Emanuel chooses seasoned leader in Byrd-Bennett

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Barbara Byrd-Bennett

Barbara Byrd-Bennett

In officially announcing that Jean-Claude Brizard was resigning and Barbara Byrd-Bennett was taking over, Mayor Rahm Emanuel refused to say how his first hand-picked school leader fell short.

But in emphasizing that Byrd-Bennett has experience managing a major urban school district, Emanuel took a subtle approach in pointing out a hole in Brizard’s background, one that might have proved lethal.

When Emanuel appointed Brizard 17 months ago, many wondered how he would transition to CPS, with a student body 11 times the size of the school district he came from in Rochester, New York.  

Among the criticisms of Brizard was that he had too many top office chiefs, so many that no one was sure who was in charge of what. Brizard had 17 chiefs, double the number of the previous administration, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis. 

Yet Brizard also was burdened with directives coming from Emanuel’s office, and the mayor took a heavy hand in steering the district. Emanuel, in fact, picked Brizard’s top deputy–his first chief education officer, Noemi Donoso–at the same time he chose Brizard.

Emanuel, however, chose to praise Brizard for raising test scores and the graduation rate, as well as implementing the longer school day. Emanuel also blamed rumors that Brizard was going to be fired, saying the rumors thwarted his ability to do his job–an ironic contention, considering that high-level officials in Emanuel’s own administration were responsible for those rumors (reported by the Chicago Tribune on August 31).

Emanuel and Board President David Vitale said Brizard came to the conclusion himself and offered to bow out. But in Brizard’s statement, released at a little after midnight Friday, he offered no explanation and said he leaves the job with “great sadness.”

Brizard’s exit is a costly one. He signed a three-year contract in June 2011 and, according to the terms, the severance package is a 60-day notice, which must be paid, and a year’s salary of $250,000.

Byrd-Bennett already on board

Byrd-Bennett has been serving as chief education advisor for CPS since May and already has been paid $152,000 as part of that consulting contract, according to a board report. CPS officials have not yet said how much she will be paid. Brizard’s salary was $20,000 more than his predecessor.

Byrd-Bennett said she will not immediately appoint a new chief education officer. She said she plans to take a look at the current structure of the central administration and assess what types of people are needed and who can play an “incredible role.”

If she does shake up the central office, it will be the second time in a year. With the exception of Alicia Winckler, the chief of human development, no one is a holdover from the previous administration.

In contrast to Brizard, Byrd-Bennett is seasoned and comes with a list of credentials leading complicated bureaucracies. She led Cleveland public schools for eight years and was chief academic and accountability manager for Detroit Public Schools at a time when it was being run by the state of Michigan. Byrd-Bennett also worked as a teacher, principal and administrator in New York.

When she left Cleveland in 2005, Byrd-Bennett was making $278,000. She was criticized for micromanaging and using private money for first-class travel and meals at expensive restaurants, according to a report on governance and urban school improvement by The Institute on Education Law and Policy at Rutgers University.

But the main reason she left was that she failed to convince Cleveland voters to approve two tax levies. This led to a $30 million deficit and the elimination of many of Byrd-Bennett’s programs, according to the report. 

Unlike Brizard, for whom the job was an obvious promotion, Emanuel portrayed Bryd-Bennett as someone in the later years of her career with enough laurels to rest on.

“She could have hung up her jersey,” Emanuel said.

Byrd-Bennett, who is 62, will be the fourth CEO since Arne Duncan left in 2008. She said there is no reason to worry that she will jump ship quickly.

“I plan to be here for the long haul,” she said.

In Cleveland, New York and Detroit, most of Byrd-Bennett’s work has been focused on working to improve traditional public schools and not on encouraging the proliferation of charter schools.

David Bergholz, former president of The Gund Foundation, the largest family foundation in Cleveland, said during her tenure there Byrd-Bennett was more interested in “pushing to reform public schools.” Though he worked closely with her in Cleveland, he has since lost touch with her and doesn’t know her current positions on education issues.

Emanuel is pushing for CPS to become a full-fledged portfolio school district, one in which parents have a lot of choices about where they send their children. He has called for an increase in charter schools.

Though charter schools were barely mentioned at the announcement, Byrd-Bennett said “I could not be more aligned to the vision of the mayor and this board.”

Byrd-Bennett also didn’t shy away from the discussion about closing schools. There have been reports that CPS officials plan to close down as many as 100 schools in the next few years, as many buildings are underutilized.

She acknowledged that CPS has more seats than children. But she said no plan exists detailing which schools to close.

“It is about building community trust and it is a process, not a plan,” she said. Emanuel and Brizard were sharply criticized during last year’s school actions for seeming to ignore community input and even paying people to come to hearings to support school actions.

Bergholz said Byrd-Bennett was adept at establishing strong relationships with the community while in Cleveland. He described her as warm.

“She was liked so much that people said she should run for mayor,” he said. “At one time, she was probably the most popular public figure in Cleveland.”

This ability to build relationships helped Byrd-Bennett this fall. During contentious teacher contract negotiations, she took a lead role, while Brizard faded into the background.

Byrd-Bennett said she forged a connection with CTU President Karen Lewis during this time. Though Lewis called Brizard’s departure evidence of chaos at CPS, Byrd-Bennett said Lewis was the first person she called and that Lewis was supportive.

“We share the same vision. I have walked in the same shoes as a teacher,” she said.

Not only were union relationships one of her strengths in Cleveland, but Bergholz said she also was able to work with Mayor Michael White. Coming into Cleveland, White was a new brand of mayor with a take-charge personality, much like Emanuel.

“They were able to be a team,” Bergholz said. “She was clearly the superintendent and he was clearly the mayor. If Emanuel is capable of working with another strong personality, then they could do a remarkable job.”

For Emanuel, that is a big if.