Schools chief requests temporary leave amid probe

The Associated Press File PhotoNewly appointed Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett speaks at a news conference in Chicago.

M. Spencer Green

CHICAGO — Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett requested a 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, according to her attorney.

The schools chief of the nation’s third-large 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.

“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,” she wrote in a letter sent to Chicago Board of Education 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.”

Officials with the city, board and district didn’t immediately return calls for comment.

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

The longtime educator with ties to schools systems in New York, Detroit and Cleveland, also worked as a consultant for SUPES Academy in suburban Chicago before coming to CPS, according to published reports. The group trains principals.

Emanuel and Board of Education President David Vitale confirmed earlier this week 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.

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