CHICAGO — Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Friday replaced his hand-picked schools chief after just 17 months on the job, a move that comes shortly after a bruising teachers' strike that has taken a toll on the district's bond ratings and as school closings loom.
Reports had surfaced weeks ago that Emanuel was not happy with Brizard and that their styles clashed. Emanuel at the time denied Brizard was on the way out but Brizard approached Chicago Board of Education president David Vitale concerned that speculation over his future had become a distraction.
Brizard's resignation was mutually agreed to, officials said, and on Friday Emanuel praised Brizard as he announced the elevation of Barbara Byrd-Bennett to the chief executive officer's post. Byrd-Bennett has served as interim chief education officer for the last four months and she played a prominent role in the contract negotiations to end the seven-day teachers' strike last month.
Byrd-Bennett brings 30 years of experience as an educator, principal and executive at districts in New York City, Detroit, and Cleveland. "She taught in the classroom for over 12 years; was a principal for eight; has put struggling schools on the path to higher achievement and balanced her school districts' finances," Emanuel said.
Brizard listed his accomplishments in a statement: "As the district leader, I am proud of the results we achieved in such a short time: graduation rates are up, test scores are improving, a higher percentage of freshman are on track for graduation, we achieved the lowest one-year drop-out rate in the city's history and we have seen tremendous growth on the ACT — an important college readiness benchmark."
The Board of Education is expected to approve the appointment at its meeting Oct. 24. Also at that meeting, the board is expected to approve the new contract and amend its $5.2 billion fiscal 2013 budget to cover the $100 million price tag this year for the new four-year contract.
The plan relies in part on debt restructuring that pushes off upcoming debt service payments and capitalized interest bond proceeds to help cover the costs. The district had previously selected a financing team to work on a $100 million debt restructuring, long before strike or contract was settled.
Hit with two downgrades prior to the announcement of the new contract, the board's roughly $6 billion in general obligation debt was further lowered after the deal was reached. The district's decision to nearly drain its reserves to help erase $665 million of red ink in the fiscal 2013 and the district's fiscal reckoning next year when pension payments will rise by $330 million due the expiration of a pension holiday drove the initial downgrades over the summer.
Fitch Ratings assigns the board's debt an A rating and negative outlook. Moody's Investors Service rates it A2 with a negative outlook and Standard & Poor's rates it A-plus with a stable outlook.
The district — which can't rely on the cash-strapped state for extra funds and faces property tax caps — has said it needs to shave costs by rightsizing the number of its schools to its enrollment levels. The district has 600,000 seats but serves 400,000 students.
Emanuel on Thursday declined to say how many schools might be closed but said the district would now turn its attention to its fiscal house. When he took office last year, Emanuel said he decided to tackle educational reforms before fiscal challenges, pushing through a longer school day and year and negotiating a contract that gives principals more hiring power and alters teacher evaluations.
"Now we will turn our full attention to getting that piece [financial] correctly organized," Emanuel said in an interview hosted by Bloomberg at its Chicago office.