Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s four new appointees to the CPS Board of Education don’t look too different from the board members they’ll be replacing in July.
There’s the retired and the soon-to-retire presidents of private local universities. The two former CPS principals. The leaders of two Chicago non-profits. And the banker and the businesswoman who both have a strong interest in education technology.
“The new appointees fit into the same categories as the people they’re replacing,” remarked Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union. “They might be good and interesting people. The problem with Rahm’s board is that they vote unanimously and have discussions in secret. This will never be a board that votes independently.”
Indeed, it’s a rare occasion when just one board member votes against an item on a meeting agenda. And, in recent memory, the board hasn’t voted down a single proposal.
In a statement issued this morning, Emanuel said his new appointees “bring valuable experience to their new roles that will help us build on our progress and address our challenges to ensure that every child in every community has the education they need for the bright future they deserve.”
The new board members include: Mark Furlong, the retired CEO of BMO Harris Bank; Rev. Michael Garazini, retiring president of Loyola University Chicago; Gail Ward, a former teacher, counselor and principal who previously headed up the district’s principal preparation office; and Dominique Jordan Turner, president and CEO of Chicago Scholars Foundation, which promotes college access for disadvantaged youth.
They replace board members whose terms expire this month: Carlos Azcoitia, a former principal; Deborah Quazzo, an education venture capitalist; Henry Bienen, former president of Northwestern University; and Andrea Zopp, who recently stepped down as head of the Chicago Urban League. Zopp, who has announced a senatorial bid, had previously resigned from the board and was absent from last month’s board meeting.
With Azcoitia’s departure, just one of the seven board members will be Latino — although the mayor’s office made it a point to mention in a press release that Turner speaks Spanish. (She is African American and not Hispanic, though.) Nearly 46 percent of CPS students are Hispanic.
Turner, who previously worked with the KIPP Foundation and Posse Foundation, said in an email to Catalyst that she’s “honored to be appointed to the board as I have dedicated my professional career to helping under-served young people be successful in the classroom and beyond.”
Until recently, Furlong had also been the chair of the board for, LEAP Innovations, a group that’s involved in educational technology and personalized learning and has contracts to do work in CPS. A LEAP spokeswoman said Furlong resigned on Friday in order to avoid the potential appearance of a conflict of interest once he joins the CPS board.
Issues of perceived conflicts of interest have come up a lot in recent months. Quazzo has been dogged by criticism for contracts given to companies that she invests in, while last week CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett tendered her resignation in the midst of a federal probe into her ties with a company that got a $20-million no-bid contract to do principal training in CPS.
LSC members on steroids
Juan Jose Gonzalez, who directs the Chicago office for Stand for Children Illinois, an education reform and advocacy group, said he’s glad to see that the new board members come from varied professional backgrounds – including work in the banking sector, something he hopes will be an asset as the district faces a $1.1 billion deficit next year.
“People should see them as LSC members on steroids who are doing this as volunteers, and hopefully doing it for the right reasons,” he said.
Gonzalez added that the parents who work with Stand have generally been pleased at the accessibility of current board members, who they meet during office hours and during routine visits to schools.
“I hope they continue to be accessible and responsive to parents, maybe not at the board meetings, but in more subtle and effective ways,” he said.
But critics who have been advocating for an elected school board say who sits on the board is far less important than the man who puts them there. Earlier this year, Chicago voters in 37 wards overwhelmingly approved a symbolic referendum to create an elected school board, though such a change would require the approval of the State Legislature.
“We have already learned through concrete experience that people may be placed on the board at various points to be a naysayer or a questioner or one who seems to criticize policies and take a stance that might seem to be more amenable to developing democracy in CPS,” says Rico Gutstein, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has been involved in the elected school board effort. “These are sham mechanisms and they’re designed to placate and make it look like were moving toward a real democracy.”
Clarice Berry, president of the Chicago Principals & Administrators Association, says she’s never been a proponent of a fully elected board. “I favor a hybrid board with the mayor having some appointees and the others elected. Responsibility should be spread out.”
But however the board members get chosen, she wishes they did a better job of reviewing contracts before voting to make sure they even make sense. Berry brought up the controversial contract with Aramark to provide janitorial services in schools. A recent WBEZ report found that CPS miscounted the number of schools the private company was supposed to clean, leading to millions of dollars in cost overruns.
“These persons who are mayor-selected have the responsibility of due diligence,” Berry said. “How about the mayor and or the board sit down and talk to the middle management, the people who have to run the schools, and see if these contracts are workable?”
Churn at the top
The announcement of new board members came days after Byrd-Bennett resigned from her post as CEO of schools, a position she’d left on an interim basis in mid-April after the FBI subpoenaed records connected to the $20 million SUPES contract.
The mayor’s office did not release any information about the search for a new district leader – or say whether it’ll be another “chief executive officer” or an actual superintendent.
It’s unlikely, however, that the announcement will come before contract negotiations between CPS and the CTU are settled. That could take months as negotiations have stalled and union leaders are already telling members to start saving for a potential strike.
And CPS board member and interim CEO Jesse Ruiz has already said he’d stick around until a contract is signed.
“I don’t know what kind of person would want to jump in in the middle of a strike,” Berry said. “It was certainly a death knell for [former CEO Jean-Claude] Brizard.”
CTU leaders have repeatedly said the new schools chief ought to have an educational background
Back in April, when Byrd-Bennett first took a leave of absence, CTU President Karen Lewis told Catalyst her “preference for ‘CEO’ – and I wish we’d get rid of that title and go back to ‘superintendent’ – is someone with an educational background.”
Reached on Monday, Azcoitia said the new district leader ought to have a strong financial background to deal with the budget problems ahead. He also hopes Emanuel’s pick for the top job has connections to Chicago. “This type of work is about community investment,” he said. “It’s weekday work, it’s weekend work.”
Although Byrd-Bennett officially moved to Chicago for the job, many said she never truly became a Chicago resident, as she often returned on the weekends to the Cleveland suburb where she owns a home.
Azcoitia, a former school principal, said he hopes Emanuel’s pick for new district leader is someone with a good sense of what’s actually happening inside of schools. That way, initiatives that come from above are grounded in how schools work.
“You can’t have a lot of people in the trenches at the schools believing that what happens in Central Office isn’t connected to their reality,” he says. “We’ve got to develop that relational trust and accountability.”
The churn at the top has been hard on principals, who have had to deal with new initiatives and programs every few years. The district has gone through four CEOs since Arne Duncan left Chicago in 2009 to head the U.S. Department of Education.
“There has not been a stable senior staff in CPS since 2009,” Berry said. “You can’t keep rotating people in and out like this, with new programs and new textbooks and new tests and evaluations and think this is not going to have an effect.”
Sarah Duncan, co-director of the University of Chicago’s Network for College Success, says she wouldn’t be surprised if the new CEO changed how the district groups schools in networks. “That’s what people have done in the past,” she said, listing off all the ways schools have been regrouped in the past six years.
Regardless of who’s at the top, principals and teachers have no choice but to keep doing their job.
“People are just moving forward, which is what they have to do,” she said. “Right after Barbara Byrd-Bennett went on leave, people kept asking me, ‘What is happening?, and I said, ‘The kids keep showing up. The job doesn’t actually change when she’s not there.’ But it creates uncertainty.”