Paying Out At CPS, Coughing Up In Kane County, And Copping A Plea

This week’s Public Eye column includes items on Chicago Public Schools cutting checks for unused vacation time, an unusual toll project in the suburbs and a cop admitting to a heinous crime.

When disgraced Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett resigned last May as a federal investigation was swirling around her, she left without any payouts for unused vacation time.

That’s because CPS officials concluded Byrd-Bennett had used up all her vacation time when she went on leave in April as subpoenas flew and the FBI raided CPS offices.

But 10 other CPS executives who exited in Byrd-Bennett’s wake departed with sometimes-sizable checks for unused vacation days, including her one-time chief of staff, Sherry Ulery, who was cut a check for $20,000, according to CPS records obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

Barbara Byrd Bennett

Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett exits federal court after pleading guilty to wire fraud. | Ashlee Rezin /Sun-Times Media

In all, those 10 people left with an average of $13,000 that covered unused vacation time, the records show.

In 2012, the Chicago Board of Education cut in half the number of vacation days CPS employees can bank and cash out. Nowadays, employees with 10 years of service or less can save up 20 vacation days, those with 11 to 20 years of service can bank 25 days and those with more than 20 years can bank 30 days.

The cash value of unused vacation days varies based on the salary of employees.

Accumulated sick days used to be a bonanza for exiting CPS employees. But after the Better Government Association found $227 million in unused sick time payouts between 2006 and 2012, the perk was killed, though there was a grandfather clause for employees who had already accumulated days.

Among the CPS higher-ups who left after Byrd-Bennett and received vacation payouts:

  • Tim Cawley, who had been CPS’ chief administrative officer. He received $18,605, records show.
  • Markey Winston, who had been chief of diverse learners. She received $17,577.
  • Rhonda Saegert, who had been chief of schools. She received $15,784.

None of the 10 officials has been accused of any wrongdoing in the federal probe, and Byrd-Bennett ended up pleading guilty to a scheme in which she steered a $23 million no-bid contract to a company that promised her kickbacks.

A tolling template in Kane County?

A 2009 report commissioned by Congress tried to “re-envision” how government pays for road and bridge improvements and repairs – how to meet increasing needs with less and less money.

Among the options studied: Linking tolls to specific projects – so tolls are charged on a stretch of road to pay for construction there.

Not a well-traversed concept in Illinois, but one being contemplated by Kane County government as it oversees the $115 million “Longmeadow Parkway” road and bridge project, with an initial phase slated to get underway this spring.

Longmeadow parkway

Image from Longmeadow Parkway Flyover Video courtesy of Kane County.

The roadway – which is being met with fierce resistance from some residents because of cost and environmental concerns, among other issues – is expected to stretch 5.6 miles and include up to four lanes from Huntley Road to Route 62 through parts of Algonquin, Barrington Hills and Carpentersville. A new bridge over the Fox River would require tolls of $1 or less for passenger vehicles, with prices fluctuating depending on the time of day. Trucks would pay more. Although the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority oversees most toll roads in Illinois, it wouldn’t be running this bridge, but could serve as the money collector via I-PASS, the electronic toll payment system.

This at least is the plan as of now, according to Kane County’s deputy director of transportation, Tom Rickert, who said charging tolls isn’t optimal, but seems to be the only option giving funding challenges. “The chances are likely this will be a toll bridge,” he said.

But unlike the Illinois toll authority that decades ago promised to eventually do away with fees for drivers, only to renege, Kane County would eliminate tolls once the $35 million or so in projected construction loans – covering just the bridge work – are paid off with toll revenue. That probably will translate into no more than 20 years, Rickert said.

The project – also funded by federal, state and local money – is based on “existing and future traffic needs” and intended “to support economic development and job growth in portions of the county,” he said.

But Barrington Hills resident Ed Fagan, a vocal opponent of the Longmeadow project, questioned traffic projections and called the project “a massive waste of tax dollars” that will ruin the feel of the area and negatively impact the natural environment. Fagan noted the $115 million price tag doesn’t include another $30 million or more already spent on land acquisition, engineering and other costs.

The county has approval to start the initial phase of the project – which has been discussed for decades – but still is awaiting state and federal government sign-off for all the work, Rickert said.

Whether such targeted tolling becomes a local trend remains to be seen, but Rickert said, “I know there are a lot of agencies statewide and even at the federal level who are saying, ‘We want to see how Kane County does this.’”

A disgraced cop cops a plea

Terry Meagher used to be an investigator for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.


Soon, he’s going to be an inmate, after pleading guilty last month to transportation of child pornography and, in the process, admitting to some pretty sordid stuff.

Using the screen name “trckgirl69,” Meagher visited a “file-sharing network” in 2012 and “engaged in conversation with a user who, unbeknownst to Meagher, was an undercover law enforcement officer” out of state, court records show.

After Meagher shared a password, the undercover officer downloaded files from Meagher’s computer, and found 88 “image files” of kiddie porn, which “depicted real prepubescent minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct, as well as sadistic and masochistic conduct,” court records show.

Separately, Meagher also secretly photographed the private parts of a child who was under his care, the records show.

Meagher is expected to be sentenced next month to at least five years in prison but no more than 20, court records show.

It’s unclear whether any of Meagher’s misconduct occurred while on the clock for taxpayers, and whether his conviction will impact his government pension.

For part of his career he was assigned to federal task forces handling drug and customs cases – coveted spots because there’s little oversight and big opportunity for extra income. In the eight years before he resigned, Meagher was paid more than $130,000 in overtime, county records show.

Meagher’s attorney had no comment.

BGA freelancer Rich Rovito contributed to this story.

More from Newsroom