The state lawmaker behind a measure that would evaluate whether or not Chicago should switch to an elected school board says the recent corruption allegations against former Chicago Public Schools (CPS) chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett are all the more reason the city should look into the transition.
Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (D-8th), who was the chief sponsor of a bill that establishes a task force to research, and make recommendations, about the possiblity of an elected school board for the city, claims CPS is obstructing the process.
Byrd-Bennett, who resigned from her position in June 2015, had been part of a federal investigation into her relationship with a consulting firm she used to work for. Federal prosecutors say that, before she became CPS CEO, Byrd-Bennett agreed to steer millions of dollars of contracts to her former employer, SUPES Academy, in exchange for 10 percent of the total value of the contracts she helped the firm land while heading a school district that is flirting with financial insolvency.
U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon said SUPES “agreed to reward BB through future employment and a lucrative signing bonus at SUPES immediately following her tenure at CPS.” The firm also paid for various expenses while Byrd-Bennett was CEO, including a holiday party she hosted for her staff in 2012.
According to a report in the Chicago Sun-Times, CPS had begun utilizing SUPES in 2011 through a pilot program funded by the Chicago Public Education Fund — a private organization. But, based on its experiences with SUPES, the organization recommended CPS no longer contract with the firm.
Despite the fund’s recommendations, however, one of the first acts of Byrd-Bennett’s tenure at CPS was to ask the Board of Education — all members of which are hand-picked by the mayor — to approve a $2 million no-bid contract to SUPES.
The board would eventually give its unanimous stamp of approval to more than $20 million in contracts to SUPES, which, based on the firm’s agreement with Byrd-Bennett, would have netted the ex-CEO at least $2 million on the first day she signed on with the company after leaving CPS.
Byrd-Bennett is expected to plead guilty to federal corruption charges, which include 15 counts of mail fraud and five counts of wire fraud. Her former bosses at SUPES, Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, face the same charges, in addition to charges of bribery and conspiracy.
“The reason why this happened was because everyone was riding the same ship and that was the ship the mayor [Rahm Emanuel] put them on,” said Ford.
Chicago has the only school district in the state whose board members are not elected; instead, each member is appointed by the mayor.
“I am looking forward to hearing perspectives on all sides of the issue of an elected school board, and I would like an objective and comprehensive discussion on this polarizing issue,” Ford stated last year.
Ford’s bill, which was co-sponsored by state Rep. Camille Y. Lilly (78th), was signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner in August last year and went into effect in January.
Proponents of an elected school board received a major boost in February’s mayoral election, when residents throughout the city voted nearly 90 percent in favor of an elected board. The question was posed to voters in 37 wards by way of a non-binding referendum.
In the 24th, 28th, 29th and 37th wards, the measure got support from 93 percent, 91 percent, 91 percent and 92 percent of voters, respectively.
Ford’s bill called for the speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, the house minority leader, the senate president and the senate minority leader to appoint three members each. The CPS CEO, the Chicago Board of Education president, the president of a Chicago professional teachers’ organization, the president of the association representing CPS principals and a student representative from the board would each serve as members, or appoint a designee, on the task force.
Ford said CPS has not been cooperative with the state’s legislative mandate, which requires the Chicago Board of Education to provide the task force with administrative assistance and other support. The law also requires the task force to have begun meeting in June and to reports its recommendations by May 30, 2016, after which point the task force is to be abolished and the section of the Illinois School Code amended by HB 1152 repealed.
“CPS is fighting a major fight,” Ford said in a recent phone interview. He said CPS leadership hasn’t been active in the task force, or appointed designees to serve in their stead, and haven’t called the first meeting.
Last year, when the bill was being discussed, a CPS legislative liaison told lawmakers that the district didn’t oppose the task force, they just wanted the bill reworded. The liaison said CPS was willing to discuss the changes with Ford.
Ford said he accepted the district’s recommendation to change the start date and the reporting date of the task force. He said, after the changes, CPS expressed support of the bill. Since then, however, that ostensible support has apparently turned to obstructionism, according to Ford.
“If the Chicago Board of Education really doesn’t like the idea of having an elected school board, why not come to the community and address the issue in the community? They have a responsibility to do that,” Ford said. “They’re thumbing their nose at the public.”
Officials with CPS couldn’t be reached immediately for comment. This article will be updated if, and when, the district responds.