By now, stories of abject corruption in Chicago are supposed to be old hat. By now, we should be numb to it all. But for me, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) no-bid contract scandal that has former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett pleading guilty to a bribery kickback scheme leaves me especially disgusted and disappointed.
At a time when the school district is laying off thousands of teachers and support staff, threatening the special education needs of students, shuttering schools and begging Springfield for help, the public has been reminded of why it’s so difficult to trust that leadership in this city is really committed to “making the difficult decisions.”
Byrd-Bennett often repeated that phrase while convincing communities of why closing their schools and slashing budgets was necessary. I suppose it’s easy to make the hard decisions when you are lining your own pockets to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Make no mistake. Byrd-Bennett is in the spotlight now, but she’s only one cog in a much bigger wheel. It is a wheel that has run roughshod over our public institutions for far too long. What we can learn from this most recent debacle is the harsh reality that integrity is not a characteristic that can be determined at face value.
For example, being highly educated does not confer integrity. Race does not confer integrity (just because you share my skin color does not mean you will automatically comport yourself with integrity and ethical behavior). Money certainly does not confer integrity. In fact, the love of money — greed — is the clearest indicator of someone who lacks integrity and is easily given to utilizing sundry techniques to acquire it. We have to look more deeply at the track records of the individuals who claim to want to serve the public.
It is positively frightening that the integrity of our public institutions is contingent upon the integrity of the individuals who run those public institutions in a city built on clout, corruption and cronyism. We have seen time and again that without institutional mechanisms in place to force transparency, accountability and ethical conduct, too many individuals fall short of the standards necessary to earn the public trust. (See Debra Quazzo‘s unethical maneuvers while on the Board of Education or the former City of Chicago Comptroller Amer Ahmad, recently extradited from Pakistan while attempting to flee corruption charges).
Here’s the truth: all processes involving money and contracts must be exposed to the light of day. Conflicts of interest should be investigated and we’ve got to move beyond shallow qualifications for our public servants. A system run on clout and backroom deals, and lacking those institutional mechanisms I just mentioned, ensures substandard services, wasted money and a city that fails its residents. In this case, it’s failed our most precious assets: our children.