Weather Updates

Jean-Claude Brizard blames past union trouble on ‘personality’ clash

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Chicago’s next Schools CEO said Tuesday he may have had a “personality’’ conflict with the head of the Rochester teachers union but his relationship with rank-and-file teachers in New York is “actually quite good” — despite a 95-percent no-confidence vote.

As he prepared to leave his Rochester superintendent’s post to take over the reins of the Chicago Public Schools, Jean-Claude Brizard defended his tenure in the city in Upstate New York. He said he received “hundreds’’ of supportive e-mails from Rochester teachers after the massive no-confidence vote that has made some Chicagoans question whether he can successfully negotiate a teachers contract here. The Rochester teachers contract expired in July, and no agreement is in sight.

Why he would receive positive e-mails after such a vote is “one of the questions we have as well,’’ Brizard said during a phone interview from Rochester. “That’s one of the things we can’t explain.’’

Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel’s choice as the next Chicago Schools CEO said Emanuel gave him no special marching orders “beyond what he has talked about publicly.’’ Emanuel wants to see more “good schools,’’ more parent choice, improved high school graduation rates and safer schools, Brizard said.

“Clearly his vision is one I buy into,’’ Brizard said. “If I did not believe in his vision. ... I would not have jumped at the opportunity to work with him.’’

Brizard and Emanuel have come under fire locally for misstating or omitting certain graduates from their summary of Rochester’s graduation rate under Brizard’s watch. Brizard’s resume credited him with raising rates between 2006 and 2008, even though he didn’t start his Rochester post until January of 2008. The resume failed to mention that rates dropped in 2009 — Brizard’s first full year on the job — and then rose again in 2010.

“Perhaps I should have updated the resume before I gave it out,’’ Brizard said. “But there was no intent ... not to be honest about the numbers.’’

When he takes office in mid-May, Brizard will be the first non-Chicagoan to lead the Chicago public schools in 16 years. Brizard’s parents were both educators in Haiti, and both fled after Brizard’s father learned that “henchmen’’ of President Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier were determined to kill him, Brizard said. Brizard and his two siblings stayed behind for six years until their parents were able to reunite the family in New York.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Sun-Times, Brizard said:

■ He soon will kick off a “listening tour,’’ speaking in small and large groups with teachers, principals, parents and community groups about what they want from Chicago public schools. He hopes Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis will help him set up such meetings with teachers here. However, Rochester teachers union officials contend Brizard used such meetings in Rochester to do an “end-run’’ around the union, eventually triggering the no-confidence vote.

■ He “definitely’’ wants his 17-month-old son to eventually attend a Chicago public school and is currently looking to rent, and ultimately to buy, in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, Andersonville or Hyde Park neighborhoods. “The quality of the schools and the quality of the neighborhoods will certainly be a factor that we will be looking at in selecting where we will be living permanently,’’ Brizard said.

■ He favors paying teachers more to work in “hard-to-staff’’ schools or subjects, as well as rewarding “people who are working harder or producing more.’’ However, he does not yet know if such changes are legal or “appropriate’’ in Chicago.

■ He wants to make “college-enrollment’’ as well as “college persistence’’ part of the conversation about whether high schools are successful.

■ His mother, a teacher, was his “best teacher.’’ She died five years ago from cancer and “when I have to make difficult decisions, I’ll go to her grave site and sit and talk to her.’’ Brizard said he “never had an issue’’ with the head of the New York City teachers union when he worked as an administrator there and even helped negotiate one New York City teachers contract. But as Rochester Schools superintendent, he ultimately had “personality issues or personal issues’’ with Adam Urbanski, head of the Rochester Teachers Association for 30 years.

One “mistake’’ he made, Brizard said, was to cut off the small group meetings he used to have with Rochester teachers as the urging of “leadership of the union’’ because the union was about to enter negotiations for a new contract. He resumed them after a year’s hiatus but “it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle,’’ Brizard said.

For his part, Urbanski said he helped organize the small group meetings for Brizard but never told him to stop them. However, Urbanski said, he ultimately came to believe Brizard was using such meetings as “an absolute end run around the union’’ and Urbanski announced publicly at a union meeting that he no longer supported the smaller meetings.

Brizard used the small-group meetings to contend that teachers he talked to supported ideas that Urbanski opposed, Urbanski said. Such contentions eventually led to the February no-confidence vote, he said

“He’s putting spin on it. `Oh teachers love me. It’s just the union.’ That’s what caused the no-confidence vote in the first place,’’ Urbanski said. “It wasn’t a personality conflict. It was a difference on issues and direction. He had a different world view on education.’’

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.