MEIDA WATCH: A 'crooked superintendent' who wound up paying herself $270,000 per year with bonuses! Byrd-Bennett's time as head of the Cleveland schools showed she did very well for herself while attacking teachers and letting the schools suffer

No sooner had Chicago awakened to discover that former Cleveland Schools Supt. Barbara Byrd-Bennett was the latest out-of-towner to be made "Chief Executive Officer" of Chicago's public schools than the latest media assault on the truth began. Officially, Byrd-Bennett, since she was appointed by Rahm Emanuel, is a great schools leader. The propaganda will doubtless continue for the coming weeks.

But a close look at Byrd Bennett's record in Cleveland, the place where she actually ran a school system, shows the opposite of the official clean up. (Since leaving Cleveland to lucrative posts with the Broad Foundation and Detroit, she hasn't actually been an executive running schools).

Beginning today, Substance will share another perspective on the latest person without Chicago teaching or administrative experience to be named, because of mayoral control, to head CPS. This process of bringing in outsiders actually began a few years before mayoral control (which didn't become official until 1995 with the passage of the Amendatory Act by the Illinois General Assembly). Argie Johnson and Ted Kimbrough were both outsiders, the former from New York City, the latter from California, who served as the last "superintendents" in Chicago in the early 1990s. Chicago hasn't had a Chicagoan in charge of its public schools since Manford Byrd was forced out of office in 1988 by the first wave of "school reform."

Below is a 2003 article published in Cleveland assessing the Byrd Bennett years:

Cleveland Schools, Crooked Superintendent, Wicked Mayor, and our Youth, by Nelly Friday, Dec. 26, 2003 at 2:11 PM

The situation in the Cleveland School District needs serious debate and attention. Please read this important article and start a lively conversation on the problems facing our community and our children, why is the city neglecting our youth, and what can we as activists do about it.

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In this article I would like to give some voice to the problem of the Cleveland Public School District. I will discuss the issues of low graduation, the mayoral control of the school system, and the many problems that plague the failing district. Education is an important issue, one that is rarely debated and discussed in activist circles. And although it is a very tiring issue it needs to be discussed and debated, people have to get involved and struggle for student rights. The children in America are getting the worst treatment in schools. Inner city schools are plagued by violence, dilapidated schools, and horribly oppressive restrictions. Therefore this article is also a call to action, to urge people to get more involved with the schools in their communities. The youth of America deserves better. Also, I will raise some questions about the economy and the education process.

Firstly I would like to talk about the state of the Cleveland School System. I would also like to state a few things about the media first. As it is known the local media is not completely independent of its corporate sponsors, as well as the knowledge that most of our local news coverage is highly conservative. This being the case we rarely see any information about our failing school system on the news, and only rarely do we catch a blurb of something in the local papers. It’s sad that we have to turn to the Arizona Republic to learn that Cleveland has been ranked as the poorest school district in terms of graduating students.

A national study in 2001 proved that in Cleveland “just 28 percent of the class of 1998 earned a diploma. A stunningly low 23 percent of white students graduated -- far lower than any other district studied -- while 26 percent of Latinos and 29 percent of blacks graduated.” (1) But there is more shocking news: “Cleveland was one of five districts among the 50 largest in America to manage an overall graduation rate below 50 percent, joined by Memphis (42 percent), Milwaukee (43 percent), Columbus, Ohio, (45 percent) and Chicago (47 percent).” (2)

Voucher programs, heavily encouraged by the Bush administration and supported by many mainstream conservatives, have been installed in Cleveland. But it has been proven that only 7 percent of students are using these vouchers, and studies have shown that students don’t fair any better at higher income schools then in the public schools. NewsNet5 reported in late December that “students in the Cleveland voucher program performed on the same level as their public school peers, according to the final part of a five-year Indiana University study.” (3) Furthermore: “The study found little variation in the class sizes and teacher experience that voucher students and public school students encountered. It also found that white and Latino children were better represented in the voucher program than black students.” (4)

How much has this voucher program cost the city of Cleveland? Over 1.5 million dollars! And this is where the money problem begins. The Cleveland School System spends millions of dollars to educate some 50,000 students in the Cleveland School District and yet Cleveland is the poorest school system in America. The Cleveland school system is currently operating at a $60 million deficit. (5) Where is the money going? Not much information is available on where most of it is going, but some information is plainly visible. Apparently the school system feels the best way to decrease the number of student drop-outs is by fixing up the schools, such as the new $6 million dollar gymnasium at East High, and millions of dollars on outer renovations. I write outer renovations, because the system has chosen a clever way to deceive the public by renovating the outer façade of the school, while either covering up the mold and wholes with pain, or in general not putting any effort at renovating the inner structure of the schools. The textbooks, however, are rotting away in the hands of the students, some classes are too large, and there is a host of many other issues.

