Emanuel starts cleaning house at school board

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel is starting to clean house at a Chicago Board of Education that approved and defended the $20.5 million no-bid principal-training contract at the center of a federal investigation with a company that once employed former Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

It’s not the elected school board that progressives and the Chicago Teachers Union have long demanded. But it might just be the next best thing.

Emanuel is appointing four new members on a seven-member board he handpicked that, critics contend, is riddled with conflicts of interest.

Joining the board are Rev. Michael Garanzini, retiring president of Loyola University; Mark Furlong, retiring CEO of BMO Harris Bank N.A.; Dominique Jordan Turner, president and CEO of the Chicago Scholars Foundation, and Gail Ward, a 35-year veteran of CPS who served as the first principal of Walter Payton College Prep.

They replace board members whose terms will expire June 30.

Among those leaving the board is Deborah Quazzo. Emanuel once said CPS was “lucky to have” Quazzo even though she has invested in companies that sell millions of dollars in educational software to the district she oversaw and to charter schools she has voted to authorize.

Also being replaced are Chicago Urban League President Andrea Zopp; Carlos Azcoitia, a former CPS principal and network chief-turned National Louis University professor, and former Northwestern University President Henry Bienen.

That leaves Board President David Vitale and board members Mahalia Hines and Jesse Ruiz as the lone holdovers. Ruiz is now serving as acting schools CEO.

Zopp is poised to join the Democratic race for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Republican incumbent Mark Kirk.

Vitale has been a target for criticism because he runs a bank while negotiating CPS financial deals and has longstanding ties to an Academy of Urban School Leadership that has turn-around contracts with the school system.

“These new board members will bring valuable experience to their new roles that will help us build on our progress and address our challenges to ensure that every child in every community has the education they need for the bright future they deserve,” Emanuel was quoted as saying in a news release.

Garanzini presided over Loyola during an unprecedented period of growth that saw the Roman Catholic university nearly double its endowment, boost enrollment, expand and transform the university’s four campuses and raise $500 million to bankroll those physical improvements.

Emanuel campaigned for re-election on a promise to put a “specialty focus” high school within 3 miles of every family, free top-performing schools from burdensome mandates and achieve an 85 percent graduation rate by 2019. He promised to make computer science a graduation requirement for high school students and “reinvent” senior year, with more students taking college courses and holding internships.

Turner could help drive that high school transformation. She’s an expert in high school strategy whose foundation provides underserved high school students access to quality educational opportunities.

The four new board members will have to hit the ground running.

CPS is literally on the brink of bankruptcy with a $1.1 billion shortfall, a $9.5 billion pension crisis that dropped its bond rating to junk status and the threat of Chicago’s second teachers strike in three years.

The board will also have to preside over a nationwide search for the replacement of Byrd-Bennett, who submitted her resignation Friday.

Emanuel telegraphed his decision to clean house during a pre-inauguration interview with the Chicago Sun-Times.

On that day, Emanuel was asked, “What about the school board? Didn’t they abrogate their responsibility in approving the no-bid principal training contract? Are you thinking about asking all of them to resign and starting over?”

The mayor candidly replied, “Of course . . . You’ll be hearing more in short order.”

Those comments were an about-face from Emanuel’s remarks on the day he returned from a post-election vacation to face the music about the Byrd-Bennett investigation.

On that day, the mayor stood behind the board members who approved and defended the now-canceled, no-bid principal-training contract — even though there were many companies around the nation that did similar work.

Only after chronic complaints about the caliber of principal training by the company, SUPES Academy, did the board order the CPS inspector general to investigate the contract, setting the stage for the federal investigation.

“David [Vitale, board president] does very important work, as does all the board. Look at the whole board and the experience it’s brought there,” Emanuel said in late April.

“You have, for the first-time ever, school principals that are on the board. You have people like Andrea Zopp, head of the Urban League. You have Henry Bienen, former president of a major university. . . . So you have a wealth of experience and knowledge.”

Although Chicago voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum on the issue, Emanuel has remained adamantly opposed to an elected school board on grounds that it would inject more politics into the school system and impede the educational progress CPS has made under his watch.

“I don’t think new membership necessarily satisfies their concerns,” said Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), former longtime chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee, now serving as the mayor’s floor leader.

“But what exactly do they mean by an elected school board? How many members? Do you pay them? Do they have staff? Are they elected at large or from member districts? They owe it to the public to answer those questions. Otherwise, it just foments discontent.”

As for the school board shake-up, O’Connor said it’s an opportunity to put four fresh pairs of eyes on old, vexing problems.

But the alderman acknowledged that the housecleaning wouldn’t be happening if the board hadn’t made the mistake of ratifying the no-bid contract at the center of the federal investigation.

“If this investigation weren’t happening, this wouldn’t stick out as much. You might say we didn’t get our money’s worth. But you wouldn’t say this is terrible decision. In context now, it’s a bad decision,” O’Connor said.

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