Chicago schools chief out after run-ins with Mayor Rahm Emanuel

Chicago schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard, recruited just 17 months ago by Rahm Emanuel, is stepping down nearly four weeks after the teachers strike. He reportedly infuriated the mayor.

Nearly four weeks since the end of the first teachers strike in 25 years, and 17 months after being recruited from Rochester, N.Y., by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in May 2011, Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard is stepping down.

Mr. Brizard’s resignation, announced in a statement released early Friday, highlights the difficulties school administrators face in the Chicago system, where school officials are more directly answerable to City Hall and vulnerable to the political pressures on the mayor.

Unlike previous administrators of what is the nation’s third largest public school system, Brizard was touted as an educator first and a business administrator second. His battle scars earned by dealing with a teachers union in his previous job showed Mayor Emanuel that Brizard had similar mettle for dealing with contentious labor issues in Chicago.

Brizard also believed in many of the reforms Emanuel wanted to implement, such as pushing forward more charter schools, closing underperforming schools, and establishing pay grades based on teacher performance and not seniority.

But Brizard was largely absent from view during last month’s strike, a combative standoff that left Emanuel vulnerable to criticism by voices on both the political right and left. Brizard reportedly infuriated Emanuel by taking a vacation in the days leading up to the strike, and his absence from the public eye during negotiations raised questions among Chicago Public Schools (CPS) employees whether he had resigned. That led Brizard to send an e-mail to staff denying the rumor.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune Friday, Brizard suggested that his management style did not fit well with City Hall. “I call it a marriage that was perhaps imperfect. My style and personality is maybe not what the mayor wants. I have felt he is not comfortable with me,” he said.

Media accounts suggest Emanuel was critical of Brizard’s management decisions involving key hires within the system, and as mounting news stories made that displeasure public, it became clear Brizard was a liability.

“The questions about J.C. became a distraction from what we had to do. We had a mutual agreement [that the distraction was] not helpful.… It kept on becoming about the static and noise about J.C. He said, ‘Look, getting the schools right is more important than me,’ ” the mayor told the Chicago Sun-Times Friday.

Steve Tozer, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and director of the university’s program in urban education leadership, says the political machinations of having the school system controlled by City Hall has its strengths, but tends to make it difficult for school administrators in top leadership roles.

“The consequence of that [structure] is the extent, to which such an individual can lead,” Professor Tozer says, adding that a schools chief “is more constrained by the mayor’s agenda than … by a school board agenda. With a school board, there is a shared shaping of that agenda…. The political stakes are so much higher with a mayor who must inevitably seek reelection.”

Brizard is the fifth CEO of CPS since the system went under City Hall control in 1995. Besides former interim CEO Terry Mazany, who served in the administrative transition between former Mayor Richard M. Daley and Emanuel, Brizard’s term was the shortest. The longest CEO to serve was Arne Duncan, who is now secretary of Education under President Obama.

Tozer says Brizard’s ouster likely has less to do with his ability to lead than it has with the politics of the school system that existed before his arrival in Chicago. Emanuel recognized that CPS “clearly has to do better and has no time to waste in getting better,” which likely drove the mayor to act fast, Tozer says. 

Replacing Brizard is Barbara Byrd-Bennett, a former teacher in New York City and CEO of Cleveland’s public school system. Her position as chief education officer for CPS, a position that oversees curriculum development and instructional policy, started this year. She played a more public role in the strike negotiations and was instrumental in drafting the updated teacher evaluation system Emanuel pushed for and won during settlement talks.

“Barbara is a proven leader and educator with the breadth and depth of experience that make her uniquely qualified to serve Chicago’s students and lead Chicago’s schools, and I am incredibly proud to welcome her into this position,” Emanuel said in a statement.

Under the new contract, which the union ratified Tuesday, principals will continue as decision makers in hiring, but layoffs, for the first time in CPS history, will be determined by the level of teacher performance in the classroom, starting with those with the lowest evaluation ratings. Also for the first time, CPS will establish hiring practices that fast-track highly rated teachers who are laid off – because of school consolidations or closings – for open positions at other schools in the system.

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