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Friday
Jul132012

Kayaking while Rome burns, a schools chief may deserve a "C-minus" for timing

Jean-Claude Brizard has a difficult and high-stakes job. As Superintendent of Schools in Chicago, he oversees a typically underperforming big-city system amid rampant poverty, a huge budget deficit, an unhappy teachers union and a demanding boss, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who picked most of the key aides working for Brizard.

He surely works very hard and deserves a vacation every now and then.

But now and then probably shouldn't have been the last two weeks.

"He's accelerating his obsolescence," said a Chicago Public Schools official whom I'd want on my side if I  needed to not just improve the learning lot of children but also to navigate the unavoidablyprickly politics of a big city superintendent's job.

I stumbled into Brizard's absence during a chance conversation with another Chicago educator Thursday. The person mentioned that Brizard was out of town. He mentioned that Brizard had asked colleagues not to bother him with calls. He indicated that Brizard had posted on his Facebook page a photo of his wife with a kayak in Vermont. He rolled his eyes.

Where to start?

The last two weeks have been notable in the life of the system, which is again on the precipice of turmoil.

First, the district disclosed its proposed new budget. It plans to drain a $349 million unrestricted reserve fund to zero to help deal with a $665 million deficit. One dour civic watchdog group called it a prelude to catastrophe, with predictions of a far bigger deficit next year. The Chicago Board of Education's bond rating was promptly downgraded by Moody's.

Then there was the school board's public hearing over the budget held Wednesday. Much chagrin was predictably articulated by parents, teachers and others, with charter school opponents unhappy with the district for jacking up the amount given charters, roughly to $500 million out of a proposed $5.7 billion budget.

Finally, there are ongoing, largely unpublicized negotiations between the city and union over a new contract.

The two sides are getting nowhere fast and, under provisions of a new state education law, have just submitted final offers to a factfinder, Edwin Benn. He's first among equals on a three-person panel, with one factfinder picked by the city, another by the union. Team Emanuel is surely nervous after a recent ruling by Benn in an unrelated case overturning the city's dismissal of four firefighters and suspensions of 44 others as a result of what Benn conceded was flagrant mileage padding on their expenses.

He'll tell both sides his decision Monday, following most important, if frustrating, negotiating sessions at which Brizard's absence was conspicuous.

Did life go on without Brizard? For sure. That's why God gave us labor attorneys. And, for sure, the recent tradition in schools negotiations is that City Hall, meaning the mayor, calls the shots. When Arne Duncan, now the U.S. Secretary of Education, had the same Chicago job, he was a potted plant during labor talks. Then-Mayor Richard M. Daley and his chief labor lawyer were in charge.

Still, the turmoil facing, and partly precipitated by, Emanuel is such that the context is different, given its greater severity. If Benn, the factfinder, recommends a teacher pay hike the city can't really  afford, the alternatives seem melancholy: further bankrupt the system by paying the hike or saying no and daring a union whose quest for a large double-digit raise over a contract's life is nuts, to strike.

(Next time self-styled reformers write a new state education law, as they've essentially done in Illinois, rely on the "last best offer" gambit first used in public sector negotiations in the 1940s and now associated with Major League Baseball salary disputes. Each side must place posturing to the side and put down a realistic final number. The arbitrator can only pick one of the two figures, not split any intentionally wild differences, placing pressure on both sides to come up with more rational proposals.)

Daley was virtually obsessed about avoiding a teacher walkout, especially fretful over accelerating white flight to the suburbs, and cut deals with the union that look lavish in retrospect. Emanuel's a dealmaker at heart, so one should look for one. But he's also extremely sensitive to city finances, and willing to break china, so you can't be as confident about ultimate harmony as one was with Daley, especially given the union's uninspired and possibly unpredictable leadership.

As for Brizard, the coincidence of the vacation and very important events at Chicago Public Schools underscores a practical reality that he'd best be conscious of upon return to the office Monday; namely what may prove to be the increasing irrelevance of a decent and bright fellow.

And he's given ammunition already to anybody who looks to bypass or intentionally undermine him. There is the apparent disjoint of his performance even if one readily concedes trying circumstances: an articulate and alluring spokesman in public but a quite ineffective manager internally (as detailed to me by a few in-house supporters of his whom I know). For example, preparations for a much longer school day this fall have been woefully jumbled, according to several folks involved in the process.

In politics, as in comedy, timing can be, ah, everything. Brizard may return to work refreshed but, as the man said, also a bit more obsolescent. If you're vacationing this summer in Las Vegas, rather than Vermont and Nova Scotia, I would not inquire as to the over-under on him making it to next summer.

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