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Better late than never?... Federal 'investigation' of Chicago schools 'Chief Executive Officer' Barbara Byrd Bennett revealed... Years of conflicts of interest, cronyism and corruption by the CEO have been ignored by Chicago's corporate media while regularly reported in Substance...

Chicago Public Schools "Chief Executive Officer" Barbara Byrd-Bennett (BBB) is now under federal investigation for a $20 million dollar no bid contract to SUPES academy, according to reliable sources. The suburban-based "SUPES Academy" at the time the Chicago Board of Education voted to approve the contract was known to be a company she had worked for. During the June 26, 2013 meeting of the Chicago Board of Education, Board member Deborah Quazzo (above left) was one of the Board members who voted to approve the SUPES Academy executive training program at a cost of $20 million. Neither Quazzo nor any other member of the Board asked CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett, who signed the recommendation to pay SUPES the $20 million, whether there were any potential conflicts. Of course, Quazzo would be the last person at CPS to worry about conflicts. Investigations later showed that companies in which she had a financial interest received millions of dollars in contracts from CPS following her appointment to the Board by Mayor Rahm Emanuel after the departure of Penny Pritzker. Substance photo from the June 26, 2013 Board meeting by George N. Schmidt.At Substancenews.net, we have been reporting for three years now about BBB (as she is commonly called) and how she is wasting taxpayer dollars by creating discord in the school district. Before Byrd-Bennett was hired as CEO she was already working in the district as one of the highest paid consultants in the history of the system, at $21,500 a month and was paid more than $150,000 for a few months' work. All the while, the existing CEO, Jean-Claude Brizard, who had been brought into Chicago from Rochester New York, was also being paid a full salary. By November 2012, CEO Brizard was forced to resign. He was forced out ostensibly because of his handling of the Chicago Teachers Union contract negotiations that led to the strike of September 2012. But while Brizard's failure during the strike has been the official line of CPS, by the time of the contract negotiations before and during the strike, Brizard had been replaced at the bargaining table by Byrd Bennett. Even though she was legally a consultant to CPS (and was working also for Detroit Public Schools), she was the highest ranking employee of CPS at the bargaining table during the crucial days leading up to the strike and throughout the seven school days of the strike itself.

By the time the strike was over, eveyone who had been paying attention knew that Mayor Rahm Emanuel wanted to get rid of Brizard, despite the fact that less than two years earlier Brizard was brought in by Emanuel amid the highest paise. Emanuel said in April and May 2011 that Brizard was the right man for the Chicago job even though teachers in Rochester, where he had been serving as superintendent, had just give him an overwhelming "no confidence" vote. For his first year in office, roughly from May 2011 through May 2012, Brizard was still Emanuel's boy. But by June 2012, as contract talks heated up, that had changed.

The Chicago Board of Education's current "ethics" policy was approved by a vote of the Board at its May 2011 meeting, but has been ignored by the Board appointed by Rahm Emanuel since that Board took office in June 2011. For example, the Board, chaired by David Vitale (whose vice president is millionaire lawyer Jesse Ruiz) has never even bothered to hire and "ethics officer" as required by the policy the Board is supposedly following. Most of the time, the ethics policy is only enforced against Local School Council members and others from the working class and middle class who anger those at the heights of plutocratic power in Chicago. After being pushed out of the Chicago CEO job, Brizard was offered a "golden parachute." He now has job with the College Board in Princeton New Jersey. Part of Brizard's legacy has been his own version of Omuerta -- he never speaks about the conflicts that wracked Chicago during his brief time in office, or the forces that humiliated and set him up as the scapegoat in 2012.

Barbara Byrd Bennett was officially hired as CEO to replace Brizard in October 2012. As soon as Byrd Bennett started working for CPS as an employee in 2012, the ethical red flags started flying, but they were regularly ignored by the members of the Board of Education and most of the city's corporate media. Both the Board members and the city's corporate media instead of careful scrutiny of what she was doing, treated her as a kind of celeberity personality. They ignored the fact that the top executives she hired came from outside Illinois, that there was a massive escalation of consultant contracts and other outside work by CPS, and that cronyism was rampant in the top ranks of the city's public education administration.

