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CPS boss Jean-Claude Brizard out by ‘mutual agreement’

Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard who was replaced by BarbarByrd-Bennett Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.  |  Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, who was replaced by Barbara Byrd-Bennett, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times file photo

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Updated: November 13, 2012 6:33AM



Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, one of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s premier hires, is out by “mutual agreement” with City Hall after just 17 months on the job, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.

Brizard was Emanuel’s pick to lead CPS and push through the mayor’s aggressive education agenda. But with the city’s first teachers strike in 25 years in the rearview mirror and a new contract to be implemented, Emanuel said it’s “time for a clean break.”

Brizard leaves his $250,000-a-year job to be permanently replaced with Barbara Byrd-Bennett, a former teacher, principal and Cleveland schools CEO who has been filling in as Chicago’s interim chief education officer for the past six months.

Byrd-Bennett, 62, played a pivotal role in negotiating an end to the strike — and upstaged Brizard in the process. Terms of Brizard’s exit were still being finalized, but are expected to include a full-year’s salary.

Talk of Brizard’s departure has swirled for weeks. On Sept. 19, the mayor told reporters: “J.C. has my confidence.”

On Thursday, Emanuel said the decision for a change was made during “two to three separate conversations” in recent days.

“The questions about J.C. became a distraction from what we had to do. We had a mutual agreement [that the distraction was] not helpful. . . . I didn’t have to come to that conclusion myself. We both agreed together. It kept on becoming about the static and noise about J.C. He said, ‘Look, getting the schools right is more important than me,’ ” the mayor told the Chicago Sun-Times.

“We have a break point here with a new contract that has to be implemented. This is a unique opportunity. Executing on it down to the classroom is key. I don’t want anything distracting from it. It’s time for a clean break. What he said to me is, Barbara is the right person to pick up the baton and take it to the next level.”

Emanuel credited Brizard with engineering a “breathtaking amount of change” before concluding it was time to step aside.

“In all my experience working for two presidents, when you get to a certain point, you’ve got to have a fresh start,” said Emanuel, who served under presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. “Usually, you’ve got to tell the person that. “J.C. came to that understanding. . . . He didn’t have to be persuaded of that. He appreciated that. He didn’t want to become a distraction from the mission. I can’t underscore how different that is.”

Brizard did not respond to requests for comment.

But in a statement listed on the CBS 2 News website, Brizard said as a 26-year career educator, he knew CPS needed to “refocus’’ on the “fundamentals of teaching and learning” for students to be successful. As a result, he said, he led CPS through the development of “a new framework for teaching,” tied to a tougher curriculum, that “some have called...a masterpiece.”

“As the district leader, I am proud of the results we achieved in such a short time: graduation rates are up, test scores are improving, a

higher percentage of freshman are on track for graduation, we achieved the lowest one-year drop-out rate in the city’s history and we have

seen tremendous growth on the ACT – an important college readiness benchmark,” Brizard said in the statement.

“I have three young children. It is time to focus on their development. We all know the best gift that you can give to a child is time.

“I leave this role with great sadness, but with the knowledge that the seeds for true innovation and transformation have been planted. They only need to be cultivated,’’ the statement concluded.

A City Hall source, who asked to remain anonymous, said of the resignation, “It just didn’t work out. Both felt it was not the right fit. It needed to end. The hope wasn’t for this to only be 18 months. Everyone wanted it to work out. But there needed to be a change. If it’s not working, you address it and you move on.”

Another source pointed to the turnover in the “second-and-third-layers” of leadership handpicked by Brizard.

Brizard’s original pick for an office of community engagement that he elevated to a cabinet level position came on board last fall and left in the spring.

That led to a “very contentious engagement process” preceding the school board’s decision to close or turn around 17 underperforming schools.

“He’s really good on the education side and understanding policy. It’s more about management and leadership and hiring people who weren’t the right fit for the right positions,” the source said.

