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New day for Chicago schools? Mayor Rahm Emanuel names another CEO

October 12, 2012|By Michael Muskal

Weeks after a bruising teachers strike, the head of the Chicago school system stepped down, replaced by a new chief who immediately reached out to teachers.

Jean-Claude Brizard resigned as Chicago Public Schools chief executive, and Barbara Byrd-Bennett, a longtime teacher and administrator, was named as his replacement, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced at a news conference on Friday. Byrd-Bennett had been more visible during the recent round of contract negotiations than her predecessor.

Byrd-Bennett said her first telephone call on Thursday night was to Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who led teachers on a seven-day strike several weeks ago. Saying she had “great respect” for Lewis, Byrd-Bennett told reporters: “We need to do this work together … (and) I plan to build the necessary coalitions.”

The Chicago strike was less about wages than about professional concerns,  including the use of teacher evaluations – an issue over which teachers, parents and administrators have fought in many districts. It was also about how to improve students' lot in tough financial times.

Brizard decided to step down because he feared that he could no longer be effective, school Board President David Vitale told the Associated Press. 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.

Emanuel at his news conference 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.”

Brizard will get a full year’s salary as part of his severance package, the Chicago Tribune reported. He was hired on a two-year contract in April at $250,000 a year, the newspaper reported.

Byrd-Bennett, 62, started her career as a teacher in New York schools, also serving as a principal and superintendent, before taking the job as chief executive in Cleveland Public Schools and later as chief academic and accountability auditor for Detroit Public Schools.

Emanuel said the new teacher contract, which includes a longer school day,  gives the district the chance to take reforms “to the next level.” To do that, he said, “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.”

Many people in Chicago expect the system to deal with closings as well. Byrd-Bennett said she expects input from various groups.

“There is a process,” she said. “Everything must be on the table. As we've said, we face huge academic and huge financial issues in our district. This is about matching seats to the number of children we have. It's about putting every piece of information we have on the table. It's also about community trust and respect. So there's a process. there is no plan. I continue to hear a plan and a number, and it makes me smile because there is no plan, there is no number. But everything is being considered in consultation with the board and fact-gathering and the mayor.”

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