Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Gets Prison Time
BY SUSAN JOHNES
A federal judge recently expressed the persistence of city corruption when he sentenced the former head of Chicago Public Schools to 4 years in prison.
There are allegations that the head of the school steered $23 million in no-bid city contracts to education firms, cutting more than $2 million in kickbacks.
At the sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court in Chicago, Judge Edmond Chang said Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s interference with the district funds under significant financial strain made her crime worse.
Before learning her punishment in court, a sorrowful Byrd-Bennett apologized saying, “What I did was terribly wrong. I’m ashamed and sincerely sorry.”
Chang said that the 67-year-old Byrd-Bennett and her co-schemers had eroded public confidence in a city with a long history of corruption.
The judge added that it was vital to impose a punishment that can as a lesson to other officials tempted to accept bribes and kickbacks. “It’s distressing that Chicago seems to be unable to shed its image of public corruption,” he said.
Chang added that the scheme had diverted money from students who relied on education to help them escape poverty and crime.
He cited emails where Byrd-Bennett expressed an eagerness to make money. One email read, “I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit.”
Chicago district is the nation’s third largest with 400,000 students who are mostly low-income. Before being tapped to lead the district, Byrd-Bennett held top education jobs in Detroit, Cleveland, and New York.
Prosecutor Megan Church told the court earlier that Bennett used to work as a teacher in her young age in low-income neighborhoods in New York City. Later, she became a “superstar” in the world of education reform.
Unfortunately, she succumbed to “naked greed” and a sense of entitlement as she took the Chicago post in 2012.
In Chang’s judgment, he said he factored in Byrd-Bennett’s age and how she had revitalized schools in different cities over her 40-year career. Chang described her as quiet with acts of kindness, including helping some students to pay for the funerals.
Co-defendants, Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, also pleaded guilty to the charges. Chang sentenced Solomon to seven years in prison while Vranas received an 18-month sentence.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel hired Byrd-Bennett five years ago. During that time, she vowed to revitalize school districts criticized for low student performance.
Byrd-Bennett oversaw the distribution of funds to dozens of schools in a money-saving measure. In the court, she said that she had become overwhelmed as the head of CPS.
Bennett recalled how parents yelled at her for closing their neighborhood schools. They accused her of putting their kids in trouble by forcing them to walk to new schools farther away.
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