CHICAGO’s public schools have given Rahm Emanuel more headaches than any other institution of the city he runs. Teachers’ strikes in Chicago Public Schools (CPS)—America's third-largest government school system—and the closure of 50 schools were the main reasons his popularity plummeted during his first term in office and his re-election earlier this year was not the cakewalk he expected it to be. The mayor fought epic battles with Karen Lewis, the boss of the teachers’ union. And he recently had to announce a whopping, unpopular $550m hike in property taxes, in part to fund new buildings for CPS, which is even more bankrupt than other departments in a city on the brink of a financial abyss.
The last thing Mr Emanuel needs is a corruption scandal involving the boss of the CPS whom he handpicked for the job. But Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who was described by Mr Emanuel as “the best and brightest” when he appointed her to the top CPS job in 2012, stands accused of using her position to steer multi-million dollar contracts to SUPES, her former employer, in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks and bribes. Ms Byrd-Bennett and her co-conspirators disguised the payments by channeling them into bank accounts set up in the name of close relatives of the now former CPS boss.
On October 8th federal investigators revealed a 43-page grand jury indictment of Ms Byrd-Bennett. It is filled with incriminating emails between her, Gary Salomon and Thomas Vranas, the co-owners of the SUPES Academy, a provider of education services that used to employ Ms Byrd-Bennett, as well as Synesi, another education company specialising in improving troubled schools. One of the emails, sent by Mr Solomon on December 6th 2012, says: “Like we have discussed, we have created accounts that, upon withdrawal, we will pay down the taxes and distribute. You can distribute to [Relative A and Relative B] as you deem appropriate. It is our assumption that the distribution will serve as a signing bonus upon your return to SUPES. If you only join for the day, you will be the highest paid person on the planet for that day."
Mr Solomon and Mr Vranas, who are co-defendants in the case, landed more than $23m in no-bid CPS contracts for SUPES and Synesi thanks to Ms Byrd Bennett. Not even in Chicago public contracts of such magnitude are awarded without a rival bid. When in June 2013 Mr Emanuel’s office questioned the most controversial contract, a $20.5m gig for SUPES to train principals, which, by all accounts, turned out to be an utter waste of the attending principals’ time, Ms Byrd Bennett reacted angrily. “I cannot be second-guessed like this,” she wrote in an email to Beth Swanson, Mr Emanuel’s adviser on education. “The level of micro-managing by people who have no track record and have not lead [sic] or managed anything is in some way insulting,” she wrote.
Since she resigned her position as boss of the CPS in June in the wake of subpoenas from federal investigators in April, Ms Byrd-Bennett has been cooperating with investigators. She made her first court appearance on October 13th and pleaded guilty. This is unusual, but she and her lawyers presumably realised that the evidence against her is overwhelming. According to her 22-page plea agreement, prosecutors consented to seek a sentence of about seven years in prison—below the 11 to 14 years recommended under federal sentencing guidelines—in exchange for her cooperation. Mr Solomon and Mr Vranas appeared in court on October 14th. Both pleaded not guilty in the kickback scheme.
The victims of the saga are Chicago’s school children and their families. Stories of the sorry state of public (government) schools abound, especially in hard-up areas on the south side. Some saintly public school teachers pay themselves for pencils and notebooks for their pupils because some schools are so underfunded and badly equipped. Others simply give up. Anthony, who drives for Uber, a taxi service, says that he used to teach physical education at a school in Englewood, one of the toughest neighbourhoods on the south side. His father was a public-school teacher too, and he used to love his job. But in recent years both the behaviour of pupils and the state of school facilities deteriorated to such an extent, he says, that he quit his job.
The scandal is also a setback for Mr Emanuel who tries hard to help Chicago shed its century-old reputation as a hotbed of corruption and crime. The mayor said last week that he was “disappointed” and “saddened by the details” of the Byrd-Bennet fraud scheme. Stealing from Chicago’s poorest children (the vast majority of children at the city’s public schools are black or Hispanic and from poor families) is a new low, even by the city’s standards.