If Mayor Daley took a gamble appointing an inexperienced, youthful Arne Duncan to head the schools, he took no such chance in naming a new president for the Chicago Board of Education.
Little fazes Michael Scott, a fiercely loyal political operative who has worked for the last four mayoral administrations. Scott, 52, has put in more than 30 years in city government and was a West Side activist in the 1970s. He is politically savvy and connected and knows his way around city bureaucracy.
“Michael has been what I would call a diplomat,” says U.S. Rep. Danny Davis. “He has fit in quite well. Michael has excellent interpersonal relationship skills [and] keen insight to group processes.”
“But he’s not going to put up with nonsense,” notes Chicago Housing Authority Board Chair Sharon Gist Gilliam, who met Scott 15 years ago when they both worked at City Hall.
Disbanding Smith’s LSC
Perhaps nothing highlights Scott’s diplomacy better than the March board meeting, where many of the 41 speakers had signed up to berate him for disbanding the local school council at Wendell Smith Elementary.
Last June, Smith’s LSC had been warned in a letter that it could be penalized for ongoing disputes with the principal if it failed to take corrective actions. In January, Duncan sent official notice of a public hearing to Smith parents; in February, the school was declared to be in a state of educational crisis, a policy that allows the board to dissolve the LSC.
CPS has rarely used this powerful intervention tool; Scott, who first played peacemaker at Smith, adopted the harsh measure within his first year.
At the board meeting, Scott remains calm, forcing a reluctant “good morning” out of the most riled-up speakers. He leans forward and maintains eye contact throughout each two-minute tirade. Listening politely, he says to one speaker, “I have been more involved with this school than any other, and there is not a … willingness to cooperate.” To another he sniffs, “You are part of the problem.”
With a mix of humor and firmness, Scott kept the speakers moving along and closes out the public session on a positive note—congratulations to the boys basketball team at Westinghouse High School for winning the state championship.
So far, Scott’s demeanor and experience are winning him high marks in some quarters.
At an LSC election kickoff breakfast, Scott’s remarks exceeded the expectations of event sponsor Andrew Wade of the Chicago School Leadership Cooperative, who calls the district’s new leadership team “open-minded.”
Despite Wendell Smith, Scott and Duncan are “far more sympathetic to LSCs” than their predecessors, says Anne Hallett of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform.
Janet Knupp, president of the Chicago Public Education Fund, says Scott is “appropriately focused on the big issues, [and he] is willing to have a candid dialogue about issues affecting CPS.”
While Scott is quick to meet with education groups or attend school events, he takes a different approach with media. Unlike former board President Gery Chico, Scott prefers working behind the scenes; for instance, he discontinued Chico’s practice of holding a press briefing the day before monthly board meetings. “He feels that’s a more effective way to operate,” says one city insider.
But some say Scott’s low profile does little to boost the district’s public image. “Where is he?” asks one disconcerted community organization leader. “In the past, I always caught glimpses of Vallas and Chico in the news. But I’ve not seen Scott quoted [in the newspaper], on TV, or speaking about anything.”
Long political history
Born and raised on Chicago’s West Side, Scott returned to the North Lawndale neighborhood he grew up in after graduating from Fordham University. (He still lives in the area.) He immediately began working for Lawndale People’s Planning and Action Conference, where he eventually rose to executive director.
By 1980, Scott had caught the attention of Mayor Jane Byrne, who appointed him to the Board of Education, but he wore out his welcome early on. “I was the youngest member of the board,” he recalls. “Right from the start, I challenged everything.” He opposed Byrne’s choice for board president, for instance, and voted against naming Ruth Love superintendent. He also criticized busing programs and sent his own children to parochial school. Byrne declined to reappoint Scott after his one-year term expired.
His early political experience with Mayor Byrne taught Scott the value of balancing his personal feelings against political loyalties.
A few years later, he had to draw on that lesson when Harold Washington announced he would run for Chicago mayor. Scott had already accepted a job as deputy campaign manager for the Daley campaign. Friends supporting Washington tried to persuade Scott to jump ship, but he stayed on with Daley through the primaries.
