Chicago schools chief to take temporary leave amid probe

AP News
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Posted: Apr 17, 2015 6:15 PM
Chicago schools chief to take temporary leave amid probe

CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett will take a paid leave of absence amid a federal investigation over a roughly $20 million no-bid contract the district awarded to a training academy where she once worked as a consultant, officials announced Friday.

The schools chief of the nation's third-largest district — chosen by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2012 — requested the leave effective Monday, which the Chicago Board of Education agreed to.

"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," Byrd-Bennett wrote in a letter to board members Friday. "Although this is a very difficult decision for me personally, it is one I believe is in the best interests of the children of CPS that I am so fortunate to serve."

Byrd-Bennett, who has not been accused of wrongdoing, directed requests for comment to her attorney, Michael Scudder. He declined to talk about the pending investigation. A longtime educator, Byrd-Bennett has ties to school systems in New York, Detroit and Cleveland.

Board officials provided copies of subpoenas at a news conference showing that the probe involves three other school district employees, along with programs and employees related to the SUPES Academy, a suburban company that trains principals. The subpoenas seek records, including contracts, invoices and emails. Among those listed are Byrd-Bennett's chief of staff, Sherry Ulery. She didn't return a message seeking comment.

The news comes at a critical time for the district, which faces a roughly $1 billion budget shortfall and a severely underfunded pension system. Contract negotiations with the powerful Chicago Teachers Union are upcoming this year. During the last round in 2012, Chicago teachers went on strike for the first time in 25 years.

It's unclear how long Byrd-Bennett, who makes a $250,000 salary, will be on leave or get paid. Her three-year contract expires June 30. But she's allowed to renew for a year, a process she initiated in December. Board members didn't object ahead of the deadline, said Chicago Board of Education president David Vitale.

However, he added that the outcome of the investigation could alter that. Byrd-Bennett is currently using accumulated leave days, but school officials didn't immediately know how many she had. Vitale confirmed Byrd-Bennett's leave would take effect Monday after initially saying it was immediate.

In the interim, board vice president Jesse Ruiz has been named to take over. He's an attorney and a former chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education.

School officials declined to offer further details about the investigation.

Emanuel and Vitale had confirmed earlier this week that CPS was being investigated by federal officials, without disclosing specifics. SUPES Academy officials in suburban Chicago have said they turned over records and files to federal investigators.

Vitale and Ruiz, who both voted for the SUPES contract, defended the process on Friday. Vitale said he didn't see a conflict of interest with Byrd-Bennett's former role at SUPES.

"Many of us have prior lives in which we've engaged with organizations which we no longer have any relationship with that still might provide quality service to Chicago Public Schools," Vitale said.

Word of the probe follows a hard-fought re-election battle for Emanuel, who spent much of the time on the campaign trail defending controversial schools decisions and his choice of Byrd-Bennett. Among the most scrutinized moves was a 2013 push to close dozens of neighborhood schools. During the campaign, Emanuel said it was a tough, but necessary decision to improve school achievement and he was proud of his choice of Byrd-Bennett.

Emanuel spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said in a statement Friday that the mayor supported Byrd-Bennett's decision.

"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," Quinn said.

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Follow Sophia Tareen at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen.