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Key Chicago Public Schools job for alderman’s sister

Ald. PO'Connor (48th) pictured with Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants permit sale “package goods liquor” 8 a.m. instead 11 a.m. Sunday.

Ald. Pat O'Connor (48th), pictured with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, wants to permit the sale of “package goods liquor” at 8 a.m., instead of 11 a.m. on Sunday. | Sun-Times files

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Updated: May 29, 2013 7:55AM

The sister of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Council floor leader has been hired by the Chicago Public Schools to help smooth the tumultuous transition caused by 54 school closings — the largest public school consolidation in the nation’s history.

Catherine Sugrue holds the newly created title of CPS director of school transition, reporting to Tom Tyrell, the retired Marine charged with safeguarding 30,000 displaced students.

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th) said his sister is a contract employee without benefits overseeing retired principals and school administrators hired to create a “support system” for students, parents and teachers at shuttered and receiving schools.

O’Connor is the former longtime chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee who now serves as Emanuel’s floor leader.

He insisted that he played no role in engineering the contract for his sister, that the CPS bureaucrats who hired her were unaware of Sugrue’s family ties and that, had they known, they would have steered clear of her.

“I can tell you with great certainty that, when they found out, somebody said, ‘How can she be here when her brother is in the City Council?’ It was a rather tense moment for her. They looked at her like she was the enemy,” O’Connor said.

“If I had a role in this, she wouldn’t be engaged in the work she’s engaged in. This is a tough spot. I’m not too thrilled about what’s going on. I’ve got a school closing in my ward. If she was there doing my bidding or at my bidding, that wouldn’t be going on.”

O’Connor noted that Sugrue is a former teacher who spent 17 years climbing the ladder at CPS before resigning three years ago to become an education consultant — first with Edison Learning, then with Innovative Consultants International.

“They don’t have somebody full-time, so they’ve brought back somebody who’s been through this before on a consulting basis. She’s an administrator who knows the system quite well and helped open and close schools under the previous administration,” he said.

According to her Linked-In profile, Sugrue served as a teacher, assistant principal, regional administrator and management support director at CPS before assuming the $120,000-a-year, No. 2 job in the Office of New Schools.

It was in that role overseeing charters that she was at the center of a controversy surrounding allegations of grade-changing and strip-searching of students at Aspira Charter.

In 2009, Catalyst reported that Sugrue accepted a report about the alleged corruption at Aspira from a whistle-blowing teacher. Instead of acting on the report, Catalyst alleged that Sugrue warned the teacher that she was “dealing with some very powerful people.”

The teacher was subsequently fired. The Board of Education renewed Aspira’s charter.

O’Connor has been outspoken in defense of Emanuel and the school closings — even though his North Side ward is home to a school on the CPS hit list.

“Short term, it could be rocky for a while. But, if they handle the transfers correctly and put these children in schools that perform better, over time people will say they did the right thing. They have to deliver,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times in late March.

At the time, O’Connor noted that the new ward map approved by the City Council last year includes 18 black wards, a loss of only one, “essentially ignoring” the fact that Chicago’s black population declined by 181,453 over the last decade.

“That shows we try to keep faith with all of Chicago. But, when you’re talking about numbers of pupils in a building, there’s no theory that makes up for the money you’re spending on empty desks. If you make the fiscally responsible decision, you have to make it where the children aren’t living anymore,” O’Connor said.

There’s a lot riding on Emanuel’s ability to safeguard 30,000 students displaced by his decision to close 53 elementary schools and one high school program and follow through on his promise to improve their new schools.

At least one coordinator has been assigned to each school targeted for closing, co-location and turnaround. Additional support will be provided by network offices.

Sugrue could not be reached Friday at her home. CPS Spokeswoman Becky Carroll declined to make Sugrue available for an interview, saying she was out in the field.

As part of the transition process, Sugrue is being paid $55 an hour, $5 more per hour than the retired principals working for her. Hired in January, she’s expected to work through the end of October and is not receiving any benefits.

Tom Tyrrell, the retired Marine heading up the transitions, said he hired Sugrue because of her experience.

“She’s the kind of person that gets things done, and she’s very passionate about supporting the students in our schools and that’s exactly who I was looking for.”

As for her brother, “that’s not how she came to me at all,” Tyrrell said.

Contributing: Dan Mihalopoulos

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