School & District Management Opinion

Chicago Public Schools: Change We Can’t Believe In

By Marilyn Rhames — October 17, 2012 3 min read
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Change is hard, especially for the Chicago Public Schools. We have had five CEOs of the school system in the past four years. Arne Duncan. Ron Huberman. Terry Mazany. Jean-Claude Brizard. And now, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, or B3 as her nickname goes.

At least we finally got a woman in the top spot!

But whether this is change we can believe in is another question. Byrd-Bennett said in her announcement press conference last week that she is in Chicago “for the long haul.” That, of course, is not entirely up to her.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel hires and fires in this town. After weeks of rumors that he had lost confidence in Brizard’s leadership—and weeks of Emanuel denying it—he accepted Brizard’s resignation last Thursday. The very next day, Emanuel was at the mic announcing B3 as Brizard’s replacement.

At first I felt sorry for Brizard because he was tapped to execute the mayor’s aggressive education reform agenda, but when those plans led to a teachers strike, the mayor threw him under the bus.

But those feelings of sympathy quickly subsided when I learned that Brizard will continue to earn his $250,000 a year contracted salary, plus 60 days in severance pay—$41,000—until his contract ends in May. I wouldn’t cry over losing my overwhelmingly stressful job under those conditions, would you?

The instability of Chicago Public Schools is alarming. How can anything productive ever get done when the leadership—not just the head, but the entire leadership team—keeps coming and going like waves on the beach? They come in, restructure policies that have just been restructured by their predecessor, and then leave. Will the latest shakeup at the top really make a big difference when the mayor ultimately controls the school system?

Brizard stayed around for 17 months. Terry Mazany served as interim CEO for 6 months. Ron Huberman left the Chicago Transit Authority to lead CPS for about 22 months. President Barack Obama snatched Arne Duncan up to lead the Department of Education in early 2009.

Now we have Barbara Byrd-Bennett. She has over 30 years experience, first as a teacher, then principal, then district administrator. She is the former head of the Cleveland school district, and has been a high-ranking administrator in Detroit and New York City. She has some baggage, but also many favorable reviews.

Bryd-Bennett stepped into the position of “interim” Chief Education Officer after Emanuel’s first pick, Noemi Donoso, resigned in the spring. She also played a major role in the union contract negotiations during the last month’s Chicago teachers strike.

I’m annoyed but optimistic.

I wish B3 the best of success. Her success on the job means that students across the city will have a greater opportunity to learn in a stable school environment. The better educated our children are the increased likelihood they will ultimately escape poverty.

As much as Emanuel would like to hit the reset button with Byrd-Bennett’s appointment, the dire fiscal realities of the district will not allow that to happen easily. The seven-day teachers strike might be considered tame compared to the drama that lays in wait.

Byrd-Bennett will have to try to right-size a system that has more than 130,000 vacant student seats in dozens of under-enrolled schools. She has to figure out how to manage a $1 billion budget deficit for next year’s school budget, in addition to paying out $338 million in overdue pension payments in 2014. School closings, upset students and parents, and teacher layoffs are feared inevitable.

Her role as CEO also involves instructional leadership to ensure that the rigorous new Common Core State Standards are successfully implemented across the district. She must oversee the execution of a new teacher evaluation system for more than 23,000 teachers and make sure the new longer school day operates effectively in more than 600 schools.

Not to mention, Byrd-Bennett must somehow forge a collaborative relationship with the teachers union while also living out the mayor’s vision for increasing the number of charter schools in the city. Good luck with that one. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has expressed personal appreciation for Byrd-Bennett but concern about her presumed Emanuel-esque reform agenda.

As I said when Brizard took office, the time for smart education reforms are long overdue in Chicago. We need change. But the change we want to believe in should not happen in the CEO’s office once every 9.6 months.

*Art by Lindsay Johnson, added 10/21/2012

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.