In naming a trusted political ally and local technocrat to take over Chicago Public Schools, Mayor Rahm Emanuel acknowledged that his strategy of bringing in outsider educators with experience managing other school districts was not working.
Instead, Emanuel went back to the leadership structure his predecessor, Richard M. Daley, had put in place a decade earlier by hiring a non-educator to lead the system. That’s when Daley named his budget director, Paul Vallas, as CEO and his chief of staff, Gery Chico, as board president.
Today, Emanuel opted for his own chief of staff and the former president of the Chicago Transit Authority, Forrest Claypool — who has no experience in education and says his first priority will be “making the system as efficient as it can possibly be.”
“This is a team approach that deals with both building on the educational gains [and] being up front with the fact we now face financial challenges,” Emanuel said at a press conference Thursday announcing the new CPS leadership team.
Claypool takes over from interim CEO and CPS board member Jesse Ruiz, who stepped into the role in April after a federal corruption investigation into then-CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett prompted her departure.
Other changes to CPS leadership include:
- Network 9 Chief Janice Jackson is the new chief education officer, a job that had disappeared after Byrd-Bennett was named schools chief in 2012.
- CPS Board President David Vitale has resigned. Emanuel named Frank Clark, a former ComEd executive whose previous biggest connection to the school district was chairing a commission that made recommendations related to the historic 2013 school closings.
- Denise Little will leave her post as the chief officer of networks to serve as a special advisor to Claypool.
- Ruiz goes back to being vice president of the seven-member school board, and the only Latino in a prominent leadership position. (Prominent Hispanic leaders voiced their concerns about the lack of Latino representation in CPS leadership even though nearly half of all students are Hispanic. See our earlier story on this.)
The Board of Education is slated to vote on the new district appointments on July 22, though no salary or other contract details have been released.
Jackson says she supports spreading out the responsibility at a time when the district is facing a growing financial crisis tied to years of unpaid debt.
“A lot of people, I believe, were waiting for Superman and that’s no longer necessary,” she said. “What we have right now are two people with expertise in both domains that were really necessary in order to lead this district.”
‘Mr. Fix It’
Claypool has been described as an ace trouble-shooter and has been applauded — as well as criticized by transit union workers — for major cost-cutting measures during his three-year stint at the CTA. Emanuel had only recently called him away from that gig to serve as his own chief of staff, a position he’d previously held twice under Daley.
The mayor called Claypool “the right person at the right time” to lead the school district, which is struggling to close a $1.1 billion budget deficit and earlier this week gave school-level budgets to principals that counted on $500 million in pension relief from Springfield that has yet to materialize.
While some critics have blasted CPS for releasing a partial budget that isn’t backed by revenue, Claypool defended the decision, which he said helps the district avoid laying off teachers or increasing class sizes unnecessarily. “The budget is designed to give Springfield time to work out a solution,” he said in response to a reporter’s question.
The very fact Claypool was allowed to answer questions both during and after the press conference showed the level of trust Emanuel has in his new CEO — something that was not visible in 2011, when Emanuel presented his first pick for the job: Jean-Claude Brizard. During that press conference, Brizard — an educator and schools administrator whose previous post was at a much smaller school district in upstate New York — read from prepared notes and was whisked away before reporters could ask questions.
Claypool, meanwhile, spoke freely and without notes as he gave some general ideas about how he’d run the school district. He said he plans to look both within Chicago and outside the city for the expert help, and will “follow best practices” to support teachers and principals in schools.
After the meeting, Claypool said he’d maintain Byrd-Bennett’s five-year moratorium on school closures, a public commitment set to expire in fall 2018, and that he doesn’t see any school closings “on the horizon.”
While Claypool made no references to any plans to make additional cuts at CPS, some outsiders seemed worried that he’d attempt to try to find the same efficiencies in CPS as he did in the CTA. Saving money on things like labor or class sizes on the front end can cost more later, one observer warned.
Before the press conference, Claypool had already reached out to Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and asked for a meeting. “I think we need CTU — despite some of the rhetoric — to be our partners in Springfield. They have the same vested interests as we do” in terms of increasing state aid to schools, he added.
Meanwhile, Lewis says that if Claypool was brought in to “fix” CPS, then it ought to be a short-term gig.
“If you’re going to do that, bring him in, fix it, and then let him go and find somebody [else],” said Lewis, who has long advocated for ending the CEO title and hiring a schools superintendent. “Let us not pretend that he’s the real CEO on the education piece. Let’s just know that he’s here to keeps the lights on.”
A ‘visionary thinker’
Jackson has overseen a network of about two dozen South Side schools since last August, but previously she was the first principal at Westinghouse College Prep, helped open Al Raby High School and taught at South Shore High School. By many accounts, she has a reputation as a capable and respected administrator who makes personal connections and helps develop others as leaders.