Despite an increase in high school test scores and graduation rates, speculation about Brizard’s impending departure has been rampant.

He infuriated the mayor by going on a family vacation in the run-up to the strike and was mortally wounded by a Chicago Tribune story that claimed he was on his way out.

City Hall believes that story, which included a mixed review of Brizard’s performance, may have been leaked by the CEO himself in an attempt to shore up his position with the mayor.

Emanuel gave Brizard a lip-service vote of confidence, but it was only a matter of time before his exit.

Brizard’s absence during contract negotiations kept the rumor mill churning. At one point during the strike, he was placed in the humiliating position of having to send an e-mail to CPS employees denying that he had resigned. It happened after a union member announced Brizard’s resignation at a school rally.

“The reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated,” Brizard wrote on that day.

City Hall insisted after the strike ended that CPS would be “J.C.’s show once again.” But it wasn’t to be.

Emanuel denied that Brizard’s departure was a political embarrassment for a mayor who has made education and lengthening the school day and year his signature push.

“This is not embarrassing. What would be embarrassing to me is not succeeding in school reform. What would be harmful is allowing a problem to fester when I needed to show leadership to do something,” the mayor said.

“What would be worse is spending two years to get a longer day and giving parents more [school] options and principals more autonomy [and wasting it because] I couldn’t do my part because it was embarrassing or harmful. Do you let a problem fester because it was too difficult?”

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said late Thursday that the revolving door of appointments to lead the nation’s third-largest school system is disconcerting.

“I just think this bodes poorly for any kind of stability in the system,’’ Lewis said. “I’ve been president of the CTU for two years, and this will be my fourth CEO. That’s really not good.’’

Added CTU spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin: “This is indicative of the chaos on Clark Street, [where CPS is headquartered]. We don’t know who’s on first. It doesn’t matter who’s in the chair of the CEO if the CEO is not in charge of the Chicago Public Schools. This is another example of the mayor’s failed leadership in trying to strengthen our school district.’’

Brizard, a former New York City physics teacher and the son of Haitian immigrants, is not the first outsider to crash and burn in a high-profile Chicago job. And, his three-year Chicago Public Schools contract is not the first contract he failed to fulfill.

Brizard bailed out of a contract as superintendent of schools in Rochester, N.Y. — a system of only 32,000 — to serve as Emanuel’s education point man in a district of more than 400,000 students.

Antennas were raised right from the start when Emanuel introduced Brizard to reporters and then stopped him from answering any questions.

However, Brizard proceeded to push through Emanuel’s campaign promise of a longer school day by offering schools and teachers extra money to waive the teachers contract and sign up for a longer-day pilot.

He led the implementation of a tougher “common core” curriculum and a new teacher evaluation system — all dramatic changes to the local education landscape.

Sources said Byrd-Bennett has decided not to fill the chief education officer’s job she is vacating.

That will return the system to the management structure it had for decades until former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s 1995 school takeover. That is, a superintendent who serves as both CEO and chief education officer, similar to the head coach and general manager of a professional sports franchise.

“Barbara is in it for the long haul. She wants to get CPS to the next level. The hope is, this is it. We get to buckle in for a while. The system needs stability,” the City Hall source said.

“The debate has become so polarized between reformers and union folks, but Barbara transcends both and that’s a tremendous strength. She’s a unique character who plays in both ponds,” the City Hall source said.

“She approachable, open and a straight-shooter. People respond well to her communication style. She’s incredibly smart and hard-driving, but there’s a warmth to her. She’s been here on the ground for a year, learning the system, meeting with aldermen and ministers. She’s got about a dozen more years of experience [than Brizard did]. She’s gonna be great. She can do this. She’s the right fit.”

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), longtime chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee now serving as the mayor’s floor leader, said of Brizard’s departure, “I don’t see it as a blow or an embarrassment. Finding somebody to run that system, given the challenges and the financial problems that it’s in, is not an easy thing. It just didn’t work out. Not all choices do.”



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