If furniture can send a message, a single empty chair at Wednesday’s meeting of the Chicago Board of Education spoke volumes.
That chair would normally have been occupied by CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. But she has stepped out of that role in the midst of an escalating federal investigation of a principal training contract with the Wilmette-based SUPES Academy. And during their first meeting since Byrd-Bennett’s departure, it was clear board members wanted to distance themselves from both the embattled chief and their own unanimous vote on the SUPES agreement.
"We have questions about the circumstances of this contract," said interim CEO Jesse Ruiz. "And we look forward to getting answers to those questions, and thus we are suspending it. I think it’s the prudent thing to do now."
That suspension came in a letter, from Ruiz, to SUPES founder Gary Solomon.
"The Board of Education of the City of Chicago, hereby suspends, in whole, its Leadership Development Services Agreement with the SUPES Academy," Ruiz wrote. "Please immediately cease all activities previously begun pursuant to the Agreement, including, but not limited to, Academy and coaching sessions, so as to not incur any additional expenses."
Ruiz conceded that he was one of the board members who voted unanimously to endorse the SUPES agreement.
"Given the information we had at that point in time, and given the information we were given as board members, I stand by that vote,” he said. But at the same time, he made clear that he and the other board members had only taken that vote, based on information the C.E.O had provided.
"Management proposes the agenda and the board acts upon it," he said, conceding that it is also the board’s job to "second guess" and "challenge" staff recommendations.
"We did that, and with that information provided, we acted upon it as we did," he said.
Indeed, even Mayor Rahm Emanuel seemed to stop defending his school chief Wednesday, speaking of the SUPES agreement she championed as a bad deal.
"That type of action won’t be tolerated," he said. "We’re going to turn the page, and everybody needs to be laser focused on our kids and their education."
In a statement, SUPES called the suspension of the contract "disappointing."
"We stand behind the training we provide," that statement said. "We are committed to continuing our great work with CPS, once this review is completed."
While some viewed the board’s action as decisive, others viewed it as the equivalent of rats deserting a sinking ship.
During the public comment section of Wednesday’s meeting, a man named Ronald Jackson stepped to the microphone and accused the school board of throwing Byrd-Bennett under the federal bus.
"You have no remorse," he said. "Don’t think you’re not going down. Don’t think they’re not going to look at you sooner or later, that you’re not going up the river too."