The most recent "Ethics" policies of the Chicago Board of Education had been approved by the Board a few months before Emanuel became mayor, but within a year it was clear that Emanuel's Board and top administrators were not going to be required to follow them. The Board to this day doesn't even have an "Ethics Officer," despite the clear requirement of the policy.

And so, month after month, the conflicts and cronyism policies and people being approved by the members of the Board of Education (after being recommended by Byrd Bennett) were ignored. The machinations of the mayor and others were provided as "news" with a great deal of focus on personalities rather than on policies and practices. The problems grew and accumulated throughout Emanuel's first term, but until one became too big to ignore they were simply not "news" or any item of public concern.

At the time she was hired by the Chicago Board of Education as the highest paid consultant in the school system's history in June 2012, Barbara Byrd Bennett was working full-time in Detroit's public school system and living in Solon, Ohio, as the Board Report showed. There was no public discussion of how she was supposed to provide the Chief Executive Officer (at the time Jean Claude Brizard) to improve "Organizational Culture: To establish a respectful positive district culture centered on teaching and learning..." among the other "Outcomes" the Board said it was going to get from her $152,000 contract. The hiring of Byrd Bennett was ironically recommended by Brizard, who was subsequently removed from the collective bargaining table and replaced by Byrd Bennett even as she was still working in Detroit prior to the Chicago Teachers Strike of 2012. By the time the strike began, it was Byrd Bennett, and not the then CEO Brizard, who stood with the Board officials when the strike was announced. Not only was she the highest paid consultant in CPS history, but clearly the most powerful. The question never asked by any member of the school board was "Why?"Residency issues arose with evidence showing that Byrd-Bennett's actual residence was in Solon, Ohio. The Board of Education had her home address in front of her when it approved the first consulting contract to pay her more than $150,000 for a few months' part-time work in May 2012. The May 23, 2012 Board Report listed her as: Barbara Byrd Bennett, 38155 Flanders Drive, Solon, Ohio 64890. No member of the Board asked why CPS, which had a quarter million dollar a year CEO, was hiring another out of towner as a "consultant" at the highest price in history. While the CPS Inspector General was persecuting others for residency violations, a growing number of privileged administrators, virtually all of them hand picked by Barbara Byrd Bennett, was not even challenged.

Even to this day, it is openly known that Byrd Bennett travels regularly back to her home in a high-end Cleveland suburb. Most of the time, she travels with her Ohio friends back home on Friday afternoons. These rumors have been confirmed by more than one source that has daily contact with Byrd-Bennett. The Board has never revealed publicly who pays for these trips.

Then there were the reports (and later public admission) by the Chicago Board of Education that Byrd Bennett had secondary employment. For virtually everyone working at CPS, this is prohibited by Board "ethics" policies. After questions were raised, the Board under Board President David Vitale gave Byrd Bennett a personal letter to allow her to continue her dual employment. Such employment would be considered a conflict of interest for any other CPS employee, who would be fired for the violation. The Inspector General's report routinely lists minor infractions by rank-and-file workers in CPS, and the Board routinely bills parents for "residency violations." But since the beginning of the Emanuel administration top officials have not been subjected to the same standards or any level of accountability.

On top of this information, came the revelations that not only did Byrd Bennett have one other job while employed full-time as CEO of the third largest school district in the USA, but that she was employed or compensated in one way or another by five other organizations.

Here is the list of jobs that Barbara Byrd Bennett has connections to:

1. Catapult Learning -- "Senior Advisor for strategic planning"...

2. SUPES Leadership Academy for Superintendents and Principals -- "Senior Advisor"...

3. Broad Superintendent Academy -- "Executive Coach"...

4. Synesi -- "Senior Advisor for the design and implementation of school turn around"...

5. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Curriculum Group -- "Superintendent in Residence"...

