Change in CPS leadership prompts questions about "revolving door"

Activists call for stability as fifth schools chief in four years takes over.

October 12, 2012

A new person is stepping up to run the Chicago Public Schools system today, marking the fifth CEO in four years. 

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s new appointee, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, said Friday she’s “in it for the long haul.” But some others question if that will be the case.

News that Emanuel’s initial pick, Jean-Claude Brizard, was leaving the job came Thursday evening after weeks of speculation that he was on his way out. Brizard held the $250,000-a-year post for just 17 months. The terms of his departure are still being worked out, but Board of Education President David Vitale said Brizard will receive 60 days pay, plus one year's salary.

Earlier this year, Byrd-Bennett stepped into the position of “interim” Chief Education Officer after Emanuel’s first pick, Noemi Donoso, left.  That position will remain unfilled, Byrd-Bennett said, until she decides on her team and any changes that need to be made in central office.

The shakeup in leadership comes after a tumultuous year for Emanuel’s school team that culminated with a seven-day teachers strike. It was the first for Chicago public schools in 25 years and one that, in many ways, served as a referendum on Emanuel’s school reforms.  

It also comes on the cusp of what could be a major restructuring of the school district. As CPS has expanded the number of schools in the system, adding more of the privately run charter schools that Emanuel favors, enrollment has steadily declined. School officials have said they need to “right-size” the district and close dozens of under-enrolled schools.

Emanuel said Byrd-Bennett is the right person to move this plan forward.

“I know she has a vision to turn our challenges into opportunities and provide the leadership our schools and students deserve and need,” Emanuel said.

In sharp contrast to Brizard’s announcement, Byrd-Bennett engaged with reporters answering questions in a straightforward manner. (At the press conference where Brizard was introduced, he made a brief statement and did not answer any questions.)

Byrd-Bennett was also quick to say she wants to collaborate with everybody, including the Chicago Teachers Union.

“We need to do this work together,” Byrd-Bennett said. “CPS cannot do it alone. A CEO cannot do it alone. And I plan to build the necessary coalitions needed to support our teachers, principals, and school communities.”

Byrd-Bennett was a key figure in contract negotiations with the teachers union and gave several updates to the press on the board’s behalf.  She also has a record of working well with labor in her previous posts in New York City, Cleveland and Detroit. The president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers Keith Johnson released a statement applauding her collaborative work.

“Dr. Byrd-Bennett never forgot she was a teacher,” Johnson said in a statement. “While she understood that students were the center of the educational universe, she acknowledged that what was good for teachers was also good for students.”

Byrd-Bennett echoed that as she stepped up as CEO in Chicago.

“I understand the challenges and the struggles that each one of the people who are in our schools face,” she said. “I understand the frustrations that they feel and they come to work each day trying to make a difference and sometimes their efforts aren’t enough to help every child.  It’s our responsibility to ensure that they have the tools and the resources to do so. And that’s one of the reasons why my first call last night was to Karen Lewis.”

Lewis says she’s hopeful the animosity between the union and the school district will subside on Byrd-Bennett’s watch, but says her relationships with leadership isn’t what ultimately matters.

“I had a great relationship with Brizard,” Lewis said. “I had a good relationship with Terry (Mazany). I had a good relationship with Ron (Huberman).  The relationships I have with the leadership is not what is going to make or break what goes on. Again, this was the Mayor’s position.”

Some say Brizard was appointed to carry out Emanuel’s agenda and question whether a change in leadership will be noticeable.

A group of parent activists is also skeptical about the shakeup.

At CPS headquarters, parent Camille Mathis said she’s fed up with all the changes in leadership, regardless of who comes or goes.

“How can a school system implement a vision, work a vision and allow it to take root, if the leadership changes with the weather?” Mathis asked.

But Byrd-Bennett insisted Friday that she’s not leaving anytime soon.

“I don’t intend to go anywhere,” she said. “I don’t know what you do other than sign in blood, I mean, I’m here.”

Emanuel said he looks forward to working with Byrd-Bennett in the “months and years to come.” But he also said, “stability just for the sake of stability doesn’t get you anywhere.”