Barbara Byrd-Bennett did Chicago’s school children a favor Sunday by quitting.
We say that not to be snarky. Byrd-Bennett was in many ways an accomplished CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. But given a federal probe of a $20.5 million no-bid contract to a company to which she had ties, her days as an effective leader were over. She would have no credibility in Springfield, where CPS is seeking legislative relief.
CPS’ remaining leadership team, headed by interim CEO Jesse Ruiz, has no choice but to refocus and push on. It’s crunch time. There can be no waiting for the next permanent CEO.
CPS faces a $1.1 billion budget deficit. Its bond rating is one notch above junk status. The word “bankruptcy” is being bandied about. And CPS’ contract with the Chicago Teachers Union expires on June 30. The union went on strike three years ago and could go on strike again this fall.
Meanwhile, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel launches a search for Byrd-Bennett’s permanent replacement, we urge him to put a premium on candidates who have, in addition to extensive finance and management experience, actual classroom experience. We say this knowing that advisers to the mayor, as reported by the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman, are urging him to go in the opposite direction — to appointed a “trusted lieutenant,” however minimal his or her experience as an educator.
One of Byrd-Bennett’s strengths, which set her apart from a long line of CPS chiefs, was that she was a professional educator, which is the norm in many other big-city school districts. She had been a teacher and principal. She understood how a school really works. She could talk the language of teachers. It was a skill — a professional identity — that helped mend relationships after the 2012 teachers strike and softened the blow when the city closed 50 neighborhood schools.
“Working with Barbara, I could tell her, ‘This isn’t working, this is causing people issues,’ ” CTU President Karen Lewis once told a Sun-Times reporter. “There was a language we could communicate.”
Clarince Berry, head of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, echoed that view. “I thought, ‘Finally we turned a corner because we had an educator,’ ” she told the reporter. “I had a better relationship with her and felt that we received more attention, more concern about our issues with her than any other superintendent I worked under.”
Byrd-Bennett’s immediate predecessor, Jean-Claude Brizard, who was bounced out after just 17 months, had been a teacher, but he was the exception. Most other CEOs in recent decades had been political appointees, shifted over from City Hall or other city agencies. There was Paul Vallas, for example, who previously had been the city’s budget director. And there was Ron Huberman, a former police officer, who moved to CPS from the Chicago Transit Authority.
The challenge for CPS is to restore trust and credibility. Toward that end, now would be an excellent time for the city to revisit the idea of switching to a partially elected school board. Such a board would include a majority of members appointed by the mayor — who appoints everybody now — but also elected members.
A partially elected board would better represent the school system’s various interest groups, beginning with parents, while preserving the best feature of mayoral control: accountability. It is important that the one chief executive answerable to all the people of Chicago — the mayor — be at the helm.