Murray Language Academy Principal Greg Mason described her as a supportive network chief and a “visionary thinker” who could look at the bigger picture. Jackson encouraged him to go after a two-week fellowship this summer at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City.
“She’s good at looking at students, teachers and administrators and at thinking about how the district can support us,” he says.
Though Lewis expressed some concern that Jackson is young and doesn’t have experience working on a broader, citywide level, others say she’s experienced enough to understand the district and what could be done to improve the relationship between schools and central office.
Jackson hinted at her desire to move up the ranks in a 2010 interview with Catalyst about principal demographics. A year after becoming Westinghouse’s leader, Jackson was already envisioning herself in other jobs. “I will always be in education, but do I see myself being a principal for 20 or 30 years? No, and I probably shouldn’t be. It’s a very demanding job,” she said.
Mary Ann Pitcher, who co-directs the University of Chicago’s Network for College Success, which works to improve CPS high schools, has worked with Jackson. She says that as a network chief, Jackson managed to maintain the perspective of a principal, keeping her attention on providing support for teaching and learning. The challenge, Pitcher says, will be replicating that on a district level.
“She’s just very clear about what matters most for student outcomes,” Pitcher says. “She’s very direct in a way that’s non-judgmental.”
Carlos Azcoitia, a former CPS board member and principal, says Jackson’s work as a building leader will help prepare her for the bigger job. Principals learn that what happens in the district is driven by what goes on in local schools.
“You’re able to really learn from that experience and develop insight,” he says.
For the last three years, Little has overseen network chiefs and provided them with support. But before that, she was a network chief herself, overseeing elementary schools in the Garfield Park and Humboldt Park areas. She also led Hefferan Elementary in West Garfield Park as principal for 13 years and worked as an elementary school teacher.
While one CPS observer says her “old-school leadership style” can “rub people the wrong way,” Little’s long-term experience also affords her a “ton of credibility” that will likely make her an asset to both Claypool and Jackson.
Claypool says he asked Little to be his senior advisor and that he will “rely heavily on her expertise and judgement.”
“I’ve seen her work firsthand, as has the mayor,” Claypool said. “Many of the gains in the last four years, she’s had her fingerprints on them.”
Little also offers stability and knowledge of the inner workings of central office that a CEO coming from outside CPS and a chief education officer coming from the network level won’t have.
Pitcher, who worked with Little to provide training to network chiefs, says “building relationships is a key attribute for her leadership” and that Little knows how to lead without micromanaging.
She has high hopes that Little and Jackson can “build on what’s working and not just come in and restructure and reorganize… [and] destroy the many good things” happening at CPS.
Vitale out, Clark in
Emanuel wouldn’t answer a question about whether David Vitale’s departure is tied to his vote in favor of a giving a $20 million, no-bid contract to a company tied to Byrd-Bennett that’s now the subject of a federal investigation. Instead, Emanuel said Vitale wanted out so that the new CEO could have a brand-new leader on the board with whom to work.
Vitale did not speak during the press conference. A former banker and CPS chief administrative officer, Vitale had served on the board since 2011.
In his own brief remarks, Clark stressed the need for “cooperation and understanding” on the part of parents, teachers and union leadership — in addition to the General Assembly — as the district works to balance its budget.
“The task before us, while difficult, is not unachievable,” he said. “There is a path to balance the scales and keep the schools financially solvent and do the business we’re about […] the business of education.”
By far, Clark’s appointment to the school board is the most controversial. He retired from a 40-year career at ComEd three years ago after serving as the company’s chair and CEO.
But educators and community activists will know Clark more for his role leading the Commission on School Utilization, a mayoral-appointed group that weighed in on the historic 2013 school closings. The group held community meetings throughout the city, warned against closing high schools and ultimately suggested CPS closer far fewer schools than had been initially proposed.
Still, many had questioned the independence of the commission and its final report.
Valencia Rias-Winstead, who sat on a separate state task force created to monitor decisions on school facilities in CPS, says that though she had no personal interactions with Clark, she was disappointed with his work on the school closings commission.
“The commission that he headed was less than receptive or inclusive or even willing to look at anything that the task force had done,” Rias-Winstead says. “They could have learned tremendously from our own work.”
When she learned Clark had been named to head the school board, Rias-Winstead says her first thought was, “So he’s just coming to finish up Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s hatchet job? He’ll be here long enough for the sunset of the moratorium on school closings.”
Lewis says she has a “huge problem” with the mayor’s choice of Clark as the new board president, citing his role in the commission and the fact that a Noble charter school, Rowe-Clark Math & Science Academy, is named after him.
“Are you sending us a message?” Lewis asked. “Are we going to be seeing more school closings, more charters?”