Chicago Abuzz With Talk of Who Should Lead Schools

By Ann Bradley — November 18, 1992 4 min read

The decision by Ted D. Kimbrough, the general superintendent of the Chicago public schools, to step down when his contract expires in June has set off intense discussions in the Windy City over what type of person is best suited to fill the post.

Mr. Kimbrough made his announcement on Nov. 5, at the end of a daylong “self-evaluative retreat’’ with the board of education. While the timing of his decision took some Chicagoans by surprise, other observers said they had expected the news.

Mr. Kimbrough had been criticized for several years for what was perceived as his lukewarm support for the decentralization of the schools in the nation’s third largest district.

“This is what I’d call appropriate news,’' said Joan Jeter Slay, the associate director of Designs for Change, one of the city’s leading school-reform advocacy and research groups. “I don’t think Mr. Kimbrough was the person to lead this kind of cutting-edge reform effort.’'

‘Dynamic Feeling’

Mr. Kimbrough is leaving the district at a critical time. It faces an estimated $385 million deficit for next year, Ms. Slay said, and can only trim about $85 million of that before new money from the state legislature will be needed to fill the gap.

Where to find a leader who can aggressively support the city’s local school councils, and build support among state and local politicians to increase funding, is the subject of much speculation in Chicago.

“There are a lot of groups meeting and talking about things,’' said Bernie Noven, the head of Parents United for Responsible Education. “There’s a real dynamic feeling going on in the city. Where it will lead, we’ll see.’'

Although Chicago’s superintendents have always been drawn from the ranks of professional educators, school reform has created a sense that it may be possible to hire someone from outside of education.

Mayor Richard M. Daley, for example, has said he thinks a business person would be best suited for the job.

Although current state law requires that the superintendent hold the proper state education credentials, Ms. Slay noted that exceptions to that rule were made for Mr. Kimbrough, who had been superintendent of the Compton, Calif., schools. It would not be difficult to make that waiver a permanent feature of the law, she said.

“There is some talk about some of the folks down in the schools, principals of schools that have been very successful under reform, who might be candidates,’' said Robert L. Crowson, a professor of educational administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“That wouldn’t have happened before reform,’' he added. “It wouldn’t have been conceivable.’'

Catalyst, a monthly publication that tracks Chicago school reform, asked city leaders to make “blue sky’’ picks for superintendent in an issue published before Mr. Kimbrough’s announcement.

They cited a wide range of people, including Vince Lane, the head of the Chicago Housing Authority; Derrick Bell, a former Harvard University law professor; Marian Wright Edelman, the president of the Children’s Defense Fund; and Bertha Gilkey, a St. Louis community organizer who has helped public-housing tenants take over and manage projects.

Wanted: Charisma

There appears to be widespread agreement about the personal qualities the new superintendent must possess to be successful.

In interviews last week, many observers said the system needs a “charismatic’’ leader who can build upon the extraordinary community coalition that came together to press the legislature for the reform law.

“What we really should be doing is to begin to form almost a movement equal to or greater than the movement we had that passed the school-reform act, in order to go to Springfield and get some more money out of the state,’' Ms. Slay said. “I think we need somebody who has experience in decentralization. We need a consensus- and coalition-building person.’'

Mr. Kimbrough is widely regarded as having been more comfortable working behind the scenes than out among Chicago’s diverse population.

“He is a very quiet, unassuming guy,’' Mr. Crowson said, “and he never did capture the attention of Chicago as a leader.’'

Mr. Noven, whose group is preparing to survey members of local school councils for their ideas about the superintendency, said Mr. Kimbrough had “really failed to establish a line of communication’’ between himself and the councils.

In announcing his resignation, Mr. Kimbrough stressed that he made his decision for personal reasons. He said he was proud of his achievements since January 1990, including opening schools on time without any strikes and balancing the budget.

The demands of managing a system in the midst of decentralizing add to the already huge challenges his successor will face.

The Los Angeles board also will be looking for a new superintendent at the same time. A broad-based community coalition in that city has put together a school-reform plan calling for schools to be given greater flexibility, and community leaders have indicated they will press to hire someone who can carry out their agenda.

To succeed, these superintendents must understand that their “raw bureaucratic power’’ has been reduced, said Thomas Glass, a professor of educational administration at Northern Illinois University and the author of a new study on the superintendency.

Yet, he said, they must also use their influence to build coalitions to sustain schools’ new authority.

“The job of a superintendent is 50 percent in the district and 50 percent in the community,’' Mr. Glass said. “Perhaps in Chicago and L.A., [it should be] 90 percent in the community and 10 percent in the district. I’m not sure a lot of these urban superintendents know how to do that.’'

A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 1992 edition of Education Week as Chicago Abuzz With Talk of Who Should Lead Schools