School & District Management

Chicago CEO Resigns Amid Ethics Probe; Veteran Educator Named Interim Chief

By Lesli A. Maxwell — December 08, 2017 5 min read
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By Denisa Superville and Sarah Sparks

Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool resigned on Friday, amid allegations that he repeatedly lied to investigators during an ethics probe and tried to cover up an investigation into legal contracts.

Claypool’s resignation, which will become effective on Dec. 31, came a day after the district’s Inspector General released a report recommending his termination.

Longtime Chicago educator Janice Jackson, who serves as the district’s chief education officer, will become interim CEO. The school board will vote on her appointment at its next meeting, Frank Clark, the president of Chicago’s mayorally appointed school board, said in a press conference on Friday.

Jackson is as homegrown a leader as they come in Chicago: She graduated from Hyde Park High School, got her education degree at Chicago State University, and a master’s in administration and a doctorate in education policy studies and urban school leadership from the University of Illinois in Chicago.

She worked her way up, first as a history teacher at South Shore High School. Then, then at 27, she was tapped to lead a series of small high schools she helped found, the Al Raby School for Community and Environment and the Westinghouse College Prep High School.

She later became leader of Chicago’s 26-school Network 9, and from there stepped in as the district’s chief academic officer when her predecessor, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, left amid a corruption scandal.

With Claypool’s resignation, the Chicago district is now onto its third CEO in a little more than two years.

Claypool came to the district in July 2015, shortly after then-CEO Byrd-Bennett resigned while federal investigators were looking into a $20.5 million no-bid contract that was awarded to a leadership development company. Byrd-Bennett was later charged and convicted in connection with the kickback scheme and is now serving a four and a half-year prison sentence.

Both Clark and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who handpicked Claypool to replace Byrd-Bennett, praised the outgoing CEO for steering the district in the right direction since he came on board. They said he brought financial stability to the chronically financially strapped district and pointed to academic progress the district has made under his leadership.

Just last month, Stanford researchers Sean Reardon and Rebecca Hinze-Pifer released a report showing that Chicago schools led the nation in academic growth. The New York Times also took note of the district’s academic gains.

Emanuel said that Claypool should be judged by the entirety of his decades-long public service career and that he had been selfless and courageous in taking on institutional inertia.

“He has always gone to work with his sleeves rolled up ready to get the job done, and ... he can walk out with his head high because he did a job well,” Emanuel said.

“He did a great job for the children of the city of Chicago,” Emanuel said.

The probe related to whether the district’s chief attorney hired a firm with which he had an existing business relationship to do legal work for the district. After CPS’ ethics committee ruled that the relationship violated CPS’s ethics code, Claypool allegedly tried to cover it up, according to the report by Inspector General Nicholas Schuler.

Just Thursday, Claypool released a statement apologizing and saying that he had made a mistake.

“This is not a case of anyone profiting off of CPS; no one in this story gained a dollar,” Claypool said Thursday. “This is not a case of anyone taking anything from children; this is a case of fighting to get more resources for children. In fact, the only ones who profited from this pursuit of justice were our students, who have another $450 million of funding from the state due to the efforts our team.”

On Friday, he apologized again.

“I regret my actions, and I have apologized for them,” he said.

Claypool said that when he took the job he knew that it would be the toughest in his career. But he said that he was leaving the district in stronger financial footing.

“I hope when this written people will say that even good men can make stupid mistakes,” he said.

The Chicago Teachers’ Union, which was never a fan of Claypool, had called for Emanuel to fire Claypool in the wake of the inspector general’s report.

“Our members are delighted to see Forrest Claypool go, but he’s got to take his policies with him. Ninety-nine percent of our members voted ‘no confidence’ in him last year because his decisions have pushed thousands of students out of Chicago Public Schools, he’s cut our schools’ funding to the bone and he’s populated his administration with cronies and political insiders while running roughshod over the voices of parents and teachers,” said Jesse Sharkey, the union’s vice president.

And while Sharkey said he was glad to see a veteran educator chosen for the job, the union also had some concerns about Jackson.

“She’s got to show that she will take a different approach on revenue, reject her predecessor’s agenda to close schools and expand charters, and start listening to educators and parents,” Sharkey said.

From the start, Claypool and the union did not see eye to eye—the union head Karen Lewis urged him not to take the job.

The two sides butted heads over a new contract, which came to the brink of a strike, and how best to get more money for the financially beleaguered school district. Despite that, they reached a last-minute agreement on a contract shortly before a strike deadline in October 2016.

Claypool, for his part, has been vocally critical of Illinois’ funding formula, which he says is unfair to the city’s students, who are predominantly students of color. He sued the governor and the state board of education over the school funding formula, arguing that the state funding formula creates a “separate and unequal system” and violates the state’s Civil Rights Act. The lawsuit, filed in Circuit Court in Cook County, was dismissed in April, but the court gave the district an option to refile the case. The district dropped the lawsuit in October.

Image 1: Janice Jackson, Chicago Public Schools’ Chief Education Officer, will become the district’s interim CEO. Photo courtesy Chicago Public Schools.

Image 2: Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool tenders his resignation during a press conference at CPS headquarters on Friday, Dec. 8.

--Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.