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Mayor needs to let his managers manage, former CPS CEO says

Ousted Chicago Public Schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard says Mayor Rahm Emanuel is “master” medimanipulator but he’s also control freak who

Ousted Chicago Public Schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard says Mayor Rahm Emanuel is a “master” media manipulator, but he’s also a control freak who needs to “let go” and “allow his managers to lead.” | Sun-Times file photo

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Updated: September 25, 2013 6:07AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is a “master” media manipulator, but he’s also a control freak who needs to “let go” and “allow his managers to lead,” according to his ousted Chicago Public Schools chief.

Nearly one year after being sent packing with a $291,662 severance package, Jean-Claude Brizard is opening up to an education think-tank about the mayor’s management style and about mistakes the mayor made that set the stage for Chicago’s first teachers strike in 25 years.

Brizard could not be reached for comment. He now serves as a senior adviser at the College Board in Washington, D.C.

“Mayor Rahm Emanuel is an interesting man . . . I appreciated his leadership, but his one challenge is to learn to let go and allow his managers to lead,” Brizard was quoted as saying in an interview with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Brizard said he received a “ton of advice” on how to “work with and for” the former White House chief-of-staff with a cartoon-like reputation for brute-force politics, micro-management and brow-beating underlings.

But in hindsight, Brizard said, “Few of these pieces of advice were helpful” in dealing with Emanuel. The two men “disagreed on process at times, and it was unfortunate that he never really got to know me,” Brizard said.

“MRE was always ‘on’ and a master at managing media. He is actually best when he is not on stage. My best meeting with him was off stage, away from the lights at a private table in a steakhouse. He was thoughtful, funny and caring,” Brizard was quoted as saying.

“While I never experienced the man with the `reputation,’ I certainly can see that possible side. I experienced a man who loves his family dearly and is frustrated by the challenges of a school system in crisis and crime situation that is making international headlines.”

Tarrah Copper, a mayoral spokeswoman, said in response: “We appreciate Mr. Brizard’s service during the time he was here. We are focused on the first day of school next week and looking forward.”

Brizard also reflected on the seven-day teachers strike that Emanuel’s bullying missteps helped to instigate. It turned Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis into a folk hero.

The teachers were fueled by their anger against a mayor who stripped them of a previously negotiated, 4 percent pay raise and offered schools and teachers extra money to waive the teachers contract and immediately implement his longer school day.

The strike ended, only after Emanuel took a political beating and recouped by persuading a judge to order the teachers back to work.

“I spoke to no less than 20,000 teachers in the year leading up to the strike. It was still not enough. We severely underestimated the ability of the Chicago Teachers Union to lead a massive grass-roots campaign against our administration,” Brizard was quoted as saying.

“It’s a lesson for all of us in the reform community. The `how’ is, at times, more important than the `what.’ We need to get closer to the people we are serving and create the demand for change in our communities.”

Brizard said the strike was “made more difficult by a growing rift between City Hall and me” that forced the mayor to replace Brizard at the negotiating table with School Board President David Vitale. Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Brizard’s successor, also played a pivotal role.

“It was an extremely difficult week, but calls and e-mails from colleagues around the country, as well as my amazingly supportive wife, sustained me,” Brizard was quoted as saying about the strike.

“It takes a ton of inner strength to watch 4,000-plus people in red shirts outside of your window protesting while a very heavy police presence looked on.”

Less than a month after teachers returned to their classrooms, Brizard became the strike’s first casualty.

One of Emanuel’s showcase hires, he resigned by “mutual agreement” with the mayor after just 17 months on the job. Brizard had angered the mayor by going on vacation in the run-up to the strike and, more importantly, by falling short as a manager.

Both sides declared it was “time for a change” and that constant speculation about Brizard’s status had become a distraction. Two days after Brizard’s ouster, the Chicago Sun-Times wrote that Byrd-Bennett’s ability to succeed where her predecessor failed would depend on Emanuel’s ability to let go.

Now, Brizard himself is seconding that insight.

Contributing: Maudlyne Ihejirika


Twitter: @fspielman

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