EDITORIAL: Forrest Claypool’s departure is best for Chicago’s schools

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Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool tenders his resignation during a press conference at CPS headquarters on Friday afternoon. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Forrest Claypool had to go, and it’s a damn shame.

Chicago’s public schools have made impressive academic gains in the last 10 years, and the district is in markedly better financial shape than it was just a year ago. For this, Claypool, CEO of the public schools, deserves considerable credit. The last thing anybody should want to see is a change at the top that threatens progress.

EDITORIAL

Claypool also was an upstanding public servant, even if many of us didn’t agree with every decision he made. There was never a hint of personal scandal. Whatever he did right or wrong as CEO was in the service, as he saw it, of giving school children a better education.

But Claypool had to resign, as he did on Friday, and he brought this upon himself.

He went to extraordinary lengths to justify a violation of the school district’s code of ethics, just because he thought he was right and everybody else was wrong. He impeded an internal investigation into those actions. He appears to have tried to keep the Board of Education unaware of the full facts.

If Claypool had stayed on, reprimanded only by negative headlines, what message would that have sent to CPS employees and students? It’s OK to break the rules and lie if you’re one of the good guys? Remember, kids, traffic laws are for less excellent drivers!

How, as well, could CPS have hoped to rebuild trust with the many Chicago parents, especially in predominantly African American neighborhoods, who already distrust the school district’s actions and intent?

CPS has been put through the wringer in the last 15 years. Dozens of schools have been closed, talk of bankruptcy was common and continues, and the previous CEO — now in prison — ripped off the district. CPS did not need more upheaval.

Claypool’s troubles began last year when he went shopping for a lawyer who would render a legal opinion that CPS’ general counsel, Ronald Marmer, was not violating the district’s ethics policy in supervising the contracted work of an outside law firm, Jenner & Block.

Six lawyers all said Marmer was, in fact, in violation of the ethics code — that he had a conflict of interest — because he formerly worked for the law firm and was being paid a $1 million severance.

That’s a lot of lawyers. You might think Claypool would have bowed to their opinion. Instead, he reached out to a seventh lawyer, J. Timothy Easton, an old friend and campaign contributor. Easton opined that there was no conflict at all.

When CPS Inspector General Nicholas Schuler got wind of this, by reading a Chicago Sun-Times story, he opened an investigation, and then Claypool really blew it.

Questioned by Schuler, Claypool claimed he had no memory of altering an invoice from one of the lawyers from whom he had sought an opinion. In fact, documents showed, Claypool had arranged for the lawyer to change the wording of the invoice to obscure the purpose of the lawyer’s work.

In a scathing 103-page report, Schuler concluded that Claypool had repeatedly lied and attempted to mislead the school board about the depths of Marmer’s ties to Jenner & Block. He accused Claypool of a “full-blown coverup.”

Seriously? Forrest Claypool is not Richard Nixon, and Marmergate is not Watergate.

Nonetheless, we had to agree with the inspector general when, in his report, he concluded with this:

“What kind of signal would it send to CPS employees, parents and children if the CEO was allowed to change records as part of a coverup and keep his job? Why would CPS employees tell the truth in other investigations — as required under board rules — if repeated lies by the head of the administration are not decisively punished?”

If there had been a less severe, yet still suitably stiff, penalty for Claypool, we might have urged it. But what? A suspension? Talk about throwing CPS up for grabs.

Claypool’s Achilles’ heel was that he saw himself as one of the good guys, and he figured that the ethics rule in question was there for the bad guys.

But lying to an inspector general could not be tolerated, and even good guys have to play by the rules.

Or, as Claypool himself put it on Friday evening, “Good men can make stupid mistakes.”

In resigning, Claypool did what’s best for CPS. Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson will step in as the interim CEO, and likely will be appointed to the top job permanently.

Jackson will need Claypool’s help in making a smooth transition, and we don’t doubt he’ll give his best.

What matters most is to preserve and advance CPS’s remarkable academic progress.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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