Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett took an immediate leave of absence Friday amid a federal investigation over a $20.5 million no-bid contract the district awarded to a training academy where she once worked as a consultant, school officials said.

The schools chief of the nation’s third-largest district — chosen by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2012 — requested the leave effective April 20, according to Chicago lawyer Michael Scudder, whom Byrd-Bennett has hired.

But Chicago Board of Education David Vitale said in a statement Friday that it took effect immediately because of the potential “impact” of the federal investigation on her ability to lead.

“In light of the attention given to my position as chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools, I believe that my continuing as CEO at this time would be a distraction,” Byrd-Bennett wrote in a letter sent to board members, which Scudder read to the Associated Press. “Although this is a very difficult decision for me personally, it is one I believe is in the best interests of the children of CPS that I am so fortunate to serve.”

In the interim, board vice president Jesse Ruiz, an attorney, would take over, Vitale said in a statement that praised his legal and educational expertise.

Byrd-Bennett, who has not been accused of wrongdoing, directed requests for comment to her attorney.

The longtime educator, a former chief academic officer for Detroit Public Schools, worked as a consultant for SUPES Academy in suburban Chicago before coming to CPS, according to published reports. The group trains principals.

Emanuel and Vitale confirmed earlier this week that CPS was being investigated by federal officials, but didn’t provide details. A spokesman for SUPES Academy in suburban Chicago said it has turned over records and files to federal investigators.

CPS had entered an agreement with SUPES in 2012, but according to the Chicago Tribune, the two sides agreed to replace that contract with another one. The following year, school officials approved a “leadership development services agreement” for up to $20.5 million. The agreement was approved by the board.

More than a year ago, Catalyst Chicago, a news organization focusing on education, said an investigation was being conducted by the CPS inspector general. Inspector General James Sullivan, who resigned last year, confirmed to the Chicago Sun-Times that there was an investigation of the contract. He didn’t provide further details.

The news follows a hard-fought re-election battle for Emanuel, who spent much of the time on the campaign trail defending controversial schools decisions and his choice of Byrd-Bennett. Among the most scrutinized moves was a 2013 push to close dozens of neighborhood schools.

During the campaign, Emanuel said it was a tough, but necessary decision to improve school achievement and he was proud of his choice of Byrd-Bennett.

In a statement, the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, Jesse Sharkey, said other district officials should be scrutinized as well.

“What Barbara is being singled out for is sadly just one incident among widespread practices by the mayor’s Board of Education appointees, and the turmoil caused by yet another top-down leadership scandal is a grave concern for all of us as the district faces a crippling financial deficit,” Sharkey said.

Byrd-Bennett was chief academic officer for DPS under former emergency manager Robert Bobb from 2009 to 2011.

She also worked in New York and Cleveland school districts.


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