Guilty of all that and more at CPS

October 15, 2015

Chicago teachers Mike Shea and Kirstin Roberts examine the crimes of a former school boss that will send her to jail--and the ones that were perfectly legal.

WE'VE ALWAYS known Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the former head of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), as a classic example of a government functionary, dutifully accepting the priorities of the city's ruling elite and ruthlessly carrying them out, no matter what the consequences are for those below her on the social ladder.

Now we know that she's also a criminal who lined her pockets with public money because, according to her own e-mail, she's got "tuition to pay and casinos to visit. ☺"

Byrd-Bennett was officially indicted this week and immediately pled guilty to receiving kickbacks for steering $23 million in no-bid contracts from the CPS to SUPES Academy, a suburban-based "professional development organization."

Byrd-Bennett worked for SUPES prior to being named CEO of CPS in 2012 by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. SUPES Academy claimed to offer professional development for school principals--though many principals claim the training received from SUPES was, frankly, garbage--utterly useless to their needs in neighborhood schools in Chicago.

Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett
Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett

SUPES Academy is the perfect example of the semi-legal looting operations that masquerade as education enterprises, catering to the huge developing market of public education undergoing privatization.

SUPES founder and CEO Gary Solomon was forced out of teaching in a northern Chicago suburb in 2001 under a cloud of suspicion "after he was accused by his bosses of 'immoral and unprofessional' conduct, including allegations he kissed a female student, covered up students' drug and alcohol use, and sent "sexually suggestive, predatory" e-mails to students, court records show," the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Solomon used his "years of teaching experience" to open and market multiple education companies, profiting in the millions for providing services and products of little educational value.

Byrd-Bennett was a favorite former employee of Solomon's, and like so many public officials, she used her "public service" as a way to funnel public contracts worth millions to her old business pals.

BUT THE crime that will likely put her behind bars pales in comparison to the bigger crimes she committed against predominantly Black and Brown children during her tenure as a big-city school boss.

In addition to a resume of closing public schools and opening charter schools in Detroit and Cleveland, Byrd-Bennett oversaw the largest single mass closing of schools in U.S. history, when CPS shut down 49 schools in one fell swoop, displacing thousands of students, almost entirely in poor West and South Side neighborhoods.

The closings were justified with the claim that the schools where "under-enrolled"--though this assertion has been exposed as fallacious.

During the same period when Byrd-Bennett, following orders from her boss Rahm Emanuel, closed 49 schools, charter operators faced little challenge in winning approval for new projects from Emanuel's handpicked members of the Board of Education.

The experience couldn't be more different for community groups seeking community control of neighborhood schools. Twelve members of the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School got national attention in August and September for a 34-day hunger strike to pressure CPS to reopen Dyett based on the Coalition's plan for a new curriculum and community control. While their proposal for a school focused on green technology wasn't honored, the hunger strikers did succeed in forcing the city to keep an open enrollment neighborhood school for the Bronzeville community.

From school closings to sham public hearings, Byrd-Bennett contributed to the looting of CPS, which is going on after her departure. The latest round of budget cuts and layoffs for this school year have sparked outrage, and even a student-led walkout at Roosevelt High School, on Chicago's North Side, after four teachers were laid off following a $1.8 million cut. Eight other CPS schools suffered deeper cuts than Roosevelt.

After her history of contributing to this destabilization of Chicago schools, Byrd-Bennett's admission of guilt and inevitable plea deal have left many activists and educators sick to their stomachs, and rightly so. The students of CPS schools and their families, as well as the teachers and support personnel who make public education work, have all suffered the consequences of austerity under her reign. They deserve far better.

BUT THERE is something else sickening about the outcome of this scandal. Byrd-Bennett is unlikely to name any of her powerful former patrons as co-conspirators in the illegal scheme.

The austerity policies that Byrd-Bennett dutifully carried out didn't come from her alone, but from every level of power above her, all the way to the top--including Rahm Emanuel in Chicago; Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a former CPS CEO himself; Emanuel's collaborator, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner; and their bipartisan conspirators in the statehouse in Springfield.

