CHICAGO – Just three weeks after the resolution of Chicago's first teachers' strike in a quarter-century, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's efforts to improve schools face more upheaval with the resignation of the public school system's CEO.
Emanuel and Jean-Claude Brizard — who announced he was stepping down Thursday after just 17 months in charge of Chicago Public Schools — said the decision was mutual and arose after questions about Brizard's management became a distraction from school reform.
Emanuel said he would introduce Brizard's replacement, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, at a Friday morning news conference. Byrd-Bennett is a former teacher and administrator from Cleveland who had been filling in as Chicago's interim chief education officer and played a far more visible role than Brizard in the teacher contract negotiations.
Emanuel's spokeswoman, Sarah Hamilton, predicted a "seamless" transition from Brizard to Byrd-Bennett. She said choosing Brizard wasn't a mistake, noting he helped implement a longer school day in the district and other reforms, but that his loss was no setback.
"We're going to continue with our mission," Hamilton said.
But Stephanie Gadlin, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Teachers Union, described Brizard's departure as "shocking."
"The children deserve stability at the top. This is more chaos," Gadlin said. "Either the mayor is going to be the CEO or he has to put educators in charge of the school district."
Talk of Brizard's possible departure had been circulating for several weeks. But as recently as Sept. 19, shortly after the strike ended, Emanuel said: "J.C. has my confidence." A spokeswoman for Emanuel said the mayor did not blame Brizard for the contentious contract negotiations that led to the strike.
"We had a mutual agreement (that the distraction was) not helpful. I didn't have to come to that conclusion myself," Emanuel told the Chicago Sun-Times, which first reported the resignation. "We both agreed together. It kept on becoming about the static and noise about J.C."
Brizard said he approached Emanuel and the school board after hearing rumors that the mayor was unhappy. Hamilton said Brizard told Emanuel he didn't want to be a distraction from the mission of serving the children.
"I have to tell you it's a little bit of melancholy and mixed emotions because I've come to love the people who work in CPS," Brizard told the Chicago Tribune. "I love to work with kids. ... That's more important to me than keeping a job. This is stressful, but at the same time it's about the city."
Teachers walked off the job Sept. 10, idling 350,000 students in the nation's third-largest school district for seven days before the union's delegates agreed to suspend the strike and return to classes. They later approved a new contract that provides for 3 percent raises in its first year and 2 percent for two years after that, along with increases for experienced teachers. There also is an option of another 3 percent raise if teachers agree to a fourth year of the contract.
The school district also agreed to reduce the percentage of teachers' evaluations based on test scores, down from a proposed 45 percent to the 30 percent set as the minimum by state law. The contract includes an appeals process to contest evaluations.
Brizard, a native of Haiti, took the helm of Chicago Public Schools in April last year. While he got high marks for his education expertise and understanding policy, he was criticized for his management style.
According to published reports, his annual evaluation gave him low marks for the way he communicates and runs the district. However, school board President David Vitale commended Brizard for his work during the year.