Who is the Superintendent?

Barbara Byrd Bennett is the CEO of the Cleveland Public School system. Ever since the city voted on the levy that transferred control of the schools in the hands of the mayor, Jane Campbell has kept Bennett around despite the very low success rate of the Cleveland schools since her first day on the job in 1998. Bennett was raised in Harlem, New York, and became the superintendent in Brooklyn; during the state of educational emergency in 1998 she was hired by former mayor Michael White to salvage the failing system.

Barbara Byrd Bennett

Since acquiring her position in 1998 the only significant improvement that has occurred in the past 5 years is the ten percent increase in high school graduation, which only by a slight margin removed Cleveland from the state of emergency school list.

In June of 2003 Barbara Byrd Bennett fired 52 assistant principles and 172 school teachers because of the budget crises. Only days later she was given a $54,000 bonus for her work, raising her salary to whopping $270,000! Such a bonus is not normal for CEO’s, especially for CEO’s where company is suffering greatly, especially when the company is a school district. A $54,000 bonus is more than a single teacher’s yearly salary. Nevertheless Jane Campbell, the mayor of Cleveland, signed off on the bonus.(6)

Another issue that is raised is the conflict of interest that Barbara Byrd Bennett has run into, and the city has done nothing about. Bennett’s son in law is employed by the city school district. This is in clear violation of the law which states: “"At no time shall an administrator responsible for the employment, supervision and evaluation of an employee be directly related." (7) But nothing has been done, and nothing will be done because nobody knows about this and people like to keep things quiet.

Our superintendent receives awards for her “excellence” and is praised. But I am not pleased with her work, and I am disgusted with her salary and bonus. Our children are dropping out and doing drugs while she is “delighted” about her “well deserved” income. If you wish to contact the superintendent, or the school district, their phone number is (216) 574-8500

Schools in general

I write with some experience on this subject. I was a student at the public schools in Cleveland, and today I teach in Cleveland public schools. Every day I am a witness to the conditions of our public education. Everyday I see how teachers handle their work and how students learn and educate themselves. The majority of Cleveland schools are very poor with very bad maintenance.

The poverty of the city plays a major role. Because many children who attend the local schools are raised in a poverty stricken neighborhood with violence and drugs it is difficult for them to accustom their minds to a disciplined regime of studying and training themselves. To many children the idea of going to college does not even enter upon the mind, and the majority knows that they will probably leave school, like their brothers and sisters, before they graduate. It is a story of survival most of the time, because while you’re at school you can’t earn a living, you can’t buy yourself anything, you’re just wasting time. If you’re out of school you can get a job, or find other ways of earning money, and do what “you want”. It is sad cold truth. Children in the schools want to learn, but their options are limited, their neighborhood does not harvest the culture of education, and the schools themselves do not give the necessary empowerment that the child needs to believe in himself/herself to achieve success.

Unfortunately, I think that the schools will stay in such horrid conditions as long as the system goes unchanged. The schools will stay in such horrid conditions as long as the neighborhoods and the city remain in poverty and depression. Nothing will change if we keep electing self-serving mayors and CEO’s, and as long as we look the other way and not want to deal with our city. I urge everyone to think about these things. This article was written quickly and so there is of course a lot more that could be said about the condition of our schools, and I welcome these stories. Let us start a debate about our education system, and not just locally, but nationally. It is a fatal system, which I believe will eventually dismantle before reformed.

I would like to thank Katherin Trava for giving me the photographs from John Marshal High School in Cleveland. Please look at the conditions of some of our schools from these exclusive Kleveland/Social Nerve photographs.


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