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New Chicago Public Schools CEO ‘brings the right stuff’

Mayor Rahm Emanuel names BarbarByrd-Bennett new CEO Chicago Public Schools during news conference South Loop Elementary School 1212 S. Plymouth

Mayor Rahm Emanuel names Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the new CEO of Chicago Public Schools during news conference at South Loop Elementary School, 1212 S. Plymouth Court, Friday, October 12, 2012 . | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 15, 2012 6:43AM

Barbara Byrd-Bennett assumes the job of CEO of Chicago Public Schools with the wind at her back — but headed straight for a hailstorm.

Formally unveiled Friday as Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s choice to succeed outgoing chief Jean-Claude Brizard, Byrd-Bennett starts her new role with a range of experience and a depth of insider relationships no recent predecessor can claim.

“She brings the right stuff to the most important job in the city,” said Barbara Radner, director of DePaul University’s Center for Urban Education.

“She’s the right person for this time.”

As the mayor seeks to move the nation’s third-largest school district “to the next level,” his new schools chief first has to confront school closings due Dec. 1, and a $1 billion deficit expected by summer.

Unique bond already forged

But Byrd-Bennett will meet those challenges having worn almost every possible education hat, and after working at three tough urban districts — New York City, Cleveland and Detroit.

The New York native has served as teacher and principal, CEO and trainer of superintendents, giving her the broadest CPS CEO resume since at least 1995, when lawmakers gave Chicago’s mayor control of the district.

And as interim chief education officer for CPS since April, Byrd-Bennett brings a view that few others have seen.

She not only helped focus the district’s educational mission, she sat at the negotiating table for weeks with two people critical to its success: School Board President David Vitale and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis.

While teachers manned picket lines during the city’s first strike in 25 years, the trio not only grew to know a 200-page teachers contract inside out, but also became extremely close. “We all got to know each other in the negotiating room — both sides and among ourselves,” said Vitale, who won kudos from the union for his pivotal role in the talks. “It’s an unbelievable experience.”

Been there, done that

Byrd-Bennett’s worked before at a mayor’s behest, lured to Cleveland in 1998 to lead the district as soon as it was placed in Mayor Michael R. White’s hands.

“The mayor who brought her in was a very forceful presence, known as a micromanager ­— and he trusted her,” said Jane Campbell, who succeeded White as mayor in 2002 and kept Byrd-Bennett.

She shored up teachers with more training but also courted outsiders who could bring the district more money.

In Cleveland, Byrd-Bennett closed a $150 million-plus deficit and was at the helm when reading and math test scores of fourth- and sixth-graders increased substantially and graduation rates nearly doubled to 50 percent, Chicago Public Schools officials said.

Cleveland’s schools chief also forged fast relationships with its corporate community.

“She came in on a very big high and the business community responded with additional financial support for the schools,” Campbell said. But after a few years, when Cleveland’s economy slowed ahead of the nation’s and the schools weren’t fixed, frustrated business donors took their money elsewhere.

Once the money dried up, and word got out of Byrd-Bennett’s privately funded perks ­— first-class plane trips and fancy dinners ­— and a club membership funded by taxpayers, the public turned against her.

Voters wouldn’t pass the tax levy she championed to fund the schools, Campbell said. People soured on her pay, which included $50,000 in bonuses, including one after a series of teacher and assistant principal layoffs. With bonuses, her compensation was more than double what the mayor earned.

“It was the hardest job in Cleveland,” Campbell said. “She also works from sunup to sundown.”

Former Detroit Emergency Financial Manager Robert C. Bobb persuaded Byrd-Bennett in 2009 to round out his team in Detroit.

“You know what? I don’t think she needs this. But she is a very tough experienced public school, urban school educator because she’s been there, done that,” Bobb said. “As my number two, she was able to translate what is needed in the classroom to support the academic programs as opposed to having turnaround specialists like me — some say we slash and burn.”

Bobb planned to shutter dozens of Detroit schools to bridge a budget gap. He’d close 75 buildings by the end of his two-year term. But Byrd-Bennett resisted his plan to cut school counselors.

“It was a brutal argument. It was, ‘You guys on the finance team don’t know what the hell you’re doing,’ ” Bobb recalled. She figured out how to reshape how the counselors performed for the good of the district, he said, and back they went into the budget.

She’s still working on patience, he said. But she was able to engage families and negotiate politics.

“She is not a politically naive person,” he said. “She’s attentive, outspoken, strong ­— but she’s also a good listener.”

Byrd-Bennett maintained a reputation of playing nice with unions.

Detroit’s union president Keith Johnson said Byrd-Bennett never forgot she was a teacher.

“While she understood that students were the center of the educational universe, she acknowledged that what was good for teachers was also good for students,” he said in a statement. “Dr. Byrd-Bennett also knew that power was not about control, it is about influence; that when you empower teachers you enhance your influence.”

Constructive relationships

At her formal unveiling Friday with the mayor and school board president, Byrd-Bennett said she made her first phone call as CEO to the CTU president ­— to chat.

Already her relationship with the union looks promising based on the bond she built with the CTU’s Lewis during contract talks.

That “won’t solve all the problems, but there’s some problems that maybe you can solve because of constructive relationships,” Vitale said.

Indeed, Byrd-Bennett seemed at ease with Vitale and the mayor during Friday’s news conference, when she vowed that, despite being the fourth Chicago schools CEO in two years, she was in it for “the long haul.”

The mayor referred to her as “B-3”; Vitale confided that she has come to finish his sentences for him.

That kind of tightness may be needed to weather the storm and tough decisions ahead. CPS officials concede that they want to “restructure” the district, and “right-size’’ its buildings, which hold 200,000 more seats than kids.

Opponents are bracing for some 100 school closings.

Last year’s school shake-up proposals saw anti-closing protesters march in hordes past the mayor’s house. Meanwhile, some pro-closing speakers and sign-holders were unmasked as paid puppets, offered at least $25 to take a point of view at School Board hearings.

Things got unusually ugly. And this year, some warn, they could get worse.

Already, an advisory referendum is on the Nov. 6 Chicago ballot in 30 of 50 wards, asking voters if Chicago should adopt an elected school board, which opponents of closings think might be more sympathetic to their arguments.

“Last year will pale in comparison to this year,” Jitu Brown, of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and leader of a group of parents seeking a two-year moratorium on closings, said Friday. “This year will be the type of resistance that will be hard to break.”

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