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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Former CPS Chief: Rahm Didn’t Do “Enough Vetting” of Byrd-Bennett

Jean-Claude Brizard, the first CPS CEO under Rahm Emanuel, reflects on the troubles of his recently indicted successor.

Jean-Claude Brizard in 2012  Photo: Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune

When news hit last week of former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s indictment, I was curious about what one person thought: Jean-Claude Brizard, the man who held the same position just before Byrd-Bennett.

Brizard, now 52, came on as the CEO of Chicago Public Schools after newly elected mayor Rahm Emanuel courted him in 2011. He left his job heading the Rochester, New York school system for the opportunity. Now working as a partner in a consulting firm that focuses on school district turnarounds, he lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife and three sons, ages five, three and six weeks; he also has a daughter from his first marriage.

Brizard, a soft-spoken man with a heavy accent from his native Haiti, was unceremoniously dumped by Rahm after just 17 months in the top CPS job (the 2012 teachers strike occurred on his watch). Byrd-Bennett, his chief education officer, quickly succeeded him as CEO in October of 2012.

A quick refresher on the indictment: Byrd-Bennett was charged (and is pleading guilty to) funneling millions of dollars to SUPES Academy, an educational consulting firm where she previously worked. According to the indictment, Byrd-Bennett secured a $20.5 million no-bid contract for SUPES to train CPS principals, among other charges, in exchange for perks and future employment with SUPES. Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, the owners of SUPES, are also under federal indictment. I wrote about the situation earlier this year.

I caught up with Brizard late Friday in California where he and his wife, both fellows of the Aspen Institute, were attending seminars. Here’s an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

What was your reaction on hearing about the indictment? Were you surprised?

Initially, I was a bit shocked. When I read the indictment, I was dismayed and then sad, in that order. When the $20.5 million no-bid principal training contract was pushed through [in June of 2013], a lot of us were surprised. A no-bid contract for that money, no track record? There are a number of players across the country who do this work. My philosophy before coming to Chicago was that principals, not the central office, are the key to reform and innovation. We had Loyola, Teach for America, Harvard, UIC, and New Leaders for New Schools. So we had pipeline [to recruit principals] figured out.

Before the no-bid contract was signed, did anyone ask your opinion of SUPES?

No one asked my opinion. 

Should members of the board of education have looked more closely at Byrd-Bennett and her ties to SUPES?

The board often listened to staff recommendations and trusted the staff to do due diligence. On the other hand, I found the board to have great tenacity. I would be surprised if the board members didn’t ask a lot of questions before voting. I know how bright they are. But I guess in the end they put too much trust in the process.

I read that SUPES co-owner Gary Solomon played a role in your hiring at CPS [according to a Solomon spokesman, Rahm’s transition team reached out to Solomon for recommendations for the position]. Did he recruit you to come to Chicago?

I got a call from him. I was in Rochester but on my way to Newark [to run the school system there]. I was one of the finalists for Newark when the call came. Gary called me every once in a while about this city or that. Reading stuff about him since then frankly was an eye opener. I didn’t know anything about his background. My response was, “Chicago would never hire an educator.” Solomon said, “They really want to talk to you. Will you talk to them?” So I talked to the mayor [elect].

Did you know Byrd-Bennett before she joined your team as your number two in 2012?

Yes, I knew her, and knew of her when I was a teacher and an assistant principal in New York and when I was superintendent in Rochester. I had respect for her, but I didn’t know her well. Gary Solomon recommended her to Rahm’s transition team. I thought Barbara wouldn’t want to do it. Why would she want to be number two to me? From the get go, I didn’t think that philosophically we were aligned. It wouldn’t be a good fit. [Read this Tribune article for more on Brizard’s approach vs. Byrd-Bennett’s.]

When Rahm replaced you with Byrd-Bennett, was he looking for a public face, a person to go in front of the camera to announce school closings?

I do believe that those advising the mayor were very aware of the need to replace an African American with another. Barbara seemed to fit the narrative at the time—an educator and African American.

How much input did you have in the decision to bring Byrd-Bennett in as the interim chief education officer? 

It was ultimately my decision, but I knew that I only wanted her there for a few months. We did not have the same reform philosophy. The instructional work was well under way. We had a great teaching and learning team led by Jennifer Cheatham, an outstanding educator and leader. … I only needed Barbara to be a placeholder and not touch much.

If you and Barbara were not aligned philosophically, why did Rahm want her as CPS CEO?

I don’t believe that the mayor did enough vetting of Barbara. He may have had inadequate counsel but frankly many were fooled.

This wasn’t the first time that CPS worked with SUPES. Another program to train CPS network chiefs was approved during your tenure. Describe that program.

The pilot program [with SUPES] was not targeted to principals. It was only targeted to principal supervisors—our chiefs of schools. We got money from the Chicago Public Education Fund [CPEF] to launch that program. After seven to eight months, we realized that program was not as effective as we wanted. So, in collaboration with CPEF, we decided in not to renew. We began to look at doing the work ourselves, of designing an internal system of developing principals. To see SUPES reemerge after making that decision was upsetting.

How’s CPS doing, in your opinion, since your exit?

Not to sound arrogant, but I believe that we put the system on a trajectory to do better, and a ton of credit needs to go to [former CPS CEOs] Arne Duncan and Ron Huberman as well. Barbara benefited from that good work. I hope that the current administration sees the instructional work that was done and continues the efforts.

The statistics for graduation rates came into question after CPS recently lowered its numbers. What stats would you use to judge the effectiveness of CPS?

There are no exit exams in Chicago, so, in my opinion, graduation rates are easier to game. I like the ACT and the PARCC exam. They are independent of the school system and consistently rigorous.

What’s your opinion of Rahm’s third school chief, Forrest Claypool? Does it matter that he’s a business guy, not an educator?

I have tremendous respect for Forrest Claypool. I worked for a gentleman who was not an educator in New York and he was quite effective—Joel Klein [former chancellor of the New York City Public Schools].

The support for an elected school board seems to be gaining traction in Chicago. What do you think of elected versus appointed boards?

I don’t think elected or appointed is a panacea. When I got to Chicago there was an amazing school board made up of really intelligent people. When it comes to elections in Chicago there are such small turnouts. I really do not think an elected board would be good for the Chicago system.

Governor Rauner has suggested that bankruptcy might be the best solution to CPS’s fiscal problems. What do you think?

It may be. Frankly I am not sure what that means for a school district since many of the obligations are coded in law.

Do you see another teachers strike looming?

I certainly hope not. I cannot see the CTU gaining anything worthwhile. Ultimately the students pay the price.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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