By Hal Dardick and Juan Perez Jr.
Chicago Public Schools Chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett has taken a leave of absence pending the outcome of a federal probe into a no-bid contract with a company she once worked for.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration decided on that option because Byrd-Bennett has not been accused of wrongdoing, said a source close to the matter. Byrd-Bennett confirmed in an email to the Chicago Tribune that she is taking leave.
"Both she and the board realize it's a distraction," the source said. While Byrd-Bennett is out, Chicago Board of Education Vice President Jesse Ruiz will serve as interim CEO, the source added.
The school board earlier this week was looking at the possibility of appointing an interim CEO pending the investigation's outcome. But Byrd-Bennett, named to the post by Emanuel in October 2012, was not expected to outright resign her post, a City Hall source told the Tribune on Thursday.
Authorities are looking into both the contract with SUPES Academy and Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who before joining the district worked for the north suburban leadership training firm, according to sources.
The investigation comes in the midst of negotiations between the district and CTU over a new teachers contract to replace a pact set to expire at the end of June. CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey on Thursday said he did not know how the investigation will affect negotiations, but that a lack of stability at the district has long been an issue.
"$20 million dollars can put teachers, counselors, librarians and nurses in our schools," Sharkey said in a statement. "The mayor has the ultimate authority over what's happening in our district. This new scandal leads to more instability in our school buildings and more revolving doors at CPS."
Sharkey on Friday expressed doubt that Byrd-Bennett's leave would be temporary.
"I doubt she'll be back," said Sharkey. "Maybe I'll be wrong, I don't know."
"To us, Barbara Byrd-Bennett's legacy to us is that she's the person who sold the school closings. Which is a little ironic because I don't think she personally, you know, loved the idea."
The federal investigation was first revealed Wednesday in a CPS statement that said authorities have requested interviews with several district employees.
The initial investigation into the district's contract with SUPES Academy and Byrd-Bennett's relationship to the company was started in 2013 by the CPS Inspector General's office, a source told the Tribune. The U.S. Attorney's office then began its own probe and a grand jury has been reviewing evidence for at least a year, the source said.
The school board in June 2013 voted 6-0 to approve a "leadership development services" agreement with SUPES for up to $20.5 million that was to run from June 2013 to June 2016, according to CPS documents. District records show SUPES was hired on a "noncompetitive basis" but the contract was reviewed and approved by an internal committee and the district's chief procurement officer, records show.
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