6. New Schools for Chicago -- "Director"...

The contract with SUPES Academy was approved by a unanimous vote of the Board of Education on June 26, 2013, without discussion or debate. Board member Carlos Azcoitia was absent. No one on the Board of Education questioned the jargon-filled "Scope of Services" in the Board Report, nor did Barbara Byrd Bennett, who signed the recommendation for the $20 million expenditure, tell the Board or the public that she had a relationship with SUPES.The organization in the news in April 2015 is SUPES Academy. SUPES Academy received the $20 million contract on the recommendation of Byrd Bennett. The investigation is being reported widely in April 2015, but SUPES Academy was first hired by Chicago Public Schools in June 2013, when the Board rubber stamped the "Board Report" to approve the no-bid $20 million contract. SUPES received the no-bid $20 million dollar contract to train Chicago principals and other administrators. It is a fact that Byrd Bennett worked at the highest levels at SUPES even after starting to work for CPS.

The SUPES conflict was not the only one.

Cronyism in hiring administrators from out of state became a common fact, but again ignored by the Board members and media other than Substance.

The joke among Chicago administrators was that the first qualification for getting a top job at CPS was to NOT be from Chicago. By 2014, Chicago had hired administrators in the six figure range from Ohio, Michigan, Tennesse, and New York.

Bryd-Bennett has at least three reportedly close friends that she hired at different times to the highest paying jobs in the district. All became basically her personal advisors.

In one case, Rhonda Corr Saegart, who according to online records, does not possess any Illinois teaching or administrative certifications, began working in the central office and then became a "Network Chief."

Today, Saegart supervises an entire "Network" (a sub district) responsible for 35 schools of students, teachers and administrators. Teachers and principals have reported to Substance that Rhonda Saegert brags she is “untouchable” because she is best buddies with BBB.

The $20 million SUPES Academy contract was supposed to be managed by CPS Chief "Talent" Officer Alicia Winckler (shown above during the June 26, 2013 Board meeting at which the SUPES contract was approved). Like many executives at CPS, Winckler was hired (originally her title was "Chief Human Capital Officer" but that was softened to "Chief Talent Officer" after some made mockery of the notion of so-called "Human Capital") from her private sector job at Sears Holdings. She regularly did presentations about how private sector business models were improving CPS, while the Board allowed outfits like "SUPES Academy" to undertake $20 million contracts at public expenses without any oversight from Winckler or any member of her staff. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt. In another case, her close friend from Ohio, Leaura Materassi-Eaton uses the same expensive downtown high rise address to claim residency, 233 E. Wacker Dr.; one lists Apt. #2911 as a residence and the other uses #609. Strange they use the same expensive address in such a big city.

Then you have Tracy Martin-Thompson, another close Ohio friend of Byrd Bennett. Martin Thompson coincidently uses a Chicago address less than two blocks away -- in another high rise on the Chicago River at 360 E. South Water St. Apt #3701. Teachers working their entire careers could not even dream about going into these addresses, yet three non-Illinois residents from Ohio making over a half million dollars combined wierdly, use addresses three minutes apart from each other in some of the the most expensive areas of Chicago.

There was no discussion or debate at the December 2012 meeting of the Chicago Board of Education when the Board voted unanimously to hire Barbara Byrd Bennett's Ohio friend Tracy Martin Thompson to lead the newly created "Office of Strategic School Supports" at an annual salary of $170,000. The Board Report was recommended by Barbara Byrd Bennett, who didn't mention that Martin Thompson was coming from out of state and would be joining Byrd Bennett on regular visits back to Ohio.One of the easier ways to explain how Byrd Bennett has operated -- in what is being now reported as "news" -- is to look at the careers of the people she has brought to Chicago with her. Barbara Byrd-Bennett Quick time line (for comparison to crony hires complied):

Byrd Bennett's jobs since just before the beginning of the 21st Century:

1998 – 2006 Chief Executive Officer - Cleveland Schools

2006 – 2009 Executive Officer New Leaders - DC Schools

2009 – 2011 Chief Academic and Accountability Auditor - Detroit Schools

2011 – 2013 SUPES Academy

Among those from out of Chicago who are now working in the top executive postions:

1) Sherry Ulery - $175,000 - Barbara Byrd Bennett's "Chief of Staff".... Ulery worked with Barbara Byrd Bennett in Cleveland (92-07); DC (07-09); and Detroit (09-11) before her Chicago Hire (9/26/12). Ulery reportedly quit her Chicago job two weeks ago, when central office staff began hearing about investigations.

