THE LOOP — The head of Chicago Public Schools is stepping aside amid a federal grand jury investigation into a $20 million no-bid contract awarded to a firm she previously worked for.
CPS said Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett will take a leave of absence because of the federal probe's "impact on her ability" to lead the nation's third-largest school system.
School Board President David Vitale announced Friday that Vice President Jesse Ruiz will assume Byrd-Bennett's duties pending the outcome of the federal investigation.
CPS officials confirmed the grand jury probe and handed out copies of some of the subpoenas issued earlier this week by U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon to reporters at a news conference, even though one subpoena specifically stated: "We ask that you do not disclose, directly or indirectly, the fact that you have received this subpoena or your response to it." Vitale said the subpoenas were released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. Those called to testify included CPS attorney James Bebley and Byrd-Bennett's top lieutenants.
Byrd-Bennett had worked for SUPES Academy, a training company, before she was named to head Chicago Public Schools. SUPES later was awarded a contract to train CPS principals.
Byrd-Bennett did not attend the news conference at CPS headquarters, 42 W. Madison St. Vitale said that he and, he believed, other members of the board were aware of her previous relationship with SUPES Academy when they signed off on the principal education contract.
"Yes, we knew, but she had no contractual relationship with SUPES after she joined CPS," Vitale said. He called the program to mentor principals "somewhat unique," adding SUPES was the "sole source" of such a service.
Asked why the public should have any confidence in the board at this point, after previously signing off on costly loan swaps in addition to Byrd-Bennett's contract, Vitale cited the "enormous progress" made by CPS over the last several years, including improved test scores and graduation rates.
"I'm proud to say that this board has supported the management and those achievements," Vitale said. "It's really important for both Jesse and I to assure the citizens of Chicago and the children and families that we serve that we continue to work hard to maintain our momentum and stay true to our vision for this district."
Vitale insisted, "I have no intention of stepping down."
Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey said it was "sadly just one incident among widespread practices by the mayor’s Board of Education appointees" in what he called "a culture of conflict of interest."
He referred to Byrd-Bennett's tenure in the past tense, saying, she "will be most remembered as the person who was brought in to sell the mayor’s school-closing plan."
According to Vitale, Byrd-Bennett has accumulated leave time she'll be taking, effective Monday, and remains under consideration to have her contract extended when it expires at the end of June, again pending the outcome of the federal probe. "No allegations have in fact been made," he said.
Vitale cited Ruiz's credentials "as board vice president for almost four years, and a former chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education." He added, "Ruiz has both the legal and educational expertise and experience to guide the district at this time while ensuring students and teachers continue to make academic gains in the classroom.”
Ruiz said he was "ready and eager to take on the responsibility of managing and leading CPS during this time."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who appointed Byrd-Bennett to the post, as well as the entire Board of Education, said he backed her decision.
"Mayor Emanuel supports today’s actions by Barbara Byrd-Bennett and the Board of Education 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," his office said in a written statement. "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."
The contract to train principals was given to SUPES Academy, which benefited from the deal soon after Byrd-Bennett was named to head CPS in 2012. Subpoenas also sought information on the Chicago Executive Leadership Academy.
"SUPES will of course cooperate with this investigation," academy spokesman Dennis Culloton said. "At the same time, the company stands behind the countless hours of training it has provided to Chicago Public Schools principals. Principals are the key to improving schools, and SUPES’ peer-to-peer leadership training shares the best practices of school leaders from around the country."
Culloton added that "because this is an open investigation, we will not be commenting any further."
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