Corporate-style board backs the CEO

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Paul Vallas has company in holding the Chicago Public Schools to a tougher standard. He is backed by a five-member board that differs markedly from prior incarnations in its corporate style, unanimity of opinion and the respect the members accord the chairman, Gery Chico, 40, a government-affairs partner at the Loop law firm of Altheimer & Gray.

The new board was formulated in the late spring of 1995 after the Illinois legislature handed Mayor Daley the right to name a chief executive officer (CEO) for the public schools and a fresh board, called the School Reform Board of Trustees. The trustees were appointed directly, without the need for City Council approval, to fill four-year terms. Chico, then Daley’s chief of staff, turned down the job of CEO because he wanted to return to practicing law, but he agreed to become board chairman, in part for the chance to work with Vallas. “I appreciated Paul’s skills,” recalls Chico. “We had good chemistry.”

Chico then took the lead in composing the rest of the board. He phoned Norman Bobins, president of LaSalle National Bank, late on a Friday afternoon in the middle of June, asking him to take a board seat. “I was flabbergasted,” recalls Bobins, now 54, who didn’t know Chico and had no experience with the public schools. “At first I thought somebody was kidding me, and I said, ‘Can I think about this?’ Gery said he had to know the next day.” The two men met for breakfast, struck up a rapport, and before Bobins departed on a business trip to Europe, he had agreed to Chico’s offer.

Sharon Gist Gilliam was an old hand in city government—she had served as budget director for the late Mayor Harold Washington and as chief of staff for former Mayor Eugene Sawyer—and she was acquainted with Chico and other officials set to run the schools.

“I knew it would a no-nonsense team,” says Gilliam, 53, now a partner in the Unison Consulting Group, which advises airports nationally. “Besides, I’m a third-generation Chicagoan, I’ve done very well in this city, and it was time to give back.”

The other board members were similarly enticed. Besides Chico, Bobins and Gilliam, the trustees came to include Gene Saffold, 41, director of the public finance division in the Chicago office of the investment firm Smith Barney; and Dr. Tariq Butt, a 42-year-old associate medical director at Madison Family Health Center, a West Side facility affiliated with Mt. Sinai Hospital.

The trustees have had little involvement in public education. Gilliam taught high school (at Farragut and Harlan) after college, and Bobins’ son, Robert, currently teaches 7th grade at McPherson Elementary, of which he is quite proud. The racial composition of the board is two African Americans, one Hispanic, one Asian American and one white. The present student representative is Vanessa Fraction, a senior at Harper High School.

Daley’s orders

Early on, Daley met with the trustees and issued some general instructions. “He said we shouldn’t be about increasing costs,” says Saffold, “that we should boost student achievement and that we shouldn’t do anything to divide the city.”

The mayor now voices a renewed passion about turning around the schools, both locally and in his capacity as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “Every city in this country above 300,000 people is seeing families move out for one reasonthe schools,” he remarks. “You have to take responsibility for that. Of all the things I’m doing, this is the most important.”

Daley huddles every couple weeks with Vallas and Chico, getting updated on programs, venting his feelings and pushing cooperation with other city departments, such as the Park District. But Daley leaves the board’s direction to Chico.

The board chairman asserts that the first phase of reform, grounded heavily in school-based management, failed to reverse the schools’ downward spiral. “We came in facing a large deficit, no money for capital development and a very, very low academic profile for the students,” he notes. The new trustees swooped in on a near-holy mission. “Something had to be done,” Chico says. “It was incumbent on us. To do nothing was wrong, because children’s lives were at stake. After six years of poor performance, somebody called the question on behalf of children.”

The aggressive steps that Vallas has taken over the last 18 monthsfrom planning high school restructuring to putting the worst-scoring schools on probationhave had the full support of Chico. A mandatory homework policy bears Chico’s signature, since days after taking office he insisted upon it. He views the LSCs as having “a limited amount of value in transforming a school. We’re not in a situation where any one entity has the exclusive answer. Local control, local control it’s like the mantra of the reform groups. I say, ‘Student achievement, student achievement.’ “

Reformers rankle

To cries from reform groups that Vallas’ Reform Board should be more deliberative, Chico argues that there’s no time to lose: “What’s going to happen to these kids when they graduate from high school? Where are they going to go if they can’t read? It’s not going to be the reform groups that help them out.”

The reformers rankle Chico. “Many of these groups are more concerned about adult governance than the results of education for children,” he says, “and that’s where we part company.”

“It’s appropriate to think that local control is the key leverage point in changing schools,” counters John Ayers, president of Leadership for Quality Education, an arm of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club. “Unfortunately, they [the trustees] like to paint reformers as the enemy.”

Chico devotes considerable energy to school matters, consulting daily with Vallas and regularly with the CEO’s top staff. He often meets with clumps of LSC chairmen. “I’ve also visited 45 schools, more than any of my predecessors,” he boasts. The only trustee with children in the city schools, Chico stays as long as two hours at his stops, to the delight of the students and staff.

The workload is lighter for the rest of the board. At the outset, the members agreed to dispense with committeestraditionally a forum for vetting plans and hearing complaints from parents and activistsin favor of hearings on specific initiatives, such as the move last year to junk social promotion.

Following Chico’s example, each regular member visits a school once a month and fulfills other unprescribed duties. Saffold lends his expertise to bond financing and capital-improvement matters. Bobins gets consulted on real estate matters; he relies on Heather Steans, a part-time assistant hired at bank expense, to background him more fully on school matters than he can do by himself.

The monthly board meetings, held at Pershing Road headquarters, lack the tempestuousness of pre-1995 days. The trustees rarely speak, save for the blunt-talking Chico. “Gery usually knows about an issue and what to do about it,” says Butt. “If he speaks, there is no reason for us to do so.”

The board votes are nearly all unanimous, though Chico takes pains to say the members aren’t in lockstep: “I like to think that decent minds think alike. My colleagues size up a situation the same way and act accordingly. But there are times when there are heated discussions behind closed doors [in executive session].”

During the public comment period that precedes the meetings, Vallas and his chief aides field complaints, often talking with gripers on the spot to straighten out difficulties. The approach was Vallas’ idea, according to Ben Reyes, the board’s chief operating officer. “It’s called customer service,” explains Reyes. “When people take time out to come down from work or school to ask questions, we want them to get the information they came for.”

Reform groups have their qualms about the new board. “These people are fairly remote from what’s going on,” thinks Sheila Castillo, director of the Chicago Association of Local School Councils. “I don’t know if they understand the issues except from the staff perspective.”

But Vallas’ subordinates delight in the less intrusive board. “When there were 15 members, you’d have to go through committees, and it was a road block to the staff taking action,” reflects Lula Ford, school leadership development officer. “Now Paul and Gery Chico are the committee.”

To Chico’s mind, the test of the new board’s success will be if reading scores of the 109 schools in probation climb 5 percent to 10 percent within three years. “You can hold me accountable if we’re not making progress,” he says. “If we lose, the reform people can come back in, and we’ll hold them accountable.”