Barbara Byrd-Bennett closed 50 schools and recommended a no-bid $20 million contract during her two and a half years leading Chicago Public Schools. But at least she had been a teacher and principal, unlike the long line of CEOs preceding her, principals and teachers groups say.
If Byrd-Bennett’s current paid leave becomes permanent, Mayor Rahm Emanuel should replace the attorney filling in for her with someone who has actually taught in a classroom, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said.
“I would like to talk to him about it,” Lewis told the Sun-Times. “I think that he could come up with a bunch of names. He should sit down with me, he should sit down with Clarice [Berry, head of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association,] and ask, ‘What do you think?’ ”
Byrd-Bennett is on leave in the wake of revelations that federal investigators are looking into a $20 million no-bid contract for principal training awarded to a company that used to employ her. CPS says her pay will last through June 30, though her contract assures her employment through June 30, 2016.
Byrd-Bennett did not respond to messages seeking comment, but had frequently referred to herself in speeches, conference calls and press releases as a “former principal and teacher.”
“Working with Barbara, I could tell her, ‘This isn’t working, this is causing people issues.’ And she’d look into it,” said Lewis, who has headed the CTU since 2010 — or five CEOs ago. “There was a language we could communicate that I couldn’t use with Ron [Huberman], I couldn’t use with Terry” Mazany.
Since Springfield gave Chicago’s mayor control over the schools in 1995, CPS has been led by a string of political appointees without classroom experience. Paul Vallas was Chicago’s budget director. Arne Duncan had run an education nonprofit. Huberman, a former police officer, moved to CPS from the Chicago Transit Authority. Mazany remained head of the Chicago Community Trust while filling in for a year.
In 2011, Emanuel first chose Jean-Claude Brizard, a former superintendent of schools in Rochester, New York, who stepped down under pressure in the wake of the historic 2012 teachers strike. Brizard had been a science teacher, Lewis acknowledged, but lasted barely 17 months in Chicago.
Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which advocates for urban schools, said the “vast majority of our superintendents have been classroom teachers at some point,” with about 92 percent of his organization’s member districts headed by someone with “some teaching experience” in 2013-14.
That’s highly unlikely, though, considering the troubles Emanuel’s first two picks have caused him. He is most likely to return to the business model of the past, no matter what educational leaders want.
Asked whether Emanuel would meet with the educators before choosing his fourth CEO, mayoral spokeswoman Kelley Quinn wouldn’t say. “Our top priority is finishing the school year on a strong, positive note,” she said. “It would be premature to discuss any other issues at this point.”
Berry said Byrd-Bennett listened to her principals’ concerns — with the exception of closing 50 schools at once — and made common sense fixes.
“I thought, ‘Finally we turned a corner because we had an educator,” Berry said. “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 . . .”
“It was refreshing to have an educator at the helm,” she said. “That’s why I feel this is a loss for us at least in the educational realm.”