Chicago Public Schools Chief Takes Leave of Absence Amid Federal Probe

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Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett is taking a leave of absence pending the outcome of a federal probe into a contract the district awarded to a company that had previously employed her, officials said on Friday.

“In light of the ongoing federal investigation and its impact on her ability to effectively lead Chicago Public Schools, Barbara Byrd-Bennett is taking a leave of absence from Chicago Public Schools effective immediately,” Board of Education President David Vitale said.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed Byrd-Bennett to head the nation’s third-largest public school system in 2012. The financially troubled system, which serves 400,000 students, faces a prospective $1.1 billion deficit.

Emanuel’s spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said in a statement the mayor supports Byrd-Bennett’s decision, which would “help ensure this issue does not distract from the incredibly important work happening in our neighborhood public schools.”

Federal authorities are investigating a $20.5 million no-bid contract the district awarded to SUPES Academy, a training facility for principals that had employed Byrd-Bennett, according to a federal subpoena released by the school district.

The subpoena seeks, among other things, records of any financial benefits and gifts related to SUPES.

Vitale said the board’s vice president, Jesse Ruiz, would take over her responsibilities while Byrd-Bennett is on leave. Byrd-Bennett’s contract expires on June 30.

Ruiz has been vice president for nearly four years and is a former chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education. He told reporters that his experience in the state Capitol would be of service in upcoming funding discussions.

Both Vitale and Ruiz voted for the SUPES contract. Vitale said the board favored principal training, that SUPES offered an attractive mentoring program, and he saw no conflict of interest.

“Many of us have prior lives in which we’ve engaged in organizations which we no longer have any relationship with that still might provide quality service to public schools,” Vitale said.

Principals have complained the program lacked value.

CPS is in the midst of negotiating a contract with the teachers union, which had backed Jesus Garcia, who lost to Emanuel in the April 7 mayoral election.

Acting union president Jesse Sharkey has criticized a “culture of conflicts of interest” among top school officials.

Vitale said the board will proceed with the sale of $296.6 million in general obligation bonds next Tuesday.

SOURCE: Reuters, Mary Wisniewski

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