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Mary Mitchell: New Chicago Public Schools chief’s hardest task: restoring trust

New Chicago Public Schools CEO BarbarByrd-Bennett Chicago School Board Hedquarters Chicago Ill. Friday October 12 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times

New Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett at the Chicago School Board Hedquarters in Chicago, Ill., on Friday, October 12, 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 15, 2012 6:41AM

Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s biggest challenge as the new CEO of Chicago Public Schools won’t be plugging a $1 billion deficit or even closing schools.

Those things will get done.

Byrd-Bennett’s biggest challenge will be restoring trust in the city’s public school system. I sat down with Byrd-Bennett, 62, hours after Mayor Rahm Emanuel named her the replacement for outgoing CEO Jean-Claude Brizard.

Chicago is a tough town. People who step out can’t be thin-skinned.

Thank goodness, Byrd-Bennett — already dubbed “B3” by the press — doesn’t appear to suffer from that malady.

For instance, she mentioned in the interview that she is a “little overweight.” To own one’s stuff isn’t easy. Given the focus on school children’s nutrition, Bryd-Bennett’s honest assessment of the situation says a lot about her character.

Touchy subject

That she stepped into a black man’s job before his seat could get cold is another touchy subject.

The moment the heat is on, someone is going to hit her with the ugly accusation that “strong black women” often get ahead at the expense of “strong black men.”

She argues that those who think she helped push Brizard out are wrong.

“I know people are disbelieving, but it was J.C.’s decision. He is a strong black man. He will be gainfully employed again,” she said.

“His strengths and his talents are needed in this country and many other places. I think that [writer] Nikki Giovanni says it best: ‘Men meet, women gather.’ I plan to gather with Karen [Lewis] so we can figure this work out.”

Obviously, Byrd-Bennett’s new role will put her opposite Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis on explosive issues such as school closings and shield the mayor from the community’s wrath.

But Byrd-Bennett said she’s not going to be a buffer between City Hall and Lewis.

‘Going to be authentic’

“No. No. No,” she said. “You’ve got to build your own relationships. [But] if the mayor observes that there is a relationship that I am building with Karen — that can only be to his benefit as mayor. I am going to be authentic.”

When it comes to the huge deficit, Byrd-Bennett said she would look at CPS administration first.

“I don’t want to see anybody unemployed in these tough economic times, but it requires at least a conversation. I want to stay as far away from the classroom as I can,” she said.

After serving stints in New York, Ohio and Detroit, Byrd-Bennett vows to be in Chicago for the long haul.

“The research says it takes three to five years to really turn around dysfunctional, non-productive systems. So at a minimum, I’m here three to five years,” she said.

Like Brizard, Byrd-Bennett grew up in New York. Her father once worked at a liquor store, stocking boxes in an underground chute. He later landed a job at the post office and became a union steward. She grew up in a housing project. Neither of her parents had a high school education, but Byrd-Bennett referred to them as the “smartest people” she has known.

“I come from less than blue collar,” she said.

Points to heart, gut

Rather than attacking school issues from an intellectual standpoint, Byrd-Bennett pointed to her heart and her gut.

“I start with the belief that those children . . . they’re Barbara,” she said. “I was probably those children growing up in Harlem in public housing. There were probably people who didn’t believe that we could do anything. And yet there were people in our community who were putting all their chips on us,” she said.

“So when you start with that belief, you then have to take a look and say, where are the inequities in the system? We have to build a system that meets the children’s needs rather than trying to fit the kids into the system.”

The “outsider” label isn’t likely to intimidate Byrd-Bennett, but she is hoping for a fresh start.

“My prayer and my wish would be that people would not see me as an outsider or interloper but as somebody who has integrity and honesty, who wants to be here to do the right thing for children,” the new schools chief said.

“Until proven differently, take me at face value and as a believer. Let’s see if we can get this thing done.”

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