Albert resigns as House appropriations chair, calls new spending plan 'reckless'

Convicted ex-Chicago school boss’ DPS term scrutinized

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

A former Detroit Public Schools official who pleaded guilty Tuesday to defrauding the Chicago school system faces scrutiny over her tenure in Detroit.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who was the chief academic and accountability auditor for DPS from 2009-11, was convicted of one count of fraud in federal court. Federal authorities alleged that as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, she steered $23 million in no-bid contracts to two education firms in return for $2.3 million in bribes and kickbacks.

One of those firms, Synesi Associates LLC, which trains principals and school administrators, was awarded contracts with DPS while Byrd-Bennett was working for the district, according to records posted on the DPS’ website.

Under a plea deal, prosecutors recommended that Byrd-Bennett be sentenced to 71/2 years in prison, the Associated Press reported. She had faced a maximum of 20 years on each of 20 fraud counts in the indictment.

According to six-month expenditure reports from May and November 2011, DPS paid $1,487,654.08 to Synesi for “Consultant Services/Curriculum/Office of Accountability.”

The report from November 2011 also lists an invoice of $128,698.77 to Synesi as “disapproved.”

In a statement Tuesday, a DPS spokeswoman said the district is cooperating with authorities.

“DPS is committed to transparency in all of its business operations,” spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski said. “As with any matter where there are allegations of misconduct, the district investigates internally and works cooperatively with the law enforcement agency handling such matters. In the case of Ms. Byrd-Bennett, we are continuing to work closely with law enforcement officials.”

Zdrodowski declined to comment further.

Byrd-Bennett, 66, was hired to work for DPS in April 2009 by then-Emergency Manager Robert Bobb and left the district shortly after him in June 2011.

She became chief education adviser for the Chicago Public Schools in April 2012, according to a biography posted on that district’s website. She was named CEO in October that year by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and resigned four months ago after the federal fraud investigation became public.

The indictment against Byrd-Bennett alleges the owners of Synesi and its parent firm, SUPES Academy, offered her money and a job once she left the Chicago schools. Byrd-Bennett formerly worked for SUPES Academy, a training company.

SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates LLC owners Gary Soloman and Thomas Vranas are accused of offering her money along with sporting-event tickets and other kickbacks in exchange for the contracts, the Associated Press reported. Both Chicago-area men face multiple charges, including bribery and conspiracy to defraud.

Speaking outside court after entering her plea, Byrd-Bennett voice quivered as she addressed Chicago’s 400,000 schoolchildren, their parents and her former co-workers.

“I am terribly sorry and I apologize to them,” she said. “They deserved much more — much more than I gave to them.”

Keith Johnson, a former president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said Tuesday he was “surprised and disappointed” when Byrd-Bennett was charged. “She worked very well with me while she was with DPS, and she was very instrumental in helping me get our peer assistance and review program together” for the district’s teachers, he said.

Johnson noted that Byrd-Bennett and DPS had faced criticism during the 2009-10 school year for a $40 million contract the district entered with book publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcout. Byrd-Bennett once worked for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Associated Press contributed.