Dear Commons Community,
Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the former leader of the Chicago public school system, was sentenced to four and a half years in federal prison yesterday for steering millions of dollars’ worth of school district contracts to her former employer and for accepting kickbacks. As reported by the New York Times:
“Ms. Byrd-Bennett, who was handpicked for her job by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, learned of her prison term as the almost-cashless district struggles to keep its classrooms open.
Chicago Public Schools officials had warned that they could end the academic year on June 1, three weeks earlier than planned, unless the state of Illinois provided more money. Mr. Emanuel backed off that threat on Friday, but said he was not sure where the money would come from.
… Ms. Byrd-Bennett’s sentencing closed one ugly chapter in [Chicago public schools] history, but the funding dispute and the district’s paltry finances still linger, with credit rating agencies warning that the school system has depleted its reserves and struggles to pay for its pensions…
Budget crunches also haunted the tenure of Ms. Byrd-Bennett, who in 2012 took over a district that had just weathered a teachers’ strike. She quickly enraged many here by helping put in place a plan to close dozens of schools, mostly in black and Latino neighborhoods, in an effort to save money.
Perceived as a seasoned leader of urban schools, with experience in Cleveland and Detroit, Ms. Byrd-Bennett was sought out to improve Chicago’s schools, which enroll more than 380,000 children.
But Ms. Byrd-Bennett raised suspicions after the school board approved a $20 million, no-bid contract with her former employer, a private company that provides training to school principals. She had schemed to steer school district business to the company, with the promise of kickbacks and a lucrative job that would be waiting for her whenever she left Chicago. She resigned in May 2015, shortly before being indicted.
In a lengthy, tearful statement here on Friday in the federal district courtroom of Judge Edmond E. Chang, Ms. Byrd-Bennett apologized for her crimes and said, “What I did was terribly wrong.”
“I’m especially sorry that I’ve let down the students and their families,” said Ms. Byrd-Bennett, who pleaded guilty, and who must surrender to a federal prison in West Virginia in August.
Her sentence was more than what her lawyers had requested, but far less than the term of more than seven years that prosecutors had sought. Judge Chang noted the lengthy history of public corruption in Chicago and the school system’s financial struggles as he handed down the punishment.
“When this crime was committed in the midst of the C.P.S. budget crisis, it did make it all the worse,” Judge Chang said.
A sad case. Hopefully the Chicago public school system can move on assuming it can weather its budget crisis.