David Vitale, the banker and mayoral ally who led the board of the financially troubled Chicago Public Schools through closings, budget turmoil and a scandal that ousted the CEO, has quit his post in the wake of a federal probe into contracts he voted to approve.
Vitale had come to the board in 2011 with education chops — he was CPS’ chief administrative officer under former CEO Arne Duncan, as well as president of the board of the private education nonprofit Academy for Urban School Leadership.
But as the board slashed budgets and shuttered schools under Vitale’s leadership, while opening new charters and handing troubled neighborhood schools over to AUSL for a “turnaround,” his detractors often accused him of being a man of means out of touch with the struggles of working-class parents and their kids.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel insisted Thursday that the decision to step down was made by Vitale alone to give new CEO Forrest Claypool a fresh start. He denied the leadership change was a response to Vitale’s fingerprints being all over controversial district borrowing and the $20.5 million, no-bid principal training contract with a company that once employed Barbara Byrd-Bennett. She resigned following a federal probe.
“Weeks ago, when David and I met . . . I said why I thought Forrest [Claypool] was the right person and the team, David offered the idea that he should step down after his tenure because the tradition at CPS has been a CEO and a new chair. It allows us, as I said, to write that new chapter,” Emanuel said.
CPS declined to make any resignation letter public, but after a press conference at Westinghouse College Prep high school, Vitale explained why he wanted out.
“‘Want’ is a strong word,” he said. “I offered to get out because I’ve been involved in the system for 12 years one way or another. . . . I’ve been president of the board for four years. I haven’t missed a board meeting.”
“But I also said to the mayor, `Historically, there’s been a value to a CEO and a board president coming together and I wasn’t gonna stay for however long Forrest is there,” he continued. “I don’t think it’s got anything to do with the controversy. It’s building a working relationship that’s really important going forward.”
The appointment of a white male Thursday to replace a black woman as schools CEO made it all the more important for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to make Forrest Claypool part of a salt-and-pepper leadership duo.
The mayor did that by choosing businessman Frank Clark as school board president; rising star Janice Jackson, a beloved network chief, to serve as chief education officer; and longtime CPS educator Denise Little as Claypool’s “senior adviser.”
Vitale oversaw the board when teachers walked the picket line in 2012 for the first time in 25 years, and when it soon after approved the mayor’s appointment of Barbara Byrd-Bennett as CEO. She replaced Jean-Claude Brizard, whose stock had fallen in the wake of the strike.
Sources recently told the Chicago Sun-Times that Byrd-Bennett’s employment contract was presented as a done deal by Vitale. One said Vitale “was the one who managed her contract. He was very, very supportive of Barbara.” Another characterized the board generally as “president-centric.”
In 2014, CPS parents, students and others protested outside Vitale’s large Hyde Park home as they had many times before, questioning how a wealthy bank chairman could be qualified to make decisions for those in poor communities.
The Sun-Times also reported that the bank Vitale runs stood to benefit from a proposal for a new charter school. CPS said he had no involvement in the deal, and the site was later dropped.
Another apparent conflict of interest that Vitale’s critics constantly brought up was his relationship with AUSL. He had been its board chairman, and after he moved to CPS’ board, he often voted to “turn around” low-performing CPS schools, hiring AUSL to take over those schools and dismiss all the existing teachers and staff.
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He also strongly defended fellow board member Deborah Quazzo after a Sun-Times analysis showed that CPS business with companies she had invested in tripled since she joined the board, saying, “Like all board members, Deborah abides by a strict ethical policy prohibiting working or voting on any matter in which they have a personal interest.”
In June of this year, Emanuel declared CPS finances “at the breaking point.” And, again, Vitale came under criticism, in part because of his extensive experience at CPS’ financial helm.
Vitale said Thursday he has no regrets.
“My job is to be president of the Chicago Board of Education and all that goes with it,” he said. “Whether the press has got the stories right — that’s a different story. But I don’t care. I’m proud of the accomplishments we’ve had with the kids.”
Pressed to identify mistakes or regrets during his tenure, Vitale said, “There are always things that I could have done better.”
Contributing: Stefano Esposito