WANTED: CEO for nation’s third-largest public school system to replace chief forced out by federal investigation.
CAUTION: Must work for controlling, taskmaster mayor. System on brink of bankruptcy. $1.1 billion shortfall. $9.5 billion pension crisis. Junk bond rating. Strong likelihood that state help will be tied to financial oversight. Expiring teachers contract. Threat of second strike in three years.
That’s the job description for a position that Mayor Rahm Emanuel is trying to fill for the fourth time in four years. Whoever he hires to run Chicago Public Schools will be driving an education agenda that’s the mayor’s top priority.
The opening was created when Barbara Byrd-Bennett resigned on Friday, five weeks to the day after taking a paid leave of absence in the wake of a federal investigation of a $20.5 million no-bid principal training contract that CPS handed to her former employer.
Byrd-Bennett’s demise marks the second time Emanuel has chosen a nationally known educator from outside Chicago only to have the regime end badly.
His first CEO, marquee hire Jean-Claude Brizard, resigned by “mutual agreement” after just 17 months on the job. Brizard fell short as a manager and angered the mayor by going on vacation in the run-up to the 2012 teachers strike.
Byrd-Bennett replaced Brizard at the bargaining table and helped negotiate an end to the strike. Within weeks, she had his job. Brizard was sent packing with a $291,662 severance package.
RELATED: CTU on Byrd-Bennett resignation: ‘We’d like to see a clean sweep’
If Emanuel wanted to go the blue-ribbon educator route for a third time, he’d probably have a tough time. Who in their right mind would even want the job under the current conditions?
Jesse Ruiz — who’s been serving as Emanuel’s third CPS CEO on an interim basis since Byrd-Bennett went on paid leave in April — is not expected to remain in the job long term.
And mayoral confidants argue that the Brizard and Byrd-Bennett experiences cry out for a different model.
Instead of looking for another nationally known educator, Emanuel would be better served by choosing a trusted lieutenant from Chicago who may lack the education pedigree but has a proven track record of reining in government bureaucracies.
Possibilities include chief of staff Forrest Claypool, McPier CEO Lori Healey or Chicago Park District General Superintendent and CEO Mike Kelly.
“What Forrest did at the Park District and the CTA — you need somebody with that ability. Otherwise you’re fooling yourself. There’s too much at stake,” said a mayoral confidant, who asked not to be named.
“It has to be somebody who relishes a challenge and isn’t daunted by the enormity of what CPS faces. It also needs to be somebody loyal to the mayor who understands Chicago and the school system deeply and has a network of relationships they can draw upon to succeed in the job. Ties to the City Council. Ties to the business community, the teachers union and neighborhoods. That’s where the job should go. He’s 0-for-2 on out-of-town educators who had to rely on the likes of [SUPES co-owner] Gary Solomon, a mercenary recruiter who had his own businesses.”
But the Chicago Teachers Union is holding out for another educator — only this time one with strong existing ties to Chicago, so the district might enjoy some stability.
CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey wants the mayor to choose as the sixth CEO since 2010 “someone who’s a veteran educator, someone who has some roots in Chicago, who knows our city, someone who’s been around for a while who’s likely to stick around for a while.
“There’s a number of people I work with every day in the Board of Ed I think are capable,” Sharkey said.“Can we start by not getting someone who’s an investment banker, or who is a known privatizer?”
Sharkey also called for the rest of the Board of Education to be replaced, especially president David Vitale, who cast one of six votes to approve the questionable contract with SUPES Academy.
“We’d like to see a clean sweep,” Sharkey said Monday at CTU headquarters.
Byrd-Bennett did not reply to messages seeking comment. Her attorney, Michael Scudder, said on Monday that“given the pending investigation, we’re not now in a position to comment further.”
Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), Emanuel’s City Council floor leader, said he’s not at all certain Emanuel will follow the script former Mayor Richard M. Daley wrote after taking over schools in 1995.
That’s when Daley dispatched his chief of staff Gery Chico to serve as school board president and his Budget Director Paul Vallas to be schools CEO.
“Mayor Daley sent two trusted allies. But people criticized that leadership as not having the education component,” said O’Connor. “The first several years were spent not hitting education home runs. It was finding waste and corruption and trying to find ways we could make our dollars go further. At this point, they’re pretty much down to bare bones. Education improvement needs to be the focus. I’m not sure that model works again.”
“Frankly, I don’t know what the mayor does at this point. I just know he’s committed to trying to get it right. And if [you] go in there saying, `That model didn’t work. I’ll try this’ then you run the risk of missing out on some potentially good leadership or talent.”
O’Connor did not dismiss the possibility of Claypool replacing Byrd-Bennett, particularly if Ruiz is prepared to serve for the six months that will probably be needed to see the city through its $30 billion pension crisis.
But the alderman did not rule out the possibility of attracting another blue-ribbon candidate from outside Chicago.
“There are people who’d love to come in and try to turn this system around. It’s not like they’re starting at ground zero. There’s a great deal of groundwork that’s been laid and a mayor who is 100 percent committed to making this better. In other cities, education is the third rail. They don’t want to touch it,” he said.
Newly appointed Education Committee Chairman Will Burns (4th) said it would be a mistake for the mayor to overreact to the unhappy endings of the Brizard and Byrd-Bennett regimes by going in a different direction.
“I don’t think it has to be an educator. But it certainly facilitates cooperation with other educators when you have someone who speaks a similar language,” Burns said.
“To say an educator is not qualified to run CPS because other educators had missteps is wrong. Given all the issues that happened during Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s watch — school closings, Safe Passage, making sure that most kids went to better schools — those are things she should be proud of. In terms of the meat and potatoes of running CPS, she did a good job on balance. You could find another educator who could do a similarly good job or go in a different direction. But I don’t think you block someone from being the next CEO because they’re an educator.”
During a pre-inauguration interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Emanuel was asked about rampant speculation he may “switch to a business model” and dispatch Claypool to CPS just as Daley did with Vallas and Ron Huberman.
“Can I keep him for chief of staff for an hour?” Emanuel said of Claypool.
“Given the financial circumstances, there is no prescribed way I’m gonna look at it,” the mayor added. “Some people have advocated a superintendent model that’s different than the CEO model. Before we look to people, should I think of this different? . . . I haven’t come to a conclusion.”