“It was the worst time of my life,” recalls Scott, who joined the Washington forces after the general election. “I was on the wrong side of my people. But I gave [Daley’s people] my word.”
Even so, Washington hired him for a post at City Hall, where he remained for over a decade, working for a succession of mayors and serving as chief cable administrator for the Office of Cable Communication. In 1993, he parlayed his cable connections to become general manager of Prime Cable of Chicago. Currently, he is vice president of local government affairs for AT&T Broadband, which bought Prime Cable.
Park District patterns
Before he left the Daley administration, Scott was appointed to the board of the Chicago Park District, where he served until moving on to the School Board last summer.
At the Park District, Scott developed a reputation for promoting community involvement. “He is a really strong community person who knows the value of citizens participating in their own decisions,” says Erma Tranter, president of Friends of the Parks. The district was “much more responsive to the various communities they served,” says Benjamin J. Kendrick of the Marcy-Newberry Association, a West Side social service agency.
Scott won such praise despite the fact that he did not always side with the community. Over the objections of community residents and park staff, Scott pushed for the removal of the supervisor of Douglass Park, who had won admirers for getting gangs out of the park. Scott says the park was still uninviting for kids. “No gangs does not mean it’s a good park.”
So far as School Board president, Scott has shown that he’s learned his political lessons well. He’s sticking closely to the mayor’s priorities, namely promoting reading and boosting first-day school attendance.
But there have been setbacks along the way. The district fell short of Scott’s goal to recruit 10,000 LSC candidates. And last fall, a disastrous change from door-to-door bus service left some children stranded—images that were plastered in the news. “We didn’t do a good job of notifying parents about the changes of procedures,” Scott admits.
In fact, Scott’s relentless push to cut the district’s $110 million busing costs is leading him into politically dangerous territory.
Last summer, Scott encouraged the district’s shift to school-based pickups. After the first-day mess, he convened a task force of parents and educators to meet monthly to improve the school’s transportation program. It recently recommended a plan that calls for getting parents to sign up for service in the spring so bus routes can be worked out during the summer rather than in September. “Scott has been the primary pusher,” says CPS Chief of Operations Tim Martin. “He has hosted all the meetings, …and made sure that everyone was involved in the process.”
Scott also called for the review of the district’s desegregation policy, a move that some of his supporters aren’t ready for. The policy requires CPS to pay for student busing to integrated magnet schools. “I’m not sure that we’ve come so far that we don’t continuously need public scrutiny and review and assistance,” says Davis.
In the Smith LSC dispute, Scott’s efforts to intervene failed to avert the crisis. Before moving to disband the council, Scott met twice with LSC members at CPS, and once tried to ease differences between the two sides by offering the council $150,000 for facilities projects. The council, which was seeking more control of instructional spending, declined his offer.
Not surprisingly, LSC advocates are not satisfied with the way Scott handled the matter.
Although the Smith situation has been temporarily defused, Scott’s decision “picked a side, but it didn’t solve things,” says Wade of the cooperative. Politically, disbanding the LSC sent a signal to other councils that the board will intervene with a heavy hand if disputes cannot be solved on site.
Scott counters that what matters most is doing the best for children, not assuaging adults’ feelings. “Typically, when people fix things, they fix them to accommodate themselves,” he says. “I don’t mind uncomfortable situations.”
In the meantime, Scott says he’s eager to take the lead in the district’s push for increased state aid.
Chicago doesn’t get its fair share of state funding, and aid for education overall needs to be increased, he adds. Scott says a Democratic win in the governor race could mean more state dollars to the city. In the meantime, he says he’s holding down board office expenses, cutting staff by 20 percent and weeding out a contractor for non-performance.
Those who know Scott predict his long and successful tenure at the board.
“Michael understands very clearly that the board sets policy and then just ensures that the staff follows that policy,” Gist Gilliam says.
“That’s why he’s been a successful board chair. He doesn’t attempt to micromanage and meddle in the day to day details.”
Adds Davis: “He’s doing well in terms of helping to keep the board of education on course.”