Ex-Chicago schools head gets prison in kickback scheme

Michael Tarm
Associated Press

Chicago — A former chief academic officer for Detroit Public Schools was sentenced to more than four years in prison Friday for steering $23 million in city contracts for kickbacks while working as head of Chicago Public Schools.

A tearful Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who held top education jobs in Detroit and Cleveland before being tapped to lead the nation’s third-largest school district, apologized in a 15-minute statement before she was sentenced.

Authorities said she steered city contracts to education firms for a cut of more than $2 million in kickbacks.

“What I did was terribly wrong. … I’m ashamed and I’m sorry,” she said.

But U.S. District Court Judge Edmond Chang said her brazenness in bilking an already cash-strapped school district suggested she never believed she’d get caught in a city with a long, ignominious history of corruption. The judge said the scheme diverted money from low-income students relying on education to better their lives.

The judge also said Byrd-Bennett and her co-schemers further eroded public confidence in Chicago public officials. He cited emails where Byrd-Bennett wrote about her eagerness to make money, including to help relatives pay for college, including joking in one: “I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit.”

“The crime was committed with casualness … even humor,” Chang said.

The former Chicago Public Schools CEO faced a maximum 20 years behind bars, though prosecutors asked for a term of seven and a half years. During sentencing, Chang said, he factored in her age and her acts of kindness, including paying for the funerals of some students.

Prosecutors allege Byrd-Bennett, 68, agreed to the scheme at the start of her tenure in 2012, knowing the 400,000-student district was buckling under major financial strain.

She had a national reputation as an education reformer, earned a $250,000 annual salary and had multiple pensions from previous jobs. But prosecutors say she made a decision “rooted in greed” to participate in the scheme.

SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates LLC owners Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas pleaded guilty to related charges. Chang sentenced Solomon — who prosecutors say masterminded the scheme — to seven years in prison last month. Vranas received a 18 month sentence earlier Friday.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel hired Byrd-Bennett in 2012, vowing to revitalize a school district criticized for low student performance. As CEO, Byrd-Bennett oversaw the shuttering of dozens of schools in a money-saving measure.

She began her 40-year education career teaching in low-income neighborhoods in New York City, not far from where she grew up.

In Detroit, Byrd-Bennett was hired in April 2009 by then-Emergency Manager Robert Bobb and left the district shortly after him in June 2011. She and DPS had faced criticism during the 2009-10 school year for a $40 million contract the district entered into with book publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, for whom Byrd-Bennett had once worked.

When scrutiny of district contracts grew in 2013, Byrd-Bennett began deleting potentially incriminating emails, according to prosecutors. She resigned in June 2015, as word spread of an investigation.

Prosecutors said in their sentencing memo that they would have asked for a stiffer sentence but that Byrd-Bennett deserved credit for agreeing to cooperate soon after her arrest.

In exchange for pleading guilty to one count of wire fraud in 2015, prosecutors agreed to drop 19 other counts of fraud charged in the original indictment.