Numbers Man

He modernized Chicago’s emergency-response center, served as Mayor Daley’s chief of staff, and led (albeit briefly) the CTA—all before his 38th birthday. Now Ron Huberman, the Israeli-born gay ex-cop, has brought his intensity and his technocratic management style to the city’s public schools. Failure is not an option.

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Plucked by Mayor Daley from police department middle-management obscurity in 2004, Ron Huberman today heads up the Chicago Public Schools, stepping into the shoes of Arne Duncan.

 

Under the brilliant lights of the auditorium stage at a West Side school, Ron Huberman sits behind a long table at the center of a menagerie of civil servants, ready to be denounced. In the audience, hundreds of students and parents wait desperately for answers and action. It’s March, and grown men, many of them likely gang members, have recently been beating up girls on their way home from the four schools housed here in the Little Village Lawndale High School campus. Why can’t the cops do anything? Thugs in SUVs chase after school buses, throwing things that break windows, apparently acting on long-simmering tensions between the black and Latino communities. Why hasn’t the school district beefed up security? Why haven’t officials rerouted buses to keep kids safer?

A month earlier, Mayor Richard M. Daley had yanked Huberman from his post as president of the Chicago Transit Authority and installed him as chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools, the nearly $5-billion bureaucracy that is as large as all of Chicago city government, employing 43,840 adults and teaching more than 400,000 kids. Though tonight the roster of officials in attendance includes a police commander, an alderman, a CTA bureaucrat, and various school administrators, here in the auditorium, the buck stops with Huberman.

One by one, parents, students, teachers, and activists march to the microphones and engage in the time-honored Ping-Pong match of community politics: Citizen yells at public official. Official tells citizen what she wants to hear. Citizen demands changes. Official makes empty promises. (Repeat.)

When it’s finally Huberman’s turn in the semi-scripted proceedings, things proceed differently. Even in a suit and tie, the 37-year-old gay ex-cop seems much younger than the average big-city agency head. An Israeli-born immigrant who is sometimes mistaken for a light-skinned black man, he looks like a kinder, gentler version of the action star Vin Diesel.

“Life is difficult enough,” he begins. “You shouldn’t have the added burden of worrying about the safety of your kids on their way to and from school.” In the audience, heads nod in fierce agreement. Huberman combines an officer’s ability to command respect with a politician’s gift for speaking platitudes with sincerity. Whereas his cohorts this evening made vague pledges and budgetary excuses, Huberman is ready to deliver: He’s set aside $5,000 in overtime pay for security staff and $5,000 worth of radios and equipment for parent patrol volunteers. “You all came with a plan,” he says. “When you come with a plan, it’s our responsibility to make that plan happen.” He gives out his e-mail and phone number, asking families to follow up with him. “Next time, we’ll meet in a gymnasium. So rather than us sitting up here, speaking to you down there, we’ll get on the same level,” Huberman promises.

When he finishes, everyone from 20-something white yuppie teachers to immigrant Latino mothers beat their hands together as if they mean it. For a moment, the new schools chief has turned the mood from a confrontational community meeting into an all-for-one campaign rally.

After you witness a performance like this, Huberman’s resumé begins to make sense. You can understand what Daley might have seen when he plucked Huberman from police department middle-management obscurity in 2004. You begin to grasp how this one man could have modernized Chicago’s 911 apparatus, changed the accountability system for city government, and rescued public transit from the brink of bankruptcy—all in less than five years.

Yet security concerns in Little Village just extend Huberman’s list of daunting challenges, most of which can’t be overcome with a slick speech and a $10,000 budget allocation. With almost zero prior education experience, he presides over a district in which many junior high schoolers can’t read a map; fewer than one-third of high-school freshmen make it to college; some students cross four dangerous gang lines every morning and afternoon.

Huberman’s quest to remake the country’s third-largest school system may be the purest test of Mayor Daley’s mantra that a great manager can direct any organization. More important, it’s the ultimate trial of Huberman’s belief that measuring progress and analyzing numbers offer the best way to reform a faltering organization. If this uber-technocrat makes serious progress, he will stride toward his rumored destiny as Daley’s heir. And if he doesn’t, he’s the type who might create a data-filled PowerPoint slide deck to explain why he failed. Whatever the outcome, Huberman is poised to make his mark on public education in Chicago and the nation.

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Photograph: Ryan Robinson

 

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