Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett is taking a leave of absence amid a federal investigation into a no-bid contract awarded to one of her former employers, and Board of Education Vice President Jesse Ruiz has been named interim CEO, President David Vitale announced Friday.
Ruiz said he was "ready and eager to take on the responsibility" of the position.
Both men at an afternoon press conference defended the district and the process by which the 2013 contract to a Wilmette-based professional development agency was handed out.
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Vitale acknowledged he knew Byrd-Bennett was a former employee of the firm and said that fact gave him no pause.
"Many of us have prior lives in which we've engaged with organizations .. that still might provide quality service to CPS," he said.
Asked of his own affirmative vote on the contract, Vitale said SUPES offered a "unique" program for principal training and that discussions were "extensive and well thought-out." And he pressed that he'd done nothing wrong.
"I have no intention of stepping down," he said.
In a statement, Mayor Rahm Emanuel spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said that while there have been no formal allegations, the mayor "has zero tolerance for any type of misconduct from public officials."
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis told NBC Chicago that Byrd-Bennett's leave of absence could be a good move for her.
"I think, if she were out trying to do work, there's this cloud," Lewis said. "It's a distraction. This is a good opportunity for her."
Byrd-Bennett's contract with CPS matures in June. She has the option to extend it for another year but Vitale said she so far has not exercised that option.
Byrd-Bennett's longevity with the district was questioned this week when it was confirmed that federal authorities were looking into whether she received any kickbacks from the SUPES agreement.
The principal of a North Side school on Thursday described the training SUPES provided as a "colossal waste of time."
The Board of Education’s Inspector General has been looking into the SUPES agreement for months. While nothing official has been released, there was a cryptic reference in the IG’s year-end report which spoke of an investigation which may have been the inquiry into the controversial deal.
Byrd-Bennett, hand-picked by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, came on board and within six months helped to shutter dozens of public schools in an effort to address the district's financial problems. She said at the time that closing the schools was an urgent matter, and that delaying the decision would be "criminal."
She had previously served as the Chief Education Advisor for CPS before stepping into the top spot of the nation's third largest school system in 2012 following the resignation of Jean-Claude Brizard.
She came to Chicago from Cleveland, where she spent seven years as CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. Prior to that, she was the Chief Academic and Accountability manager for Detroit Public Schools and had jobs jobs as a teacher, principal and superintendent in her native New York City.