The kind of leader the system needs

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“I remember when the first Mayor Daley died,” says Jerry Roper, CEO and president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, with both nostalgia and amusement in his voice. “We all sat around waiting for phone calls from him [telling us what to do].”

Paul Vallas’ eventual departure won’t leave people flat-footed. Since last summer, speculation about a possible Vallas bid for governor has been a staple in the Chicago Sun-Times.

As Vallas ponders his future, Catalyst surveyed a spectrum of leaders on what kind of leadership the Chicago Public Schools needs next. We asked them to name names, too. The answers were part prediction, part wish list.

One prerequisite deemed non-negotiable was having the complete confidence of Mayor Richard M. Daley. Although state law now gives the responsibility of picking a superintendent to the Board of Education, everyone acknowledges the mayor will make the choice.

“No one’s going to ask anybody [who to pick],” predicts Carolyn Nordstrom, executive director of Chicago United, a civic group of corporate CEOs. “Someone will show up in that job. I’ll start hearing about it through the grapevine, and then it’ll be confirmed.”

Another prediction: The person probably will be local. “You don’t have time to build a bunch of relationships,” says Mary Sue Barrett, executive director of the Metropolitan Planning Council, a non-profit that focuses on regional issues, and a former chief of staff to School Board President Gery Chico.

Regardless of the person’s professional background, a firm grasp on management and finance is seen as a must. “If you cannot put your arms around the organization and right-size the budget, … you’re not going to be able to do much,” says Chico. “The first thing you won’t be able to do is strike a deal with the teachers. If you can’t do that, you might as well sell popsicles in Alaska.”

Political savvy is another top prerequisite. Vallas, who came to the school system after more than a decade of political apprenticeship in Springfield and the mayor’s office, put his experience to work immediately, successfully seeking financial support from the legislature. “He established credibility, and it’s important to maintain that,” says Thomas Reece, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. “Because even if you don’t get everything you want, you at least don’t get things done to you.”

‘Sorry Blondean …’

Vallas makes a prediction of his own: His successor will not come from the traditional ranks of education administration. “When I’m gone, the mayor is going to appoint a CEO—sorry, Blondean, Cozette, Phil, Wilfredo,” he says, ticking off the first names of some of his ranking education deputies. “The mayor has made his reputation on CEO, it’s gonna be a CEO. That’s the mayor’s national model.”

Even so, some leaders put an education background high on their wish list. “For all the things [Vallas] has done positively, it’s time to have someone who understands teaching and learning,” says Victoria Chou, dean of the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Barbara Radner, director of DePaul University’s Center for Urban Education, specifically wants someone who taught in a city like Chicago, preferably special education. Her rationale: It emphasizes giving crystal-clear directions and taking into account people’s different needs.

“One of our problems with Vallas is with him saying, ‘OK, this will work systemwide,'” she says. “Things don’t work schoolwide, let alone systemwide. What works is having a variety of approaches to respond to the needs of different kids.”

Several sources mentioned Anthony Alvarado, former superintendent of the renowned District 2 in New York City and now chancellor of instruction in San Diego. In the 1970s, Alvarado fostered development of the schools that became the models for Chicago’s small schools movement. Peter Martinez, an education program officer at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, called for a “Tony Alvarado type, because he’s committed to the idea that the center of the effort has got to be instruction.”

However, even the most ardent advocates of education-savvy leadership acknowledge that business skills are needed, too. “We can’t lose the public-management component, getting money,” says Melissa Roderick, a University of Chicago researcher who has studied the system closely during the Vallas years. “That’s what presidents of universities do; they don’t mess around with instruction. But someone could come in who’s a fabulous educator and hire good budget people.”

Whether the top person comes from education or from another field isn’t the most important issue, says Reece. “The background doesn’t really matter. If you take someone from the business or the political community, they have big pluses. Someone from the education community, they have pluses. But on the side where you don’t have the pluses, you have to be able to listen.”

Do some healing

Most sources put diplomacy high on the list of must-have skills, but they are split on whether Vallas is the right model.

Many sources credited Vallas’ ability to work with a wide range groups as a key to his success. “The next CEO needs to be somebody who [like Vallas] can juggle a bunch of different relationships—the teachers union, the business community, Springfield— and can reach out to communities of color,” says William Burns, education and tax policy manager for the Metropolitan Planning Council.

“Say what you will about Paul, he can communicate with everybody from the street level on up,” says Barbara Sizemore, dean emeritus of the School of Education at DePaul University.

“I talk to people, and they have Paul’s home number,” she says. “His wife must be the most wonderful angel.” Sizemore recalls a meeting at King High School where “a parent said, ‘Well, I’ll call [Vallas], I have his home number.’ What? I almost fell off my chair.”

However, many sources hope that the next CEO will be a kinder, gentler version of Paul. Those hopes come not just from groups that have been on the outs with the administration, but also from leaders who have worked closely and productively with Vallas.

“I think whoever [succeeds Vallas] should keep the reform efforts moving but do some healing,” says Peg Cain, former executive director of the Golden Apple Foundation. “There have been some wounds, some necessary and some gratuitous, because of style.” But she adds that the next person also needs to be aggressive.

“People’s strengths are also their weaknesses,” observes Diana Nelson, public affairs director of the Union League Club of Chicago and a longtime reform participant. For example, Vallas’ willingness to make tough decisions and stand foursquare behind them is a source of strength, she says, but it also can lead to unnecessary conflict.

No grooming

Vallas’ strong center-stage performance has at least one residual negative effect, several sources note. “I can’t give you any names, and that’s a problem,” says Sen. Miguel DelValle (D-Chicago). “Vallas and Chico have been so dominant that there hasn’t been anyone who’s been able to step out of their shadow.”

“Quite honestly, the system has not allowed people to develop their leadership skills, because the decisions have all been made at the top,” says Hazel Steward, the top administrator for Region 3, which covers the city’s mid-section from Lake Michigan to its western border.

The lack of heirs apparent “at this point looks like a weakness in the system,” agrees Richard Laine, education policy director for the Illinois Business Roundtable. “The city needs to be grooming the next leadership team —and it does need to be a team—because if we don’t do that, I think we’ll miss a big opportunity.”

Two longtime observers say they are hoping that the job top job will go to someone from outside the school system, but they give opposite reasons.

G. Alfred Hess Jr., director of Northwestern University’s Center for Urban School Policy, doesn’t trust CPS insiders because he thinks that many don’t buy into what he sees as the current leadership’s most important premise: “that ‘our kind of kids’ can learn like other kids from across the country,” he says. “I think that’s the big thing that Paul and Gery have brought: They don’t accept the excuses people have made to try and explain why our students achieve at low levels.”

On the other hand, Julie Woestehoff, a Vallas critic who heads Parents United for Responsible Education, holds the second-tier leadership at Clark Street in suspicion because they have gone along with Vallas and Chico’s programs, programs she thinks should be discarded. “They had the opportunity to influence education policies … but they didn’t,” she says. “Those are people who must take partial responsibility for the polices that are in place now.”

Nordstrom of Chicago United suggests that the whole organizational structure likely will have to be revised when a new leader takes office. “I think that structures succeed in part because of the people who are in them,” she says. “You change the people, and the structure [becomes] dysfunctional.”

Vallas declines to name a possible successor. “I wouldn’t hazard to guess who the mayor would select,” he says. “I don’t want to doom anyone’s chances.”

“I’ll be like Alexander the Great,” he jokes. “I’ll say, ‘To the strongest!’ They say that’s what he said on his deathbed.”

Dan Weissmann with contributions from Catalyst staff. Comments may be e-mailed to editorial@catalyst- chicago.org