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Tensions rising between Emanuel and Claypool over CPS

Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool and Mayor Rahm Emanuel have known each other for about 40 years. | Sun-Times files

With city taxpayers about to be placed firmly on the hook to prevent the school year from ending early, tensions are rising between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the trusted mayoral friend now serving as his hand-picked CEO of the Chicago Public Schools.

It was Forrest Claypool’s idea to file an unprecedented lawsuit that accused the state of distributing school aid in a way that discriminates against districts like Chicago serving poor and minority students.

It was Claypool who threatened to close schools three weeks early if he didn’t win a court order mandating a change in the school funding formula in hopes of pressuring an Illinois General Assembly paralyzed by the state budget stalemate.

Claypool’s signature gambles have so far failed miserably.

A Circuit Court judge not only refused to grant the preliminary injunction, he dismissed the lawsuit. And Claypool was exposed as the boy who cried wolf when Emanuel announced he would ride to the rescue to keep his vaunted longer school year intact.

On Tuesday, the mayor is poised to tell Chicago aldermen how he plans to keep the schools open without jeopardizing the city’s own shaky finances, probably through a bridge loan from the city’s tax-increment financing districts that may never be repaid.

But the tensions between Emanuel and Claypool are likely to linger long after the ink is dried on whatever the inter-governmental agreement turns out to be. So much so that there is speculation that Claypool’s tenure at CPS could be winding to a close, and certainly will be over by the first day of the next school year.

“Tension is inherent in the situation that they’re in. Forrest Claypool . . . has strong opinions about what he thinks should and shouldn’t be done. And people in the mayor’s office have ideas,” said Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the longtime chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee, now serving as Emanuel’s City Council floor leader.

“When you’ve got the stakes as high as they are, it’s gonna be tense, even if you are agreeing because, to some extent, you’re looking at walking off a cliff potentially,” O’Connor said.

Increasingly, it’s Claypool’s second-in-command, chief education officer Janice Jackson, who stands at Emanuel’s side when major announcements are made, such as requiring high school seniors to have a post-graduation plan in place before collecting their diplomas.

But O’Connor said Claypool’s 30-year reputation as a Mr. Fix-It dispatched to troubled government agencies to cut challenge-entrenched bureaucracies and do battle with unions puts him on a collision course with the mayor.

“He obviously knows there are routes that he could take that he feels are right for the system. But he doesn’t have to think of the political consequences,” O’Connor said.

“And not just the political consequences for an individual, but what it does to people who look at the city and want to live here or make a choice to move here or move their business here,” he said. “Those are things that the mayor has to take into account — not just the bottom line of the school system.”

Claypool did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment.

Emanuel scoffed at the suggestion of any tension between him and his schools chief.

“That’s B.S.,” he said in a quote sent to the Chicago Sun-Times. “Forrest has been one of my most trusted advisers for 30 years.”

David Axelrod, a close friend of both men, acknowledged that top mayoral aides “didn’t like the lawsuit” against the state. Claypool had been pushing to sue for more than a year when the lawsuit was filed in February.

“But the city was getting hosed. This was a way to force the issue. It didn’t work. But if it had worked, Forrest would have been a hero,” Axelrod said.

A top mayoral aide also pointed to Claypool’s somewhat prickly, “bull in a china shop” persona.

“He wants to do things without clearing them with those responsible for assessing the impact that’s going to have on the guy who put him there,” said the Emanuel aide, who asked that their name not be used. “He wants to do things without proper explanation and briefings. We have to chase him down for things he should be checking in with us about. If we don’t ask him for things, he doesn’t share. We find out about things too late. Over here, we’re watching the mayor’s back.”

Multiple sources say that Claypool also has lobbied to lay off more school-level staffers, such as many of the school clerks and some assistant principals, to balance the books in controversial moves that Emanuel has firmly shot down.

Yet no matter who’s in charge of the Chicago Public Schools, there is tension between that person and the mayor’s office.

Emanuel is a notorious control freak. The schools CEO — whether Jean-Claude Brizard, the now convicted Barbara Byrd-Bennett or Claypool — naturally wants to run his or her own show without clearing every last move with City Hall.

The precarious state of CPS finances only exacerbates that tension because no good choices remain.

The tension with Claypool is nevertheless surprising considering his decadeslong friendship with Emanuel forged on a losing congressional campaign.

Claypool served as Emanuel’s first Chicago Transit Authority president, where he cut costs, battled unions over what he called costly and antiquated work rules and pulled off a risky, five-month closing to rebuild the southern leg of the CTA’s Red Line on-time and on-budget.

The only real hiccup was the botched launch of the CTA’s Ventra fare payment system. But with Emanuel’s backing, Claypool rode out the controversy.

After winning Chicago’s first mayoral runoff, Emanuel summoned Claypool to City Hall for a third stint in the thankless job as chief of staff, which Claypool had twice held under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

But the federal investigation that forced Byrd-Bennett’s resignation altered the political landscape and created a leadership vacuum at CPS.

In 2001, Daley fired his wildly popular schools CEO Paul Vallas, who had achieved hero status during a highly acclaimed, six-year partnership with then-School Board President Gery Chico.

It was the modern-day equivalent of President Harry Truman’s firing of General Douglas McArthur — like a conquering hero being summoned home.

That won’t be the reaction this time if Claypool’s time on the hot seat — which’ll mark two years in July — is drawing to a close.

He’s the schools CEO everybody loves to hate, most of all the Chicago Teachers Union and the aldermen who have accused Claypool of arrogance and of leaving them in the dark.

But O’Connor said, “I don’t think you can visit much of this problem on him. I don’t know who can run a school system without a state appropriation to pay for school needs. And he’s been doing that now for two years.”