Rahm Emanuel should hire auditor to dig deep at Chicago Public Schools
Mayor Rahm Emanuel whispers to Barbara Byrd-Bennett after the Oct. 12, 2012, announcement that she would become CEO of Chicago Public Schools. With Byrd-Bennett under federal indictment, the mayor has another crisis that should not go to waste.
(Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)
Kass: This Barbara Byrd-Bennett scandal has many pleats. So Rahm best get busy.
Rahm Emanuel — the shrewd Democratic operative at his best in the shadows, but now out front as Chicago's mayor — is famous for his Rahmfather maxim:
"You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that (is) it's an opportunity to do things you could not do before."
Another crisis just fell heavily into Emanuel's lap this week. His former Chicago Public Schools chief, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, was indicted by federal authorities in a multimillion-dollar kickback scheme.
The feds could keep this one contained to Chicago. Or, now that Byrd-Bennett is cooperating, the feds could unleash it, let it run like some wild thing across the country, to other big-city Democratic Party-run school systems.
Particularly those big-city school systems where Byrd-Bennett's confederates played the game of pushing lucrative school consulting contracts and, I'm told, helping to vet school superintendents.
This is not a crisis Emanuel can afford to waste. So here's what he should do:
Hire a nationally recognized accounting firm and order a complete audit of all public school finances and operations. Because there are more crises coming.
An audit would give him the ammunition he needs to make serious and fundamental structural changes.
A complete audit — made public, of course — would give him cover.
"What accounting firm?" asked a wise Chicago political hand, an expert in the carpeted boardrooms of the city as well as the precincts where votes are cast.
"You'd need some firm that is reputable beyond question, without a hint of Chicago political connections," he said.
I waited for it.
"How about Caesar's Wife LLC?"
The last time I gave the mayor public advice, he took it, by taking a stiff broom to his school board and sweeping most of the members out as this Byrd-Bennett scandal began to unfold. And this one has many pleats. So he'd best get busy.
The operative quote from Byrd-Bennett? "I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit :)," she is alleged to have written to her confederates via email.
It is a fine quote, and that little smiley face at the end is nice, too. But many Chicago public servants have offered pithy sentiments.
"I don't want to be a hog; I just want to be a pig," said one. "Hogs get slaughtered; pigs get fat."
"All right. Just leave it in the envelope," said another.
"I gave him lip service. I didn't know what he was talking about. I don't wanna look like a chumbolone, an idiot, stupid," said a third.
"Most aldermen, most politicians, are hos," said a fourth.
I could fill columns with them. And these go back only a few years. If you can guess who said what (no Google cheating), then email my friend "Old School" firstname.lastname@example.org and you'll be recognized as a serious student of The Chicago Way and get a shoutout on Twitter.
So now it's tuition to pay and casinos to visit. Who wouldn't want to educate their kids and shoot dice with someone else's money? If that's not The Chicago Way, what is?
The public schools are beset by corruption, political intrigue and now more scandal. There is waste in the schools, but there has always been waste in a system that is first a means to feed Democratic interest groups, from administrators who are creatures of the legislature to the vendors to the teachers. The children are last in line for the meal, and they get what's left.
What we don't know is how much waste, and exactly how many contracts are left, particularly the no-bid deals.
Rahm talks transparency, but I believe that like Hillary Clinton, he does his public work on private email for a reason. And it's not transparency. He's been about as opaque as that obsidian monolith in "2001: A Space Odyssey."
Yeah, the one that transfixed the ape who was playing with a bone, and, well, if you haven't seen the Stanley Kubrick classic, treat yourself. With your own money.
There are other problems facing CPS. Rahm wants some $500 million from tax-strapped Illinois taxpayers to fill a fiscal hole.
But the Democratic Boss of Illinois, House Speaker Michael Madigan, is said to not trust CPS numbers. Madigan may be evil incarnate, or perhaps just a kindly little guy sitting on a toadstool with the people foremost in his heart. But Boss Madigan is no fool. And he has good reason not to trust CPS numbers.
CPS inflated its five-year graduation rate — happy numbers released during Emanuel's re-election campaign — only to revise them downward earlier this month. The number was dropped to 66.3 percent for the 2013-14 school year. A failing grade.
Now add the politics. Emanuel's new CPS chief, Forrest Claypool, may have mayoral ambitions. Emanuel, who is boosting city property taxes by record levels, hasn't said if he'll seek another term.
City Treasurer Kurt Summers, a protege of top Emanuel adviser Michael "Mayor" Sacks, is often mentioned as a possible successor. But don't forget Claypool.
Madigan hasn't forgotten that Claypool trashed him during Claypool's failed campaign for Cook County assessor. Madigan forgets nothing.
Federal prosecutors say Byrd-Bennett steered $23 million in no-bid contracts to her former employer, SUPES Academy, for a 10 percent kickback.
The old Emanuel school board approved the blatant conflict of interest. Did Rahm give members the OK?
So Rahm? Hire an outside accounting firm. Make the findings public.
Get ahead of this, or stand behind it.
You're the mayor. It was your board that approved the deal, and your superintendent who had tuition to pay and casinos to visit :).
You own it. So get some cover.
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