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Lightfoot ‘impressed’ with CPS’ Jackson; at CPD, Johnson ‘encouraged’ after chat

Lori Lightfoot, interviewed by Fran Spielman

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot being interviewed by Chicago Sun-Times reporter Fran Spielman on Friday. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot said Friday she “came away very impressed” after her meeting with Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson and hinted strongly that Jackson would keep her $260,000-a-year job.

Lightfoot’s wide-ranging interview with the Chicago Sun-Times also touched on the Chicago Police Department and the planned Obama Presidential Center, among other issues.

Jackson’s contract with CPS has a golden parachute: she’s entitled to six months of pay or $130,000 if she’s terminated without cause, plus six months of health insurance for herself and her family.

But that’s not why Lightfoot is inclined to keep her.

In part, it’s because Lightfoot believes stability is desperately needed at Chicago Public Schools after a revolving door of leadership under Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Lightfoot has no desire to keep it spinning.

“It’s been even more dire at CPS” than at CPD, she said, noting that CPS has had “five CEOs over the last seven years. One led off to jail in handcuffs. Another who leaves under a cloud of suspicion because he interfered with an internal investigation.”

But Lightfoot also believes Emanuel may have gotten it right with his fifth try at appointing a schools CEO.

“I’ve met with her. I came away very impressed. And we’re gonna continue to have discussions to make sure we’re on the same page,” Lightfoot said.

“She gets tremendous praise from people all over. I was at an event and a principal came up to me … as if on cue, she started talking about Janice Jackson. How great she was. Janice was walking towards us. I said, ‘Turn around and tell her yourself.’ That’s the kind of praise she gets at every level in the school system. You’re doing something right when you’re getting that kind of universal praise.”

During the campaign, Lightfoot was harshly critical of Jackson’s handling of a CPS sex abuse scandal that started long before Jackson became schools CEO.

Lightfoot also took aim at Emanuel’s controversial and now-reversed plan to open a high school at the South Loop site of the top-performing National Teachers Academy.

On Friday, Lightfoot reiterated those concerns. She renewed her demand for Jackson to preside over what she called a “reconciliation process” to make amends to parents impacted by those controversies and by Emanuel’s earlier decision to a close a record 50 public schools.

“That’s important for her, as a leader, to understand the harm that’s been done. The lingering concern that is out there. And she knows that. I’m gonna push her to think about the best ways she can bridge that divide,” Lightfoot said.

“She’s got to reach out to people who’ve been affected by decisions that have been made. … [National Teachers Academy] is a real issue. She’s got to bridge the divide with that school community. I’m more than willing to help in that circumstance. But she’s got to be the leader of the entire school system. And there can’t be schools or neighborhoods or communities that she can’t go into. That just won’t do.”

As for the 21-member elected school board overwhelmingly approved by the Illinois House on Thursday, Lightfoot called it a non-starter.

She supports an elected school board. Just not a board that big and unwieldy.

“We have to have a school board that’s actually gonna be able to function and that has true parent representatives on it. There’s nothing about the Rob Martwick bill that I like,” she said, referring to the bill’s chief sponsor, a Democrat from Chicago.

“I don’t want to have another elected body where we’re gonna see outrageous amounts of money that need to be raised. That’s gonna exclude parent voices. … We’ve got to look at … the funding mechanism so people don’t have to raise undue sums. That runs a risk of having undue influences shaping who gets on the board, who gets a seat at the table, whose voices are heard.”

Lightfoot argued that 21 members is “just unmanageable. They’re never gonna be able to get anything done.” She hasn’t settled on the precise number but said the “9 to 11 range makes sense to me.”

She also suggested public funding for school board campaigns and making prior service on local school councils a pre-requisite to give members “some skin in the game” and make certain they have school personnel and budgeting skills.

Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson also met with Lightfoot and came away “very encouraged” about being allowed to keep his $260,044-a-year job.

Lightfoot said she likes Johnson personally. She’s pleased the superintendent has finally acknowledged some Chicago Police officers “look the other way” when it comes to reporting police misconduct.

But she hasn’t made a final decision on whether to retain him and won’t until he sees how well he handles three “big issues” the Chicago Police Department is wrestling with: daily violence, the consent decree and having a plan to curb the traditional summer surge of violence.

“I’m gonna lay out very clear metrics and milestones that I expect him and the department to meet. And then, once we see what the summer is like, we’ll have that conversation,” Lightfoot said.

“I like him. I have a good working relationship with him. I want him to be successful because, literally, the lives of our children depend on it. But I’m gonna be a boss who is gonna hold people accountable. … That’s what the voters expect. And I’m not gonna cut corners no matter what my personal relationship with someone might be.”

As the runoff campaign wound to a close, President Barack Obama resisted pressure from Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle to get off the sidelines and endorse her failing candidacy.

Obama could not afford to alienate Lightfoot, whose support he needs to deliver the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.

Lightfoot said she invited the former president to her May 20 inauguration during Obama’s congratulatory call to her on election night. But she still plans to try to hammer out a community benefits agreement — strongly resisted by Obama — to protect area residents.

“It’s important for people in that community to be heard and respected. They’re worried about displacement. I get that. When I’m mayor, if that issue is still open, I’m gonna dig in and we’re gonna get a deal,” she said.

Lightfoot also said she’s “not wild about” a companion plan to merge the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses.

The merger gained momentum when Obama chose Jackson Park for his presidential center. But the $30 million plan hit a fundraising snag, derailing Park District Superintendent Mike Kelly’s plan to begin construction right away.

“It feels like it’s not a well-thought-out plan. It’s not a plan that’s been respectful of the community. There’s some environmental issues with it. … I’ve got some concerns and some red flags,” she said.

Also during the Sun-Times interview, Lightfoot vowed to abolish both CPD’s gang database and Emanuel’s slow-starting Infrastructure Trust.

She argued the Infrastructure Trust is doing nothing the Public Building Commission can’t accomplish.

And she accused Emanuel of “packing” boards and commissions, making appointments on his way out the door.

“There’ve been some changes that have been made. We’ve been clear we want flexibility to choose our own people,” she said.

“We’ve been in conversations at the staff level. There should be no more appointments when we’re at the cusp of change. We’ve been blunt and direct. That has to stop.”