Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard
Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard Credit: Sun-Times Media

It is surely the nature of reporters to resent the functionaries who control the spigots of public information. Three years ago I wrote a column relating the exasperation of education beat reporters with Monique Bond, the head of communications for the Chicago Public Schools. They complained that Bond made it next to impossible to find out what was going on inside CPS.

Today, some of those reporters are inclined to recall the Bond era as the good old days of CPS transparency. At least the information Bond let trickle through the spigot came out straight. Bond’s successor, Becky Carroll, “was not hired to provide the public with information, but to manage the most successful spin cycle since the invention of the non-ringer clothes washer,” longtime CPS gadfly George Schmidt quips on his website The purpose of the supposed spinning? To champion the education-reform credentials of Rahm Emanuel, who put Carroll in CPS.

Yet why shouldn’t Carroll, as CPS’s communications officer, serve as Emanuel’s eyes and ears inside CPS? With its 40,000 employees, CPS is the state’s largest bureaucracy outside the federal government. And as it goes so goes the mayor’s reputation and legacy. If Chicago can’t teach its children it hardly matters how efficiently the city collects its garbage.

So of course Emanuel wants to keep tabs. But it seemed to some education reporters that Carroll enjoyed more influence than her nominal boss. Jean-Claude Brizard, the chief of CPS until he was fired last month, says it seemed that way to him too. “She was aware of strategies I wasn’t aware of,” Brizard told me. “She knew things I didn’t know.”

Carroll doesn’t so much disagree with what Brizard said about her insider status as frame it differently. “CPS pays my check so I definitely work for CPS,” she told me. “But this is the same protocol as the Daley administration, when I worked in City Hall and for the planning department. You traditionally work with the mayor’s office. That’s the nature of the relationship.”

Emanuel took over City Hall last year with a clear education agenda: lengthen the school day, grade and reward teachers by performance, open more nonunion charter schools, and cut the teachers’ union down to size. To run the schools, Emanuel hired away Brizard from the public schools of Rochester, New York, a system less than a tenth the size of Chicago’s, where he’d done many of those things or at least made the right noises about them. Perhaps Brizard also was attractive to Emanuel in that there are 32,000 public school students in Rochester and 400,000 in Chicago. Brizard would surely be a little too overwhelmed by his new job to get defiantly territorial about it.

While Brizard was new to Chicago, Carroll had long been a familiar face in City Hall. Under Richard M. Daley she’d directed communications policy for both Chicago’s housing and its planning and development departments. In addition, she’d been deputy chief of staff for budget policy for Governor Blagojevich, and she’d worked for Emanuel in 2002 when he first ran for Congress. In early 2011, when Emanuel was running for mayor, she was vice president of communications and community affairs for the Chicago Fire. But she recently told me she missed the public sector and made sure Emanuel’s transition team knew it. “I said I would be interested if there were an opportunity in education or on the budget side,” she said. “They came back with an offer to work on the public schools side and I took it immediately.”

She said Brizard vetted her before she joined CPS. He responded that he had no say in her hiring. “She certainly was not a member of my team,” Brizard told me. “It was clear that Becky did not work for me. I regarded her as part of the communications team at City Hall. That was the way in which we operated, frankly.”

And that was not desirable? “No, of course not,” he said. “I needed to have my own team. Becky had her own lines of communication to City Hall she managed herself. I can talk from my prior lives. My communications director was always my communications director. In this case I found Becky Carroll was part of conversations I wasn’t part of. At times she had a heads-up before I did on negotiations issues. She worked two camps—CPS and City Hall—and in some cases she was more plugged in than some of my team members.”

Was there a price paid for this relationship? I asked. “Absolutely,” said Brizard. “We had great stress when it came to scheduling things. She felt she should have the priority when it came to my schedule, that whatever she wanted to do with media should have priority. I felt my time was better utilized in doing the work of the district. It was always quite a strain.”

In response, Carroll e-mailed me a link to an interview Brizard gave to Carol Marin on Chicago Tonight in May of 2011, soon after he was hired. “I had complete and total autonomy in selecting the individuals I shall be working with,” he told Marin.

CPS chief communications officer Becky CarrollCredit: Sun-Times Media

“I’m a big girl,” Carroll said. “I’m hired to bring a lot of expertise to the job. I’ve been working 17 years in public sector, public policy. There’s always a synergy you strive for, working in partnership with the mayor’s office. We’re all one city. We’re not separate entities. In my day-to-day role, I might have a day with no conversation with the mayor’s office and a day when I have several. During the strike we had to work closely together—it impacted every single community.”

Brizard lasted just 17 months as CEO of CPS and was dumped in October. In August the Tribune published the leaked contents of a critical school board evaluation of Brizard, and communication was one of his problems.

“The board gave Brizard low marks for the way he communicates and runs the district,” the Tribune piece stated, and quoted a separate letter to Brizard from board president David Vitale, who allowed, “You have worked to improve the communication challenges with the mayor’s office and the board in what is sometimes an awkward triangle.”

A spokesman for Emanuel told the Tribune “the mayor has complete confidence in J.C.,” and an unnamed “administration source” said that “I’ve never heard [Emanuel] say ‘I’m done with J.C.” Not taking seriously these assurances, the Trib piece stated that the frustrated mayor could cut Brizard loose “potentially as soon as a contract agreement with teachers is reached.” That’s what happened: Brizard disappeared at the end of a strike he’d played no role in settling. He rarely got even a passing mention in the media coverage of the strike, and later he told ABC TV that his communications department—i.e., Carroll—stopped forwarding to him the media’s requests for interviews.

“During the strike,” Brizard told me, “I understand that Becky Carroll gave orders to her team that I was not to be contacted for any reason. I am not sure if that came from on high or that she just made the rule.” Carroll said that if Chicago did not hear a peep from Brizard during the strike, it was because he had no role in the negotiations. “He did do interviews for those who were doing stories around our efforts to provide kids with a safe and engaging environment during the strike. When calls come in to me and folks want to talk about what’s happening on the contract, I’d fill in, or, when appropriate, I got David Vitale or maybe Barbara Byrd-Bennett [then CPS’s chief education advisor, now its new CEO].”

This explanation for Brizard’s silence asks us to believe Chicago reporters are so incurious and incompetent that when told the CEO of the school system had no role to play in settling the teachers’ strike they did not attempt to ask him why, or try to find out if he had anything of interest to say about the strike regardless.

Did you try to reach Brizard during the strike? I asked one education beat reporter. “I didn’t have his cell phone number,” the reporter replied. (I heard this a couple of times: a beat reporter who didn’t have Brizard’s cell phone number wondering if other reporters did.) “There were definitely times I asked about where he was. The party line was he’s out in the schools, making sure the contingency plan is being rolled out.”

Carroll said that if reporters couldn’t reach Brizard, it’s on him—and them. “J.C. could have handed out his cell phone any time he wanted,” she said. “He didn’t. Also he called plenty of reporters from his cell phone before. They should have taken down his cell phone then.”

Correction: This article has been amended to reflect Becky Carroll’s description of her role as it relates to the mayor’s office; Carroll works with the mayor’s office, not for it. In addition, Carroll’s statement about the teachers’ strike has been corrected; she stated that the strike impacted every community, not every communication.