Update: Former EAA principal cuts deal with feds, pleads guilty to bribery and tax evasion

Updade Posted Oct. 15, 3:33 PM
Former Mumford High principal Kenyetta “K.C.” Wilbourn has cut a deal with the FBI, pleading guilty to federal bribery and tax evasion charges in a corruption scheme currently being probed by the feds. 

According to the Detroit Free Press, Wilbourn admitted that she accepted $58,000 in bribes from companies that "did things for Mumford" and also conceded to tax evasion. 

When questioned by the Free Press about the latter charge, Wilbourn explained that "Anytime I’ve ever gotten my taxes done, the bottom line is I don’t want to owe."

In terms of the plea bargain, Wilbourn, rather poetically, explained that she accepted because,"the feds raised my home, and they were looking for a bomb and they got a cap gun."

The EAA was made aware that the FBI was investigating Wilbourn in April 2015, six months after the Mumford principal suddenly resigned at the start of the 2014-15 new school. 

“You have been identified as a possible victim in a Federal Bureau of Investigation forfeiture investigation concerning Kenyetta Wilbourn … this letter contains important information about the possibility of  recovering your financial loss,” the FBI letter, obtained by the Freep, said. 

Original Posted Oct. 15, 11:55 AM

The FBI is initiating an investigation into corruption within the Education Achievement Authority and Detroit Public Schools. The former is a statewide K-12 reform district,  which only got as far as Detroit, and the latter has been under emergency management on and off for 15 years — in other words, while corruption has long been attributed to the traditional school district and board, the probe indicates the state takeover method may have some accountability issues of its own. 

The Detroit News reports that the probe will be investigating a few different individuals and vendors and highlighted one person in particular, former Mumford High principal Kenyetta “K.C.” Wilbourn. Prior to coming to EAA run-Mumford, Wilbourn was a "Turnaround Specialist" at Denby High School, another EAA-run school. During her four year stint at Denby she was largely considered an education superstar — with MLive writing a profile on her in April 2013 where, for better or for worse, she was compared to Emergency Financial Manager Kevyn Orr. 

Wilbourn, who the News notes had a 2007 Maserati and a "GUCCI1" personalized license plate, resigned abruptly last September at the start of a new school year. A company registered in her name, For-Most Educational Consultant and Training Group LLC, is also being investigated. 

While details are currently scant on how expansive the investigation will be, the issue of mismanagement in the EAA and DPS under emergency management is not exactly new. 

In June 2014, after three years of running the EAA, Dr. John Covington resigned with a $74,000 severance package and a swirl of negative press. Specifically, it had been reported that Covington and his staff had spent $178,000 on hotel bills and airfare between 2012 and 2013 in efforts to promote the district and to attend professional development conferences. This is in addition to the $240,000 he personally spent with two EAA credit cards on hotels, airfare, gas and Ikea furniture. 

While Covington's eyebrow-raising spending was a major criticism of the district, one of its most questionable decisions was purchasing, and continuing to use, an untested learning management system: Buzz. In a MetroTimes piece reported by Curt Guyette, it was revealed that despite knowledge that the product was riddled with bugs and a headache for teachers and students to use, EAA officials insisted on continuing to use Buzz, which was created by for-profit tech company Agilix. Given the fact that the EAA was created in 2012 as a "recovery" district for 15 of Detroit's lowest performing schools, the decision to use the district as a testing ground for unproven tech raised a number of questions — including what the incentive for the district officials may have been. 

The EAA, of course, is not the only state run district with issues. DPS under emergency management has also made some contentious decisions — a fact that many were reminded of when former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett plead guilty to charges of fraud Tuesday. Prior to Byrd-Bennett initiating a $20.5 million no-bid contract between CPS and her former employer SUPES Academy — under the premise that she would be repaid in kind — she was the Chief Academic and Accountability Officer of DPS. 

Hired in 2009 by former DPS Emergency Manager Robert Bobb, Byrd Bennett's time with DPS is currently the subject of much attention. Especially considering she — and Bobb — were in charge of deciding which vendors the district should contract. 

In October 2009 the Detroit Free Press reported that Bobb planned to spend $40 million on consultants for DPS. Mere months earlier, Bobb laid off 2,500 district employees and the consulting gig raised questions about financial priorities. Bobb scoffed at his critics saying the advisers would save the district money in the long run. Now may be a good time to point out that DPS had a $219 million deficit when Bobb came in and it ballooned to $327 million during his first year in 2009 — however, we shouldn't get off topic. 

Back to the consultants. Byrd-Bennett, DPS's chief accountability officer at the time, was largely in charge of deciding which consultants and ed programs would get the consultant contracts — and even in 2009 the Detroit Free Press was reporting that connections had a lot to do with who was getting the deals. 

The 2009 Freep piece details how Byrd-Bennett brought with her "at least six consultants" who previously worked with her when she was CEO of Cleveland's public school system (yep, she did that too) or when she was the superintendent of the “Chancellor’s District” in New York (read: a turnaround district like the EAA). For about nine months of work, the individuals Byrd Bennett brought on were paid a total upwards of $700,000. 

Then the Freep piece brought up some "interesting" contracts connected to Bobb himself. According to the article, in 2009 DPS gave a $972,000 no-bid contract for PFM Group, a Philadelphia-based organization tasked with helping to develop DPS's new financial plans. The connection? Bobb had worked as a senior managing consultant for the company prior to coming to DPS. 

Probably one of the most questionable deals Byrd-Bennett enacted was a $40 million, multi-year contract with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt that she initiated in 2010 shortly after joining the district. Should it come as any surprise that Byrd-Bennett was the “superintendent-in-residence” at the publisher prior to joining DPS?

While Byrd-Bennett was eventually caught and has plead guilty to her specific actions in CPS, one question that is raised is how serial education entrepreneurs, like herself, have been able to continue getting work with such dubious track records. One potential answer is that previous colleagues tend to stay quiet, realizing that positive working relationships could mean good no-bid contracts down the line. This nepotism  — as it relates to Byrd Bennett and Detroit — played out somewhat when the DPS official headed to Chicago. According to Chicago News Tonight in December 2013 CPS entered into a $30.9 million contract with Global Workplace Solutions, a company tasked with helping to close CPS schools by moving paperwork, files and equipment out of a closed school and then securing the building once everything had been removed. The kicker? Chicago Tonight reports that "A portion of the business was subcontracted to a company called The Robert Bobb Group, a company run by Robert Bobb, the former Emergency Financial Manager for Detroit Public Schools." 

Creating turnaround districts, statewide districts or implementing Emergency Managers — god, there are a lot of ways for the state to get involved in education! — is marketed as a way to eliminate corruption and provide better education opportunities for children. Sifting through just a few of the currently known EAA and EM-run DPS cases, there are a number of issues with the city's — and  let's be real, the governor's —  K-12 reform efforts. If anything, we know the feds are probably going to have a good time with this one. 
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