the interests of the children and the District.�

Byrd-Bennett will be using her accumulated leave time while she is off, but CPS officials refused to say how many days that is and what will happen if she�s off more days than she has.

As for her replacement, Ruiz is a former state board of education chairman who was chosen because he will have no problem taking on the job. He is the fifth CEO at CPS since 2010.

�He�s respected inside and outside the organization. He has long experience dealing with Springfield on issues front-and-center for CPS. And he hits the ground running,� said a top City Hall source who asked to remain anonymous.

CPS is facing a $1.1 billion budget shortfall and a $9.5 billion pension crisis. The teachers contract expires this summer.

Sources said Byrd-Bennett will continue to be paid her $250,000-a-year salary during her leave of absence.

Asked whether Byrd-Bennett would ultimately get her job back and potentially get a new contract after the current agreement expires June 30, a source said: �Prosecutors will answer that question.�

The focus of the federal investigation is a $20.5 million no-bid contract awarded to Wilmette-based SUPES Academy, a company that once employed Byrd-Bennett as a trainer.

The contract raised eyebrows even before principals started complaining about the poor quality of training.

That�s because there seemed to be no legitimate reason to award a no-bid contract in a field with hundreds of competitors across the nation doing the same thing.

The SUPES training contract was ratified by Emanuel�s hand-picked board. The board president, Vitale, even defended it publicly. And it�s clear that the board will face serious questions about why it never aggressively questioned the deal.

But sources said it�s clear from the documents that the FBI has requested and the people that agents are interviewing that the board is not part of the investigation. The feds are focusing on the company and Byrd-Bennett. Underscoring that point is the search by the feds of Byrd-Bennett�s homes. A spokesman for SUPES Academy has also confirmed that the business has handed over records and files to the feds.

Byrd-Bennett�s attorney is a former federal prosecutor and a partner in the Chicago office of the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. He specializes in white-collar criminal defense among other areas, according to the firm�s website.

News of Byrd-Bennett�s temporary departure was announced on a Friday in a pattern all too familiar at City Hall. Embarrassing or politically damaging news is typically announced on Friday afternoon, when most Chicagoans are more focused on making weekend plans, particularly so when the weather is nice during spring and summer.

The leave was announced while Mayor Rahm Emanuel was in Mexico for a brief post-election vacation.

Mayoral spokesperson Kelley Quinn said Emanuel �supports� the paid leave of absence �so that the focus of our teachers, principals and parents can remain on the nearly 400,000 students who depend on the district for a quality education.�

�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,� Kelley said in an emailed statement.

The federal investigation is a huge embarrassment for Emanuel.

Not only does it give the Illinois General Assembly a convenient excuse not to help close the $1.1 billion budget shortfall and solve the $9.5 billion pension crisis by ending the double-standard that forces Chicago taxpayers to pay for their own retired teachers and for those outside the city.

The newly re-elected mayor faces the potential of having to appoint his third schools CEO in four years.

The first CPS chief, Jean-Claude Brizard, was one of Emanuel�s showcase hires in 2011. Brizard resigned by �mutual agreement� after just 17 months after angering the mayor by going on vacation in the run-up to the seven-day teachers strike in 2012 that was Chicago�s first in 25 years. Brizard was also accused of falling short as a manager.

Byrd-Bennett earned the mayor�s trust � and forged a bond with Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis � when she replaced Brizard at the bargaining table and helped negotiate an end to the strike.

Former Chicago Board of Education President and state board chairman Gery Chico called Ruiz an �excellent choice� to hold down the fort while the federal investigation of Byrd-Bennett plays out.

�He�s been involved with public education for many years. He�s a very smart person. He�s an attorney. He has the right demeanor for the job. He also has a history of having served as chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education, which can only be helpful in any negotiations involving state aid or pension negotiations in Springfield,� Chico said.

�There are huge challenges ahead with finances and just keeping the focus of the CPS administration where it needs to be: on educating children. This is a huge distraction. Knowing Jesse, he will be able to bring a level of stability while this gets sorted out.�

Although Byrd-Bennett and Lewis had become �girlfriends,� as one source put it, Chico predicted that Ruiz would do just fine.

�This isn�t about whether you like the same movie or dinner menu. It�s about working together for the success of the kids. Karen Lewis is very smart. She understands we need to have a working relationship between teachers and administrators if we�re going to have success for our children,� Chico said.

Chico served as State Board of Education chairman until Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner defeated Democratic incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn.

Chico does not believe the Illinois General Assembly will use the Byrd-Bennett scandal as an excuse to avoid giving CPS the pension relief the system needs to avoid bankruptcy.

�We were facing the same thing in 1995. Arguably worse. At that point, the academic program was far worse and the school infrastructure was far worse,� Chico said.

�Bankruptcy is absolutely avoidable. It�ll take a lot of work by all of the parties involved. That means school administrators, taxpayers, vendors, parents and teachers. But, it can be done and, in fact, must be done for the future of the city.�

He added, �Bankruptcy is a last resort � not a first resort. There�s a little principle of living up to what you said you�d do. Who�s gonna look to do business with CPS if you�re just going to rip up contracts? How do you take CPS at their word?