Mayor Rahm Emanuel names top aide to run Chicago's schools

Mayor Rahm Emanuel names top aide to run Chicago's schools
Forrest Claypool Flickr/CTA
Mayor Rahm Emanuel names top aide to run Chicago's schools
Forrest Claypool Flickr/CTA

Mayor Rahm Emanuel names top aide to run Chicago's schools

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is turning to a long-time friend and familiar face around City Hall to head the cash-strapped Chicago Public Schools: Forrest Claypool.

“I’ve worked with some of the country’s great cabinet secretaries at the federal level,” the mayor said Thursday morning. “I’ve worked with a number of people at different levels of corporate America, but I’ve never seen a manager with Forrest Claypool’s capacity for leadership.”

Emanuel announced a number of leadership changes Thursday for what he calls a “new chapter” of the district's future. He said while attention is traditionally paid to the CEO, the current challenges that the district faces can’t fall on just one person. It needs a “team.”

The other members of that team include: Frank Clark, incoming president of the Chicago Board of Education, replacing David Vitale; Denise Little, senior adviser to Claypool; and Janice Jackson, Chief Education Officer, a position left vacant in 2012 after Barbara Byrd-Bennett was promoted to the top job.

Byrd-Bennett stepped down as head of CPS in June amid a federal probe involving her former employer, SUPES Academy. That company was quietly awarded a $20.5 million no-bid contract in 2013, just after the CPS closed 50 schools.

Both Byrd-Bennett and Jean-Claude Brizard, Emanuel’s first schools chief who left after the teachers’ strike in 2012, came from outside Chicago.

Claypool is the opposite, as he’s served at the head of multiple city agencies, like the Chicago Transit Authority and the Chicago Park District. He’s also been a mayoral chief of staff three times: Twice with Mayor Richard J. Daley, and most recently under Emanuel. Claypool and Emanuel have been friends since their twenties, when they worked together on political campaigns. The mayor said it was with “some trepidation” that he allowed Claypool to leave his office, but that he was the “right person at the right time to help lead CPS at this moment.”

Known for cleaning up financial messes, Claypool takes over the top CPS job at a critical time. The district is dealing with a $1 billion dollar deficit in the next fiscal year, and recently announced major cuts to schools.

“I’ll deal with what we can deal with...and that is to manage the system as best as possible. I’m committed to bringing the best people, the best and the brightest, and providing every level of support, in every conceivable way to our hard-working teachers and principals who are on the front lines every single day,” Claypool said.

The district is also in the middle of contract negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union.

CTU President Karen Lewis said she spoke with Claypool Wednesday morning and told him to “Run, Forrest, Run.”

“I think the job is probably almost undoable, to be perfectly honest, at this point,” Lewis said.

Lewis called Claypool “a fixer” and told reporters she figured he would be the next schools chief when union leadership met with him last week.

Claypool will officially begin his new job at the end of July, alleviating school board Vice President Jesse Ruiz of the interim role he’s filled for the past three months. Emanuel thanked Ruiz for his personal and professional “sacrifice” in a very “challenging moment” for the school district.

Ruiz will return as vice president of the school board. But he’ll no longer be seated next to current board president David Vitale. Instead, Frank Clark will take the top seat on the Board of Education.

Clark, the former CEO of Com-Ed, is a familiar name. He chaired the Commission on School Utilization, which suggested that CPS had the capacity to close 80 schools. Ultimately, CPS decided to close 50. After the closings, Mayor Emanuel promised he wouldn’t shutter any schools for five years. Asked Thursday, Clark said he doesn’t see that changing.

“The short answer is no,” Clark said. “I don’t see any need for any additional closures at this point.”

Clark is also the co-founder and namesake of Rowe-Clark Math and Science Academy, a public charter school on the west side run by the Noble Network of Charter Schools.

The replacement of Vitale drew speculation that it was related to the unanimous vote on the no-bid contract that he oversaw and that ultimately cost Byrd-Bennett her job. Others pointed to a series of Chicago Tribune articles about debt swaps made under Vitale during his tenure as Chief Financial Officer in the late 2000s.

But Emanuel scoffed at that, saying it was Vitale’s idea that a new CEO start off with a new school board president. The mayor said he was at first reluctant to accept Vitale’s resignation, adding that he had to go swimming a few times before he made the final decision.

The other two appointments were less challenging — both are veteran educators in CPS. Denise Little will be a senior adviser to Claypool. She was most recently Chief of Network Offices, middle management that oversees clusters of schools that are grouped by geography. In 2012, she ran one of those networks on the west side, but was promoted by Byrd-Bennett to take on the new central office role. CTU’s Lewis said Little was involved in contract negotiations in 2012, but hasn’t been at the table in the most recent talks.

Janice Jackson also ran one of CPS’s networks on the west side. Before that, she was a principal at Westinghouse College Prep and Al Raby High School, and a history and economics teacher at South Shore. A graduate of Hyde Park High School, Jackson said the decision to take the position of Chief Education Officer was “not professional, but personal.”

Jackson was cited as one of five “influential young Chicagoans” in the Chicago Tribune in 2009.

Becky Vevea is WBEZ’s Education reporter. Follow her @wbezeducation. Lauren Chooljian is WBEZ’s City Hall reporter. Follow her @laurenchooljian