The same day former Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty to her role in a multimillion-dollar kickback scheme, education activists and local lawmakers on Tuesday stressed the need for an elected school board in the city.
"We're here because we want every position on that school board elected by the people of Chicago," Action Now's Executive Director Katelyn Johnson said during a morning press conference at Federal Plaza before Byrd-Bennett's arraignment. "We have a right to democracy. We have a right as parents and community members to voice our opinions about our schools, and we have a right to a better school system. Our children deserve it."
Switching to an elected, rather than the current mayor-appointed, school board would "provide the necessary checks and balances to bring transparency to CPS," Johnson added.
Byrd-Bennett was indicted last Thursday for allegedly steering $23 million in no-bid contracts to her former employers, the SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates, in exchange for $2.3 million in kickbacks. She was indicted on 20 counts of mail and wire fraud, but pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday to one wire fraud charge as part of her plea agreement with prosecutors. Byrd-Bennett faces a reduced prison sentence of seven-and-a-half years and will be sentenced at a later date.
In remarks to reporters after her court appearance, Byrd-Bennett apologized to the city's students, parents and educators.
"My message is for the children, and the families of the children, of Chicago Public Schools, and the incredible, dedicated educators we have," she said, the Chicago Sun-Times reports. "I am terribly sorry, and I apologize to them. They deserved much more, much more than I gave to them."
At the center of the corruption scandal is the $20.5 million no-bid principal training contract awarded by CPS to Wilmette-based SUPES. The Chicago Board of Education unanimously approved the SUPES contract back in 2013, a month after it voted to close 50 underutilized neighborhood schools.
"Community leaders are shocked and angered that at a time of shameful budget cuts and devastating school closings, the mayor and his handpicked board members could allow such waste to occur," Johnson said.
Leaders with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and the Raise Your Hand education coalition also spoke at today's press conference. They were joined by state Reps. Jaime Andrade (D-Chicago) and Robert Martwick (D-Chicago) as well as Chicago Alds. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) and John Arena (45th).
Martwick introduced state legislation in August that would require the election of Chicago Board of Education members. Fifty House members, including Andrade, have thus far signed onto the bill, HB 4268.
Martwick acknowledged that an elected school board is not a cure-all solution to corruption.
"We all know corruption can happen anywhere, whether it's elected or appointed," he said. "But what (an elected school board) will do is it will finally once and for all give the citizens of Chicago a say over the direction of their schools, a say over the education that their children receive, and that is what democracy demands."
Here's more from Martwick and Johnson:
The Chicago Board of Education is the only non-elected school board in Illinois, and the state legislature -- which approved the 1995 law that gave Chicago's mayor full authority over the school district and board appointments -- must ultimately change the rules.
The elected school board legislation pending in Springfield still needs to go through an amendment and hearing process, Martwick said. He said the bill could go up for a House vote early next year.
Gov. Bruce Rauner, however, has stated his opposition to elected Chicago school board proposals.
When asked whether the elected school board legislation could garner enough support to get through Springfield, Martwick said, "I truly believe that on a day like today, if you listen very quietly, you will hear the sound of the last opponent of an elected school board changing their mind."
Another elected school board opponent is Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. He has voiced concerns that the election of school board members could bring more politics into the school system.
But elected school board proponents take issue with that argument.
"How could it be more political than it is right now, when people pay taxes and they have no voice in holding the people who set policy accountable," said Jitu Brown with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.
Meanwhile, the Chicago City Council's Progressive Reform Caucus plans to introduce a resolution later this month calling for a council hearing into the school district's response to the Byrd-Bennett scandal. Arena said he and other progressive caucus members want to hear from school district officials on what "they are either doing or going to do to change this situation in front of CPS right now."
"We have to work long-term on the elected school board, but on the short-term, we need people removed from positions in CPS that had anything to do with these decisions," the alderman said.
Earlier on Tuesday, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool provided a letter to the council's education committee chairman, detailing what the school district has done or will do to prevent similar corruption from happening in the future. The school district's contracting process, for example, has undergone an independent review. Reforms recommended as part of that independent review have already been or may soon be adopted by the school district, Claypool said.
Among other steps, the school district has also conducted a recent "top-to-bottom audit," which "may result in further policy changes if deemed necessary for transparency and to ensure that all the right checks and balances are in place," Claypool wrote in his letter to Ald. Will Burns (4th).
"While the U.S. Attorney made abundantly clear that the former CEO and her co-defendants 'worked to hide and conceal their graft' and 'misled' officials of the Board of Education, we see it is our duty to do everything we can to assure the public and the hundreds of thousands of students, teachers, principals and parents who depend on CPS that we will do everything in our power to ensure that this will not happen again," the letter added.