A federal judge in Chicago sentenced Friday the former head of the nation's third-largest school district to 4 1/2 years in prison for steering $23 million in no-bid city contracts to education firms for $2.3 million in bribes and kickbacks.
Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who held top education jobs in Detroit and Cleveland before becoming Chicago Public Schools CEO, was sentenced by Federal Judge Edmond Change. Prosecutors initially asked for a 7½-year term, while the defense argued for 3½ years.
In a statement, mayoral spokesman Adam Collins said Byrd-Bennett "betrayed the public trust."
"She broke the law. She turned her back on the very children she was entrusted to serve, and the children of Chicago are owed much better than that," Collins said. "Today's decision is a reminder that no one is above the law, and with justice now served the entire CPS community can continue to focus on building on the record academic success of Chicago students."
The Chicago Teachers Union responded to the sentencing by pointing a finger at "a list of embarrassments and transgressions Chicagoans have endured under the Rahm Emanuel administration."
“Byrd-Bennett’s tenure as the head of CPS, in addition to her and Emanuel’s destruction of dozens of school communities in 2013, cost the district $20 million in cronyism and privatization, which continues to this day," the union said in a statement. "Six-figure salaries and administrative costs have doubled under current CPS CEO Forrest Claypool, while spending on instruction has plummeted."
The scheme displayed a brazenness that stood out even for a city with a long history of corruption. Byrd-Bennett, 68, participated in it knowing the district was buckling under major financial strain; the district serves 400,000, mostly low-income students, a government sentencing memo says.
At the time, Byrd-Bennett had a national reputation as an education reformer, earned a $250,000 annual salary and had multiple pensions from previous jobs. But prosecutors say she made a decision "rooted in greed" to participate in the scheme.
SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates LLC owners Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas both pleaded guilty to offering Byrd-Bennett kickbacks worth 10 percent of lucrative city contracts she helped them win.
Court documents say Byrd-Bennett wrote in a 2012 email to Solomon about her eagerness to make money: "I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit."
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel hired Byrd-Bennett in 2012, vowing to revitalize a school district also criticized for low student performance. As CEO, Byrd-Bennett oversaw the shuttering of dozens of schools in a money-saving measure.
She began her 40-year education career teaching in low-income neighborhoods in New York City, not far from where she grew up. Her lawyer, Michael Scudder, said she felt "crushing humiliation and shame" for her crimes. Since her indictment, her name was stripped from the title of a Cleveland training center, he added.
As for why she took part in the scheme, Scudder wrote: "Nobody has struggled more with this question than Barbara herself."
He said she planned to make a statement to Judge Edmond Chang before he imposes a sentence.
When scrutiny of district contracts grew in 2013, Byrd-Bennett began deleting potentially incriminating emails, according to prosecutors. She resigned in June 2015 as word spread of an investigation.
Prosecutors said in their sentencing memo that they would have asked for a stiffer sentence but that Byrd-Bennett deserved credit for agreeing to cooperate soon after her arrest.
In exchange for pleading guilty to one count of wire fraud in 2015, prosecutors agreed to drop 19 other counts of fraud charged in the original indictment.
Solomon was sentenced in March to seven years in prison; Vranas is also due to be sentenced Friday.