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ANALYSIS: Emanuel needs to give new CPS boss space

Chicago Public Schools CEO BarbarByrd-Bennett takes questions with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.  |  M. Spencer Green~AP

Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett takes questions with Mayor Rahm Emanuel. | M. Spencer Green~AP

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Updated: November 15, 2012 6:37AM



Second marriages — romantic or professional — can be better than the first, but only if you learn from and don’t repeat past mistakes.

Whether the professional marriage between Rahm Emanuel and Barbara Byrd-Bennett will last longer than the 17-month-long and newly annulled first marriage between the mayor and his schools CEO will depend on Emanuel’s willingness to grow, change and above all, let go.

“You have to let off the reins and let her run the show. If you micro-manage, you’ll probably end up frustrating this lady as well and you’ll go through another one,” said a political observer who asked to remain anonymous.

“Rahm is a tightly wound guy. Everything is scripted and according to message,” the observer said. “It’s possible to change, but the proof will be whether she’s allowed to do things without checking everything with City Hall. It’ll work if there’s a better balance between what City Hall wants and needs from CPS and what professional educators need to get their jobs done.”

A CPS source familiar with Byrd-Bennett’s work in Detroit and Cleveland described the new CEO as the “anti-Jean-Claude Brizard: wicked smart, unflappable and tough as nails.”

Brizard’s staff was handpicked by City Hall. He was muzzled at his introductory news conference; opened with a benign listening tour of schools, and was “pretty much reduced to being the cheerleader on the sidelines” for Emanuel’s longer school day, the source said.

“He wasn’t making any decisions from the moment he walked in the door, and everyone in the organization read the tea leaves that he wasn’t in charge. They didn’t have to listen to him. He wasn’t relevant,” the source said. “I don’t get the sense that Barbara is controllable. She won’t be calling the Fifth Floor when it’s decision time on everything. She’s gonna be her own person and the issue will be how Rahm will deal with it. He’s untested in this water. Everybody he’s had so far has been a ‘yes-sir’ person. Barbara will be wired for the short term if he attempts to over-control her.”

School Board President David Vitale said Emanuel “set policy and direction” for the school system and has “every right to know what’s going on and make sure we’re delivering on his promises.”

But, he said, “The mayor was not running the system. The board was overseeing the work of Jean-Claude Brizard. If there was confusion about that, it’s unfortunate and it may, in fact, have been part of the problem why Jean-Claude didn’t feel like he could be successful.”

Emanuel said his schools CEO, administrators and the board, “run the implementation day to day. I am clear about what our goals are. I monitor and hold people accountable for achieving them. But I don’t do the day-to-day work that’s necessary to make sure you don’t get off course.”

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the former longtime chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee now serving as the mayor’s City Council floor leader, said the portrait of Emanuel controlling his appointees like puppets is more like a cartoon.

“I have not seen him dictate the path so much as be collaborative in trying to choose the path. I’m not suggesting it’s a path of consensus. But there is always a solicitation of opinions,” O’Connor said.

“As the mayor gains confidence in your abilities, there’s greater latitude. The better you perform, the more you show the ability to get results, the more confidence people have in you. Maybe Brizard wasn’t able to show that development or growth.”

At her coming-out party, Byrd-Bennett or “B-3” as the mayor affectionately called her, took charge and served notice she will be her own person.

She used the pronoun “I” more than “we.” She talked openly about the need to close underused schools, while scoffing at reports that there’s a secret plan to close 100 of them.

“Everything must be on the table. We face huge academic and huge financial issues. . . . This is about matching seats to the number of children we have. It’s about putting every piece of information we have on the table. It’s also about community trust and respect,” she said.

Byrd-Bennett said she’s looking forward to a “collaborative and productive” relationship with Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, whom the mayor has so publicly alienated. And she talked about picking her own team.

“I need to take a look at the organization structure and say, exactly what do we need and who, of the current people who are there, can play incredible roles that we will need,” she said.

As the fourth Chicago Public Schools CEO in two years, Byrd-Bennett, 62, knows that what the system needs above all is stability.

“I’m here for the long haul. . . . I’m not sure if it’s eight years. It could be 10. It could 12. But I’m here. I don’t intend to go anywhere. . . . I am not going to say to this mayor or this board president . . . and to the aldermen, ‘Outta here. Bye.’ That’s just not who I am,” she said.

Whether she ends up staying for the long haul will depend on whether a mayor who seems to be obsessed with being in control can take a page from his predecessor’s book.

“Rich Daley was the kind of guy who, when he picked people and trusted them, he gave them the reins. They’d check with him on important things, but 90 percent of the decision-making was their own. Here’s one case where Rahm can learn something from Rich Daley,” a political observer said.

With a political blood-letting on the horizon over closing schools, aldermen who never built much of a rapport with Brizard are hoping Byrd-Bennett is a keeper.

“She’s warm. She’s smart. She’s direct. And you can communicate with her,” said Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd).

“Under her leadership, there may be an opportunity to create more communication between communities and CPS — something we have not had for years,” she said. “My community wants to see a CPS leader who understands that they function within a community — that not everything happens downtown in the central office — that they have to deal with people, teachers, principals and parents when they make decisions about schools.”



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