The public education deform agenda, with its drive to increase high-stakes testing and expand charter schools, is further assisted by private school deform groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation, both of them champions of pro-free market initiatives in education and union busting.

Byrd-Bennett's specific function was to see through aspects of policies--like privatization of the public schools--that were engineered, approved and advanced by all these individuals and institutions. And now, her last service to those higher-ups will be to take a fall for a broader system intent on destroying public supports that all working class people depend on.

Her successor, Forrest Claypool, Mayor Richard M. Daley's former chief of staff, is equally capable of serving as the functionary to carry out the neoliberal agenda in the Chicago Public Schools--having played that same role as head of the Chicago Park District and then Chicago Transit Authority, plus as a member of the Cook County Board.

Now Claypool has been named chief of the third-largest school district in the nation. How his previous positions qualify him for his new one is a mystery unless you consider his prime ability to be his proven record as an administrator of austerity and total loyalty to the boss who appointed him.

OUR STRUGGLE for fully funded, quality neighborhood schools continues, and neither Barbara Byrd-Bennett's indictment nor Forrest Claypool's appointment change the trajectory of that struggle. To fight austerity, we have to tax the rich, and to improve schools, we need to control the Board of Education.

In February 2015, activists won public opinion on the question of having an elected school board. That was clear from the outcome of an advisory question on the ballot in 38 of Chicago's 50 wards.

The referendum question was put before a large majority of Chicago voters after a painstaking campaign to get signatures in every ward. Largely built through the Chicago Teachers Union, large numbers of volunteers rang doorbells and patently waited at CTA bus stops and train stations around the city to discuss the issue with voters. In the end, 89 percent of all voters in the 38 wards supported a democratically elected representative school board over the current one appointed by the mayor.

But it has been difficult to get state legislators to move on legislation for an elected school board, in part because this directly confronts one of the most powerful Democrats in the country, Rahm Emanuel--and because it detracts from a more immediate crisis of shortfalls in state pensions, where both Rauner and the Democrats are maneuvering.

The pension crisis Illinois faces today was manufactured by years of non-payment of pension obligations, as well as poorly managed borrowing by the state and city. The resulting mess opens the door for both shrill anti-union sentiment, blaming public-sector pensions as the bloated result of union corruption, and various private-sector schemes, such as a shift to privately managed IRAs, which would be a boon to the bankers, at the expense of workers.

Chicago's municipal pension shortfall is already being thrust back onto working families within CPS. After making its legally required pension contribution in July, CPS approved a budget in August with a massive shortfall, thereby linking the pension payment to the manufactured deficit.

Claypool now claims that without $500 million from the state government, Chicago must lay off 5,000 more teachers as soon as November. Yet CPS never attempted to recover any of the millions it paid for toxic interest swaps that were negotiated by banker David Vitale, a former president of both the Chicago Board of Trade and the Board of Education.

To make matters worse, Rauner and the Democrat-controlled Illinois statehouse allowed the Illinois income tax rate to drop, putting billions of dollars back into the pockets of the richest individuals in the state. The richest 10 percent of state taxpayers got more than half the benefits.

Byrd-Bennett is guilty--even she says so. Yet aside from getting caught with her hand in the cookie jar, she did exactly what she was hired to do as a functionary of bankers and neoliberal ed-deform crowd. Given the callousness with which she enriched herself, she certainly deserves no sympathy.

But her crimes are far outweighed by the sweetheart privatization deals, tax breaks and tax holidays, toxic loans and other rip-offs that benefit the wealthy elite who have been legally looting our schools. Stealing books, computers, teachers and entire schools from working class children, overwhelmingly Black and Brown, is business as usual for the Chicago Board of Education and its wealthy backers.

Our cry should be: "Jail them all, take their assets and fund the schools our children deserve."

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