Last Friday, a federal judge sentenced former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett to more than four years in prison for her role in steering $23 million in city contracts in exchange for kickbacks. Byrd-Bennett—who earned a $250,000 annual salary and had multiple pensions from previous jobs—received more than $2 million for her role in the scheme.
Byrd-Bennett agreed to participate in the scheme at the very beginning of her tenure in 2012. At the time, the 400,000-student school district was buckling under financial strain and closing schools to save money. When the CPS inspector general’s office began scrutinizing the district’s contracts in 2013, Byrd-Bennett started deleting potentially incriminating emails. After the U.S. Attorney’s Office launched its own probe, Byrd-Bennett resigned in June 2015.
Byrd-Bennett, 68, worked in education for more than 40 years. She began her career as a teacher in low-income neighborhoods in New York City, not far from where she spent her own childhood. Byrd-Bennett developed a national reputation as an education reformer, rising through the ranks of the New York City school system. She served as CEO of the Cleveland public school system for more than a decade, and was tapped to run Detroit’s public schools in 2009. Byrd-Bennett’s actions, however, attracted scrutiny in both cities. In Cleveland, she reportedly oversaw the inflation of attendance rates while also facing criticism of the district’s transportation and school construction programs; and in Detroit, publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—Byrd-Bennett’s former employer—won a $40 million contract mere months after her arrival.
Although Bryd-Bennett could have received up to 20 years in prison, prosecutors sought only seven and a half years, explaining that she deserved credit for agreeing to cooperate soon after her arrest. At sentencing, U.S. District Court Judge Edmond Chang excoriated Byrd-Bennett for brazenly stealing funds from a cash-strapped school district that serves primarily low-income children. The imposed sentence, however, also accounted for Byrd-Bennett’s relatively advanced age, as well as her acts of kindness, which included paying for the funerals of several CPS students.
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