Thursday, October 15, 2015

Kadner: The mayor who failed Chicago's children - Daily Southtown

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Kadner: The mayor who failed Chicago's children

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Byrd-Bennett at a press conference in Chicago.

 (Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune)

Phil Kadner

Guilty plea of former schools chief an indictment of Mayor Emanuel

I'm tired of elected officials appointing inept, corrupt officials to run things and then refusing to accept responsibility for the result.

The latest case in point, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the former chief of the Chicago Public Schools, who pleaded guilty to wire fraud in connection with a scheme to award a no-bid contract worth $23 million to a consulting firm to train public school principles and other administrators. She was appointed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who back in 2012 referred to her as "the best and brightest."

Byrd-Bennett, 66, a former employee with SUPES Academy, a Wilmette-based education consulting firm, allegedly negotiated a 10 percent kickback from the company in exchange for getting its contract approved by the CPS board of education.

Emanuel said his staff asked "hard questions" before the deal got done, but the fact is the contract was awarded.

Remember, Byrd-Bennett's appointment came at a time when the city had closed public schools due to a financial crisis. There were ongoing bitter disputes between teachers, the school board and the mayor himself. That's all politics and I don't mean to dismiss such stuff because it can have an impact far beyond the walls of City Hall and board rooms. Almost forgotten, however, is that all this stuff is about the kids.

Thousands of Chicago school children are getting a second-rate education and have been for decades. Reform after reform have produced only marginal improvements that seem huge by Chicago standards, but would be unacceptable in most suburban public school systems.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Byrd-Bennett hug after Bennett's speech at a press conference in 2014.

 (Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune)

The mayor of Chicago may have no more important task than making sure the city's children get a quality education that at minimum gives them a shot at a decent paying job after graduation and at best qualifies them for college if that's their goal. Mayor Richard M. Daley demanded that responsibility when he asked the state Legislature for authority to control the public schools. He got it. But with that authority comes a responsibility to making public education a top priority of City Hall.

Time after time we have seen presidents, governors, and mayors absolve themselves and blame subordinates for major mistakes, judgment errors and corruption.

They may say, "I accept the blame," and even apologize, but what they really mean is, "Forget I had anything to do with that now that I have publicly said I made a mistake."

In any organization as large as a government bureaucracy, there are going to be some idiots, jerks, and morons and a few of these are going to end up running departments. Some are going to try to line their own pockets. Illinois has seen more than its share of public officials who seem to believe their first duty is to line their pockets, or those of their close friends and political associates.

No one can place an estimate on the price of corruption in this state, but it's safe to say it has cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

But there is a cost greater than the financial price and that goes to the core belief that government can be entrusted with the public's safety. That means protecting the public health, making the streets safe and ensuring that our children, when placed in the care of public officials, will be properly taken care of by educators.

An argument can be made that the City of Chicago has failed so abysmally in almost each of these areas that it has lost any ability to claim it represents the people of Chicago.

But in no area are its failures so complete as in its inability to provide a quality public education to each and every child in Chicago.

That failure is not Emanuel's alone, but he is merely the latest in a long line of mayors who has escaped accountability. Ask yourself some simple questions and I think you will understand the magnitude of this problem.

Is there no connection at all between the street gangs that dominate Chicago's poorest communities and the failure of public education? Is there no relationship between the quality of schools and the apparent cold blooded murders that take place on the city's streets? And the last, is not so much a question as a fact, "Is there no connection between the large number of Chicago children who end up in the state's prisons, Cook County Jail and criminal courtrooms?"

A mayor brings an NFL draft to Chicago or a major corporation announces it is relocating from the suburbs to downtown and Emanuel holds a news conference so he can boast of his success. But the fact is that each day his decisions have had catastrophic consequences for the children whose lives are in his hands.

As for Byrd-Bennett, this is a scandal any rookie reporter could have seen coming.

No-bid contracts immediately raise red flags and set off sirens of alarm. A no-bid contract worth $20 million with a former employer of the CEO of the Chicago school system should have alerted the mayor that something really bad was going on that needed his immediate attention.

The mayor contends that his staff did their best to alert school board members that something was amiss. I have visions of the robot in the TV series "Lost in Space" saying, "Danger, Will Robinson, danger!" That's funny, makes you laugh, but isn't very effective. I suppose the mayor could say he trusted the school board and CEO to do the right thing. But his judgment was terribly bad once again and that claim once more ignores the fact that the mayor of the city is in essence the ultimate authority here. At the very least, he could have held a news conference denouncing the deal before it was done and, at most, he could have asked for Byrd-Bennett's resignation citing her poor judgment.

Anyone who has ever witnessed the relationship between consultants, school boards and school superintendents can tell you there is good reason to question the relationships, which are often incestuous. Schools hire consultants to find new superintendents, they hire consultants to train administrators and teachers, they hire consultants before purchasing health insurance plans for employees and to study school construction plans, to name a few.

I have seen consultants hired to review the work of other consultants when project costs spiraled out of control. Everyone ended up getting paid, with taxpayers' money. And it is not unusual at all for school superintendents to be hired as consultants after they're fired, or leave their posts voluntarily.

Byrd-Bennett allegedly was promised a job back at SUPES if she ever lost her $250,000 post as the Chicago Public Schools chief.

As she left a federal courtroom following her guilty plea, Byrd-Bennett apologized to the children of Chicago. I doubt anyone thought her tearful acknowledgment of wrongdoing was genuine. If she had not been caught, she would still be getting her kickbacks while collecting a fat paycheck. Emanuel's claims that he cares about the Chicago kids strike me as being just as disingenuous.

Don't blame me, he's really saying. Put the blame on the former schools chief, the former school board members and the consulting firm. Forget that when it comes to the City of Chicago, I am the guy in charge, until there's reason to applaud.

Listen, I understand that being the mayor of Chicago right now is a tough job. There are obstacles that perhaps no man of good will can overcome.

But finding an honest, hard-working, decent person to run the school system really shouldn't be among those challenges. If a mayor can't do that, he doesn't deserve to hold office.


Byrd-Bennett co-defendants plead not guilty in kickback scheme


Ex-CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett pleads guilty, tearfully apologizes to students


After Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who's next?

Copyright © 2015, Daily Southtown

Barbara Byrd-Bennett Rahm Emanuel Chicago Public Schools Opinion Chicago City HallRichard M. Daley

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