Advocates for children with special needs are concerned about why Chicago Public Schools selected as head of the special education department an educator with no specific special ed background or certification.
Patrick Baccellieri has been principal of three elementary schools and held several administrative roles during his 25 years with CPS. And when the Board of Education quietly approved his promotion last week to Chief of the Office of Diverse Learners Supports and Services, voting unanimously to hire him without any public discussion, he was a deputy in the district’s Office of Network Supports.
“This is exciting news for our school communities,” read a letter signed by CEO Forrest Claypool and Janice Jackson, chief education officer, announcing their choice of the man to permanently replace Markay Winston, who resigned in October after parents contested cuts to services.
“Whether in his role as a teacher, principal or administrator, Pat has been an advocate for students and staff receiving the resources they need to make progress in the classroom — and we’re thrilled he’ll bring his data-driven and collaborative approach to our Diverse Learners program,” the letter continued.
His promotion to the $178,000-a-year job comes with a $20,000 pay raise over his last position — and a bump over the Winston’s annual $170,000. District spokeswoman Emily Bittner confirmed Baccellieri does not have state certification to teach special education while touting his doctorate in Urban Education Leadership from the University of Illinois at Chicago and his four years’ experience as a school counselor.
His newly hired deputy, Elizabeth Keenan, comes from Minnesota, where she managed the special education department for St. Paul Public Schools, Bittner said. She does have the equivalent certificate of Director of Special Education in Minnesota and will be paid $175,000, CPS said.
Keenan will provide the “traditional expertise in special education” to Baccellieri’s administrative experience in a set up that parallels the leadership roles at CPS of CEO and longtime administrator Forrest Claypool with his chief education officer and experienced educator Janice Jackson.
Bittner justified both raises by the broke district, saying, “CPS needed to get the right leadership team in place, and we needed to make competitive offers to retain and attract top talent.”
CPS would not make Baccellieri available late last week for an interview. He did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Mary Hughes of 19th Ward Parents for Special Education called the selection a “poor choice.”
“I know he doesn’t have a special ed background, which I think could be problematic,” Hughes said. “I’m sure he’s very bright, but there’s a whole theory and philosophy about special ed. . . . You need someone who knows what happens in the classroom.”
At best, Baccellieri had special education students in the schools where he was principal, said Rod Estvan, an education policy analyst for the disabled rights group Access Living.
CPS, which is staring down a $1.1 billion budget crisis while awaiting long-sought help from gridlocked state lawmakers, already made cuts last year to special ed teaching and aide positions, even ones after the school year began. The bulk of unusual mid-year cuts also hit the central department CPS calls ODLSS.
CPS also began piloting a controversial program known as All Means All, which allocates set amounts of money per special education student, and let principals make hiring decisions. That’s a change from past practice of central administrators assigning and funding those positions.
“Special ed is going to be under enormous pressure,” Estvan continued. “It’s a difficult situation that Mr. Baccellieri is walking into.”