CHICAGO – Just three weeks after Chicago teachers returned to the classroom following a bitter strike, Mayor Rahm Emanuel replaced his schools CEO with a veteran educator and administrator who he said had the experience to take Chicago school reforms "to the next level."
Emanuel said at a news conference Friday that Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard resigned by mutual agreement after "constant questions" about his leadership became a distraction to the mayor's reform goals.
Emanuel moved quickly to name a permanent replacement: Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who had been serving as Chicago's interim chief education officer and played a more visible role than Brizard in the teacher contract negotiations.
Byrd-Bennett, 62, started her career as a teacher in New York schools, and served as an administrator there before taking the job as CEO in Cleveland Public Schools. She later served as chief academic and accountability auditor for Detroit Public Schools, where she was in charge of implementing a teaching and learning plan and auditing academic programs.
Emanuel said the new teacher contract, which included a longer school day, gives the nation's third-largest school district the chance to push further on reforms.
To do that, he said, "you have to have the right person who has experience in front of class as a teacher, a person who also has the experience as a principal being held accountable for the results of that school building ... (and) you also need a person who understands how to manage a major school system."
The mayor's office announced Thursday night that Brizard was stepping down, just 17 months after Emanuel picked for him the job. The resignation was first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times.
Rumors had circulated for weeks that Emanuel was unhappy with Brizard's performance, but the mayor denied it, saying just after the strike ended that "J.C. has my confidence." Still, Brizard's first performance evaluation by the school board raised concerns about his communication and decision-making skills.
A native of Haiti, Brizard came to Chicago last April from Rochester, N.Y., where he had a frosty relationship with teachers and more than 90 percent of them gave him a vote of no-confidence.
Chicago School Board President David Vitale said Brizard initiated the discussion that led to his resignation, telling Vitale he was concerned he could no longer be effective. Vitale then went to the mayor.
"He was constantly questioned about his leadership. ... He ultimately concluded that it wasn't going to work," Vitale said.
He said one of those repeated questions was who was actually in charge: Brizard or Emanuel.
"The mayor was not running the system. The board was overseeing the work of (Brizard). And if there was confusion about that, it's unfortunate, and it may in fact have been part of the problem why Jean-Claude didn't feel he could be successful," Vitale said.
Emanuel later made a point of saying he wasn't running things.
"I am clear about what our goals are, I monitor and hold people accountable to achieving them," the mayor said. "But I don't do the day-to-day work."
Emanuel praised Brizard's professionalism and said he should be proud of the work he did, including laying the groundwork for the longer school day and school year. The mayor dismissed the idea that he had misjudged Brizard when he hired him.
Byrd-Bennett said her 44 years in education have prepared her for the Chicago job and she's here "for the long haul."
She said her first phone call after learning she was being promoted was to Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, for whom she has "great respect."
"We need to do this work together ... (and) I plan to build the necessary coalitions," Byrd-Bennett said.
Lewis, who was critical of Brizard when he was hired, said Byrd-Bennett is "highly qualified" and called her appointment "a good beginning."
"She has a reputation of doing well in labor-management relationships," said Lewis, who said Byrd-Bennett played a key role in helping to settle the seven-day strike that idled 350,000 students.
Brizard did not participate in negotiations, but Lewis said that's not unusual in Chicago.
Lewis said she and Byrd-Bennett did not discuss exactly how they will work together, "but the doors are both open, so I'm hopeful."
A good relationship could be vital as the district starts talking about closing dozens of schools that are half empty. One of the biggest issues during the teacher strike was ensuring that teachers from shuttered schools have a fair shot at other teaching positions in the district.
Other union leaders praised Byrd-Bennett as knowledgeable and experienced.
Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester teachers union that clashed with Brizard, said he and Byrd-Bennett served as co-chairs of an American Federation of Teachers advisory board and she understands both teachers and unions.
"I think she has a more promising track record of being able to work more collaboratively with teachers," Urbanski said. "I'm hopeful that her experience in Chicago will help to stabilize the relationships and figure out ways to move forward together."
Associated Press writer Herbert G. McCann contributed to this story.