Chicagoans React to Michael Scott's Death

November 16, 2009

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AP/File

Details continue to emerge about the death of Michael Scott, the president of Chicago's Board of Education. Scott's body was pulled from the Chicago River early this morning. The Cook County Medical Examiner has ruled Scott's death a suicide, but police say they are still investigating. Scott died of a gunshot wound to the head. 


As the city begins to grapple with Scott's sudden death, we take a look at the life of one of the city's biggest civic boosters.


You didn't have to sit for long at a contentious Chicago school board meeting before you got to see Michael Scott do what he did best…Whether it was a teacher driven to tears or parents mad about plans for their schools,  Scott played the role of the consummate diplomat and negotiator, bringing down the volume in the room, and listening.  

 

Here he is a month ago:

 

SCOTT: I have honest disagreements with a lot of people who are in this room, but I think they're honest disagreements.

 

Parent and activist Wanda Hopkins brought lots of complaints to Scott. Like many, she was on a first-name basis with board president.

 

HOPKINS: I'm talking about a person I fought against in many areas but respected him because of who he was and how he dealt with people like me as plain old parents. He would meet back with us and say, “Well, What do you think I should do?” He would ask us those questions.

 

Mayor Richard Daley brought Scott back for his third stint on the board in February, at around the same time he named Ron Huberman CEO. Scott had experience running the schools that Huberman lacks. Chicago Teachers Union president Marilyn Stewart says Scott's death creates a hole in leadership at a time when the district is struggling with major issues of violence and school closings.

 

STEWART: So I think with all of the turmoil at CPS this is a loss for trying to get a system on track.

 

Sixty-year-old Scott was a savvy political operative who served under four different mayors—Jane Byrne, Harold Washington, Eugene Sawyer and finally Mayor Daley.

 

He was a tremendous booster for Chicago and in particular the city's West Side, where he was born and raised. Daley appointed him to the Park District Board, the Regional Transportation Authority, and the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.

 

But Avis LaVelle says Scott was more than a Daley loyalist.

 

LAVELLE: He is a Chicago loyalist.

 

LaVelle knew Scott for more than 20 years. She was a reporter in the 1980s who covered  Scott. Later, the two served together on the Board of Education

 

LAVELLE: He served every mayor with the same level of commitment and dedication and he loved the city so much. Because Michael grew up in a family that had a tradition of serving the city. So it wasn't just about being loyal to the mayor. It was about being loyal and giving what you can give to the people of Chicago and particularly his beloved West Side.

 

In addition to his public work, Scott also ran a private real estate firm and had worked in the cable industry. There were times when those commitments sparked conflict-of-interest allegations. This summer, Scott was questioned about land deals he was involved in around Douglas Park, a potential Olympic site. Scott served on the city's Olympic bid committee, but he denied any wrongdoing.

 

When it came to the schools, Scott was a hands-on leader. Recently he rode the bus with students to Fenger High School, part of his search for a solution to youth violence in the city. For Scott it was also a check on whether the giant school system he helped oversee was responding the way school officials claimed it was.

 

Scott served his longest stint on the Board of Education during Arne Duncan's tenure at the helm. Peter Cunningham was CPS spokesman at that time. Cunningham says he remembers Scott visiting a school outside Chicago that taught ballroom dancing. He says Scott returned wanting to know why Chicago wasn't teaching kids to ballroom dance.

 

CUNNINGHAM: No one had a good answer for why we didn't have it, and the next thing you knew, we had it. He really understood that so many kids from tough neighborhoods didn't have those kinds of opportunities and he wanted them. And in some ways something as simple as ballroom dancing reflected that desire to see underprivileged kids get every opportunity.

 

Many who know Scott expressed shock over what officials are calling a suicide. They say the even-tempered civic leader didn't give up on anything—and they don't see it in his nature to take his life. Scott's family released a statement thanking people for the initial outpouring of grief. They say a public memorial service will be announced soon. This month's school board meeting, which had been scheduled for Wednesday, has been postponed.