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Updated 10/12/12 – 5:38 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) – After seeing four different Chicago Public School CEOs in the past four years, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s new pick to run the school district, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, pledged Friday “I’m here for the long haul.”
Byrd-Bennett was picked to replace former CPS Chief Executive Officer Jean-Claude Brizard, who resigned Thursday night, more than three weeks after a nine-day teachers’ strike ended when teachers and the district reached a three-year contract agreement.
Brizard was the fourth CPS chief executive since 2009.
Byrd-Bennett, who was promoted from the position of chief education officer at CPS, said she expects to serve much longer than any of the three previous chief executives at CPS – Ron Huberman, Terry Mazany, and Brizard, none of whom served more than 17 months in the job. Since 2009, only former CPS Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan, who left in early 2009, had served a longer tenure, leaving after nearly eight years in the job.
“I’m here for the long haul,” Byrd-Bennett said Friday morning.
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Byrd-Bennett noted she was in charge of the Cleveland public school district for nearly eight years before she left, and she anticipated having a long tenure in Chicago as well.
“I’m not sure if it’s 8 years, it could be 10, it could be 12, but I’m here. I don’t intend to go anywhere. I don’t know what you do, other than sign in blood. I mean, I’m here, and I am not going,” “That’s just not who I am, and if you look at my track record, you’ll see that’s not who I am. I’m in for the long haul, a deep fight for our kids.”
She will make the same salary as Brizard: $250,000 a year. Brizard’s three-year contract had about a year-and-a-half left, and his severance package will pay him about $291,000 — 60 days of severance pay, plus one year’s salary.
Byrd-Bennett said her first call after being named CEO was to Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis.
“I have great respect for Karen, and I know – based on our conversations and the opportunity that I had to get to know her during negotiations – that we have a deep commitment to the children in this city,” she said.
For her part, Lewis said she was hopeful about forming a good working relationship with the new schools chief, after sitting across the table from Byrd-Bennett at contract talks, where she played a pivotal role in ending the stalemate between the district and the Chicago Teachers Union.
“We’ve worked together a bit through negotiations. She came in, I think, around August in our negotiations. She seemed very teacher-centered, which is a very good sign. So we’re hoping we’ll have a very good working relationship,” Lewis said.
Byrd-Bennett also promised to do the very thing sources said Brizard did not do – build political and community coalitions needed to sell the mayor’s vision of school reform, including closing some failing and low-enrollment schools.
“We need to do this work together. CPS cannot do it alone. A CEO cannot do it alone,” she said. “I plan to build the necessary coalitions needed to support our teachers, principals, and school communities.”
But she denied news reports that the mayor’s office and the school district have plans to close up to 120 schools that are under-performing or have student enrollment that is far below capacity.
“I continue to hear a plan, and a number, because there is no plan, there is no number,” Bennett said.
She said the district must look at all possible options when trying to improve school performance, and acknowledged the district needs to convince parents about the need for drastic steps, such as closing schools.
“Everything must be on the table. As we’ve said, we face huge academic and huge financial issues in our district. This is about matching seats to the number of children we have,” she said. “It’s also about community trust and respect. So there’s a process. There is no plan.”
Discussing her visits to various schools in the city, Byrd-Bennett said she’s been inspired by the work children do every day in the classroom.
“I’ve drawn daily hope as I see the successes that our students make in classes; from something as simple as a first grader conquering a really difficult sentence; to sitting recently in a high school in an AP Chemistry class, and could not leave that class, because I wanted to make sure that I had the right answer to that problem,” she said. “I know that these small successes add up.”
Emanuel praised Byrd-Bennett’s experience as a former teacher, principal, and head of three different school districts – Cleveland, the Crown Heights school district in Brooklyn, and the “Chancellor’s District,” a special district of troubled schools in New York City. She was also once a top administrator for the Detroit Public Schools.
“To take the next level for the school system, you have to have the right person, who has experience in front of the class as a teacher; a person who also has the experience of being a principal, and being held accountable for the results of that school building, like she’s accountable for the results of her students,” the mayor said. “You also need a person who understands how to manage a major school system … somebody who is also a parent, and somebody who is also a grandparent.”
In announcing Byrd-Bennett as the next head of CPS, Mayor Emanuel insisted Brizard’s ouster was “a mutual agreement.”
It was hardly a surprise, given months of public speculation about Brizard’s future at CPS amid increasingly contentious contract talks with the Chicago Teachers Union this summer, culminating in the nine-day teachers strike in September.
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Byrd-Bennett took over the stalled contract talks six weeks ago, not Brizard, fueling speculation Brizard had lost Emanuel’s confidence, and was on his way out.
But Vitale, who also played a key role in contract talks, denied that the mayor had essentially taken direct control of the school system away from Brizard.
“The mayor was not running the system. You know, the board was overseeing the work of Jean-Claude Brizard, and if there was confusion about that, it’s unfortunate,” he said. “And it may, in fact, have been part of the problem why Jean-Claude didn’t feel like he could be successful, because we couldn’t clear up that confusion.”
The mayor said he, Brizard and Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale agreed that questions about Brizard’s future with CPS had become a distraction to the goal of improving the school district, and Brizard decided it was time for him to go.
“The mission here is the education of our children, and when a person becomes a distraction from that mission, it’s an issue that has to be dealt with. J.C, in our bi-weekly meeting, where we go through our goals, how we’re doing, what’s our process … said, ‘Look, we’re at a point now that I’m distracting from the mission, and the mission is bigger than me,” the mayor said. “Usually a person doesn’t come to that conclusion. They hold on, and then the whole effort is about them, not about what the goal is. The goal here is the education of our children.”
Brizard was not available for comment Friday, but in a statement, he said “I leave this role with great sadness, but with the knowledge that the seeds for true innovation and transformation have been planted.”
The mayor denied multiple news reports that he was upset with Brizard for taking a two-week vacation in July, while the contract situation with teachers was still unresolved and a potential strike was still looming.
“As somebody … who takes family vacations, I strongly support it,” Emanuel said. “These jobs are very hard on your family, and so I am a strong believer in taking time with your family. So let me just dispel that outright. … I firmly believe it. People should take vacations. They need to take it with their family, and I do it, and I’m going to continue to do it.”
The mayor praised Brizard for some major accomplishments during his 17 months on the job, including a record graduation rate for high schools last year, record improvement in ACT test scores, and a lower dropout rate at CPS.
“You have a lot to be proud of over the last 17 months for your accomplishments, and you should hold your head up high,” Emanuel said he told Brizard. “Not only have you done a great job … you should hold your head up high, and I will continue to support you as you pursue your passion, which is helping children at all levels succeed.”
–by CBS 2 Web Producer Todd Feurer; CBS 2 Chief Correspondent Jay Levine, CBS 2 Political Producer Ed Marshall, and WBBM Newsradio Political Editor Craig Dellimore contributed to this report.