Chicago Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel on Monday picked Rochester, N.Y., schools superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard to be the new Chicago Public Schools chief, selecting a leader who recently earned a no-confidence vote from his local teachers but someone Emanuel praised as not being afraid of "tough choices."
"And that is what Chicago students need today," Emanuel said of Brizard, whom he called "J.C." while introducing him at a press conference at a nearly empty Chicago high school because students are on spring break. Chicago is the nation's third-largest district with more than 400,000 students and 675 schools.
Brizard's appointment was Emanuel's first major personnel announcement as he prepares to take over City Hall from retiring Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who didn't seek a seventh term. Emanuel, President Barack Obama's former White House chief of staff, easily won February's election and will be sworn in to office May 16. He's out to remake the city's schools, including crusading for a longer school day and other reforms to improve student learning and teacher quality.
But Brizard brings with him the legacy of an uneasy relationship with the Rochester Teachers Association union because teachers had given him a resounding vote of no confidence.
RTA president Adam Urbanski said Brizard promoted policies that teachers found unpalatable, such as promoting charter schools while wanting to close down public schools, merit pay and dismissing the views of parents and teachers.
"I think that he found the union an inconvenient obstacle to his top-down management approach," Urbanski said.
That's worrisome to Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis who called the no-confidence vote a "huge concern." But she said the union would work with Brizard.
"It is ridiculous to not work with someone who has control over your members' destiny," she said.
Brizard replaces interim schools chief Terry Mazany, who Daley named to the post in November. Mazany took over because the previous schools chief, Ron Huberman, resigned from the $230,000-a-year job after Daley said he would retire.
Emanuel said he interviewed six or seven candidates for the schools job before picking Brizard, a 47-year-old native of Haiti who took the helm of the 34,000-student district in Rochester in 2008. Before that, Brizard worked for more than 20 years in the New York city schools as a teacher and administrator, including as a regional superintendent.
"This is an exciting and challenging time to be in education, especially urban education. Our schools are underperforming, the safety of many of our children to and from school is often in question and too many of us are at odds about solutions and strategies that will address these complex issues," Brizard said in brief remarks to reporters with only Emanuel answering follow-up questions.
Former Rochester Mayor Robert Duffy, now New York's lieutenant governor, raved about Brizard and chalked up tensions with the teachers union to being typical when a superintendent is tasked with making changes.
"I think Rochester's loss is Chicago's gain," Duffy said. "He is excellent. He is extremely bright. He is a visionary. He has a passion for children."
Brizard's letter of resignation Monday said he would leave the Rochester schools at the end of the school year. The Chicago Board of Education, whose seven members Emanuel also announced Monday, will still need to formally approve his pick of Brizard.
Besides announcing Brizard and the school board members, Emanuel also named others to top leadership posts in the district, including the chief education officer, who is coming from the Denver Public Schools, and the chief operating officer.
Emanuel's education team earned high praise from U.S. Education Secretary, who was a Chicago schools chief under Daley.
"Like many schools districts, Chicago faces considerable educational and budgetary challenges, but the people announced today bring tremendous experience, knowledge and commitment to the job. I look forward to working closely with them in the months and years ahead to improve student outcomes and keep reform on track," Duncan said in a statement.