School & District Management

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Former Chicago Schools CEO, Sentenced to Prison

By Denisa R. Superville — April 28, 2017 3 min read
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Former Chicago schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett was sentenced Friday to more than four years in prison for her role in steering no-bid contracts to an education consulting company in exchange for kickbacks in a $20 million corruption scheme.

Federal prosecutors had asked for an 89-month prison sentence for Byrd-Bennett, citing her role in the scheme but also her cooperation with prosecutors. Byrd-Bennett’s lawyer had initially sought a three-and-a half year sentence and significant community service.

U.S. District Court Judge Edmond Chang’s sentence closes the final chapter in Byrd-Bennett’s long education career, which started in New York City. Byrd-Bennett served as teacher, principal, and regional superintendent in the New York City’s school system. She later worked as the chief academic officer in Detroit and as superintendent in Cleveland.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed Byrd-Bennett to run the Chicago district in 2012 in the tense months leading up the teachers’ union strike and tapped her to replace then-CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, who resigned just weeks after the seven-day strike ended.

After Byrd-Bennett’s sentence was handed down, Emanuel’s spokesman Adam Collins said in a statement that the former schools chief had betrayed the public trust.

“She broke the law,” Collins’ statement read. “She turned her back on the very children she was entrusted to serve, and the children of Chicago are owed much better than that. Today’s decision is a reminder that no one is above the law, and with justice now served the entire CPS community can continue to focus on building on the record academic success of Chicago students.”

But the Chicago Teachers Union issued a statement linking Byrd-Bennett’s misdeeds to other actions under the Emanuel administration, including the large-scale closure of schools in 2013.

“Today’s sentencing of former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett joins the shuttering of 50 schools in predominantly Black and Latino communities, the cover-up in the shooting death of Laquan McDonald, the closure of city-run mental health clinics, and an ongoing email scandal on a list of embarrassments and transgressions Chicagoans have endured under the Rahm Emanuel administration,” the CTU statement read in part.

“Byrd-Bennett’s tenure as the head of CPS, in addition to her and Emanuel’s destruction of dozens of school communities in 2013, cost the district $20 million in cronyism and privatization, which continues to this day.”

Byrd-Bennett was indicted in October 2015 and later pleaded guilty to a single count of wire fraud. When she pleaded guilty in October 2015, she tearfully apologized to the city’s children and families.

“They deserve much more, much more than I gave to them,” she said.

Before she was sentenced, Byrd-Bennett said that she hoped to find a way to redeem herself and said she has no one to blame but herself, according to reporters in the courtroom. She also asked the judge to consider her entire life’s work when handing down the decision, according to reporter Sarah Karp.

Prosecutors alleged that Byrd-Bennett colluded with the owners of SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates—for which she previously worked as a consultant—to steer contracts their way in exchange for money for college and weddings for her relatives and hundreds of thousands after she left CPS.

Gary Solomon, the CEO of SUPES Academy and the supposed mastermind, was sentenced in March to seven years in prison. Tom Vranas, a co-owner of SUPES Academy, was also sentenced Friday to 18 months in prison. He was seeking three years of probation.

The district has filed a lawsuit against Bennett, Solomon, and Vranas seeking $65 million in damages.

Photo: Former Chicago schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett enters the Dirksen Federal Courthouse on April 28 in Chicago before being sentenced on bribery charges. --James Foster/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.