2) Leaura Materasii-Eaton - $140,000 – "CPS Turn Around Schools Administrator"...She worked with BBB in Cleveland (98-06); DC (07-09); and Detroit (09-11). She was hired in Chicago on 1/28/13.

Barbara Byrd Bennett's Ohio colleague Tracy Martin Thompson (above arriving at the June 2014 meeting of the Chicago Board of Education) was hired by the Board a month after Byrd Bennett became CEO to head the newly created "Office of Strategic School Support Services." The multi million dollar department, whose duties were never defined by Board action, pays Martin Thompson $170,000 per year plus incentives. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.3) Tracy Martin (also listed as "Tracy Martin Thompson" is currently paid $170,000 as CPS "Chief of Strategic School Supports". She worked with Byrd Bennett in Cleveland (93-07); DC (07-09); and Detroit (09-11). She has also been at SUPES from 2011-Present. Martin Thompson was hired by the Chicago Chicago Board of Education on November 26, 2012.

By its October 23, 2013 meeting, the Chicago Board of Education was ready to vote unanimously and without debate to make Rhonda Saegert a "Network Chief" at an annual salary of $151,000 per year. No one at CPS had asked, the previous summer, why CPS was hiring another school official from Ohio in a highly paid executive position. Saegert had been a principal in Ohio. As of April 2015, she still has no teaching or administrative license to work in Illinois.4) Rhonda Corr Saegert is presently being paid $151,131.43per year as CPS "Chief of Schools Network 10." According to Illinois state records, she has no IL Ed Credentials. Her highest position before moving to Chicago was as a principal in Cleveland. She uses three different iterations of her name in different states and past job positions (Worked in Cleveland (98-12) and was hired in Chicago Hire on August 19, 2013 as a consultant.

5) Robert Boik – $165,000 - Chief of Staff Worked in Detroit to close schools; Chicago Hire (4/16/12)

6) Jack Elsey - $165,000 CPS Chief Innovation and Incubation. Worked with BBB in Detroit to close schools; Chicago Hire (1/14/13)

The above individuals were hired upon the recommendation of Barbara Byrd Bennett at various meetings of the Board of Education. With a few exceptions, all have followed ger from Ohio and Detroit; even some worked DC who worked for Michelle Rhee, the nationally known union busting Chancellor in the DC public schools.

It took until April 16, 2015 for the Chicago Tribune to notice all of the corruption at the Chicago Board of Education and emanating from the office of the Board's "Chief Executive Officer," Barbara Byrd Bennett. The Tribune didn't even notice that the scandal that will rock the Board of Education in America's third largest city didn't become front page "news" until after the man who promoted Byrd Bennett and appointed the members of the Board who voted for every crooked Byrd Bennett deal had been safely re-elected. The news and the fact had been available for more than two years at www.substancenews.net and elsewhere (as in Catalyst).These people are no accidents and neither is any investigation. It was and is predictable. Chicago's corporate media ignored all the reports and past history; until now -- after Rham's re-election -- a big investigation into years-old malfeasance and ethics issues are under the proverbial gun.

Looking back, it is clear this was a set-up three years ago to get to this point. All the indicators were there that Barbara Byrd Bennett is a set up artist. The early stories were of her time in DC schools, the Cleveland schools, Detroit Schools and DC schools all districts that fell into hard times under her watch. In the case of Detroit, schools that were put under emergency management with the power to terminate collective bargaining agreements under Robert Bobb. Bobb, incidentally, worked in DC schools at the same time Byrd Bennett was working with the DC schools.

Read past issues of Substance News and you can see the pattern of Byrd Bennett's career across State lines. The above information has come from primary source documents investigated over three years and confidential sources. Documents and statements have been collected over the years that have never been revealed and Substance News will determine how they should now be released in relation to the current investigation. Our editors and reporters will be updating these stories of corruption and cronyism on a daily basis for at least the next week.



Comments:

April 16, 2015 at 10:31 AM

By: Jean Schwab

Finally

Finally, "Feds are investigating"I hope it is not "too little too late" and even more investigations follow! I can think of other people (in government and school administration) they could be investegating.

Why stop now?

April 18, 2015 at 9:26 AM

By: Robert Sacrum

Xmas in April

George,

This has to be like Xmas for you! This will fill you paper for months to come. Great job reporting.

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