CHICAGO – Three weeks after Chicago teachers returned to the classroom following a strike, Mayor Rahm Emanuel accepted the resignation of his schools CEO and replaced him with a veteran educator and administrator who he said had the experience to take Chicago school reforms “to the next level.”
Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard resigned by mutual agreement after “constant questions” about his oversight became a distraction to the mayor’s reform goals, Emanuel said at a news conference Friday. Brizard announced Thursday night that he was stepping down after just 17 months.
Emanuel moved quickly to name a permanent replacement: Barbara Byrd-Bennett, a longtime teacher and administrator who had been serving as Chicago’s interim chief education officer and played a far more visible role than Brizard in the teacher contract negotiations.
Byrd-Bennett, 62, who started her career as a teacher in New York schools, also served as a principal and superintendent there before taking the job as CEO in Cleveland Public Schools and later as chief academic and accountability auditor for Detroit Public Schools, where she was in charge of implementing a teaching and learning plan and auditing academic programs.
Emanuel said the new teacher contract includes a longer school day gives the district the chance to take reforms “to the next level,” and to do that ... “you have to have the right person who has experience in front of class as a teacher, a person who also has the experience as a principal being held accountable for the results of that school building ... (and) you also need a person who understands how to manage a major school system,” Emanuel said.
Rumors circulated for weeks that Emanuel was unhappy with Brizard’s performance, but the mayor denied it, saying after the strike ended that “J.C. has my confidence.” Still, Brizard’s first performance evaluation by the school board raised concerns about his communication and decision-making skills, and he was not involved in teacher contract negotiations. Byrd-Bennett was.
Brizard, a native of Haiti, came to Chicago last April from Rochester, N.Y., where he had a frosty relationship with teachers and more than 90 percent of them gave him a vote of no-confidence.
School Board President David Vitale said Brizard initiated the discussion that led to his resignation, telling Vitale he was concerned he could no longer be effective. Vitale then took the problem to the mayor. The resignation was first reported Thursday night by the Chicago Sun-Times.
“He was constantly questioned about his leadership ... he ultimately concluded that it wasn’t going to work,” Vitale said.
He said one of those repeated questions was who was actually in charge: Brizard or Emanuel.
“The mayor was not running the system. The board was overseeing the work of (Brizard). And if there was confusion about that, it’s unfortunate, and it may in fact have been part of the problem why Jean-Claude didn’t feel he could be successful, because he couldn’t clear up that confusion, despite efforts by the mayor, efforts by me within the system to basically say ‘He’s the CEO.’ And he was,” Vitale said.
Emanuel later made a point of saying he wasn’t running things.
“I am clear about what our goals are, I monitor and hold people accountable to achieving them,” the mayor said. “But I don’t do the day-to-day work.”
Emanuel praised Brizard’s professionalism and said he should be proud of the work he did, including laying the groundwork for the longer school day and school year. “Hold your head high,” he said.
Byrd-Bennett said her 44 years in education have prepared her for the job in Chicago and she’s here “for the long haul.”
She said her first phone call after learning she was being promoted was to Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, for whom she has “great respect.”
“We need to do this work together ... [and] I plan to build the necessary coalitions,” Byrd-Bennett said.
Lewis, who was critical of Brizard when he was hired, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But other union leaders praised Byrd-Bennett as knowledgeable and experienced.
Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester teachers union that clashed with Brizard, said he and Byrd-Bennett served as co-chairs of an American Federation of Teachers advisory board and she understands both teachers and unions.
“I think she has a more promising track record of being able to work more collaboratively with teachers,” Urbanski said. “I’m hopeful that her experience in Chicago will help to stabilize the relationships and figure out ways to move forward together.”