It’s hard to believe that more than three years have passed since school reformers ushered in Ted Kimbrough as the general superintendent who would turn the system around. Of course things didn’t work out that way. In January Kimbrough’s many squabbles with activists and board members caught up with him. The board bought out his contract, and many of his erstwhile allies hollered good riddance. Now school leaders are conducting another national search for superintendent. At least 200 people have inquired or applied so far. Charlie Kyle and Reginald Brown are two somewhat unlikely candidates.
Kyle, a former priest, is an outspoken grass-roots activist who feels the central office still wields too much power over the local school councils. Brown, the back-to-basics principal of Washington High School, is a veteran board insider with more than 35 years’ experience in the system. What Kyle and Brown have in common is that they probably won’t get a serious hearing, much less the job–Kyle because he’s white, and Brown because he was once allied with machine politicians such as Eddie Vrdolyak.
“The process for picking a superintendent does not benefit anyone except for consultants,” says James Deanes, a member of three local school councils (who does not support Kyle or Brown). “It’s too secretive. It’s dragging on for too long and it costs too much money. And it overlooks a lot of local talent.” The city’s embarrassing record in selecting superintendents goes back to the mid-70s, when Mayor Richard J. Daley greased the way for out-of-towner Joseph Hannon to get the job over Manford Byrd Jr., a local school administrator.
Byrd eventually got the job in 1985, only to be ousted in 1989, when reform leaders hired a group of consultants to solicit applications from across the country. The consultants narrowed the field to ten, but the board chose Kimbrough, an obscure school administrator from southern California who, according to an article by Michael Klonsky in the Catalyst newsletter, wasn’t even on the consultants’ list. “Kimbrough magically appeared out of the woodwork,” says Thomas Glass, an education professor at Northern Illinois University who has written extensively on how school superintendents are selected. “That’s not unusual; most viable candidates do not even make their interest known until the last minute.”
This year the board hired a company to train them in the art of head-hunting; it also created a six-person search committee of volunteers who come from out of town. “The screening committee will help us assess candidates’ strength to capitalize on school reform in order to improve the quality of public education in Chicago,” board president Florence Cox said in a prepared statement announcing the committee’s creation.
In addition the board has hired yet another consulting firm, this one out of Washington, D.C., to look for executives outside of education who might be interested in the job. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has pledged $35,000 to help pay for the consultants; the board does not know how much public money will be spent on the search. “The board may decide to go for someone from outside the field of education, like a business leader along the lines of Robert Belcaster, who Mayor Daley selected to head the CTA,” says Glass. “Running the school system may be attractive to an executive in his early 50s with a golden parachute from his company. Of course, that guy may be in for a surprise when he finds out that Pershing Road doesn’t operate like his old company, where he gave an order and everyone fell into line.”
The eventual superintendent can expect a salary in excess of $175,000, which is what the interim board offered Kimbrough, not including thousands of dollars worth of perks. “Whoever takes the job has to figure that he will be fired and that his reputation will be tarnished in the process,” says Glass. “You’re going to ask for enough money to make it worth your while to come to Chicago. These guys are sophisticated when it comes to negotiating their own contracts.”
Kyle, however, has already offered to take the job for less. “I propose that my salary be 10 percent less than the average salaries of superintendents in five comparable districts,” he says. “The central office has to be cut, and I plan to lead by example.”
Kyle first got involved in school issues in the 1970s when he was a priest at several predominantly Hispanic north-side churches. He helped organize protests against overcrowding and high dropout rates at various schools; later he earned a PhD in sociology at Northwestern University (his dissertation was on Hispanic dropouts). In 1987 Kyle left the priesthood after protesting the archdiocese’s decision to close churches and schools in poor neighborhoods. He is now an administrator in charge of grants and fund-raising at Triton College.
“I’m against vouchers because I think that they will destroy hope for universal education, but I think that many things Catholic schools do in poor neighborhoods should be done in the public schools,” says Kyle. “Everyone has been making so many excuses for so long they feel they can’t confront the problem. But all it takes is some creative leadership from school administrators. Look at DuSable High School, under the leadership of principal Charles Mingo, who was chosen by the community. They have hallway monitors; there’s terrific discipline. The monitors have instilled a sense of respect and dignity in that school.”
Kyle contends that the central administration is still stifling local control. “Just recently the board proposed to take control of $70 million in discretionary money that should go directly to the local schools,” he says. “The first thing I’d do as school superintendent is give that money back to the schools who know how it should be best spent. The central office should help LSCs, not dictate things to them.”
Kyle’s candidacy is handicapped by a number of factors, most notably race. It would be politically volatile for the board to replace a black superintendent with a white one. Such an appointment, less than two years before the next mayoral election, might generate a black backlash against Mayor Daley. “I like Charlie, but I don’t want him to be superintendent: I don’t think he has the credentials,” says James Deanes, who would like to see interim superintendent Richard Stephenson get the job. “I don’t think they should appoint a white male to the job, and this goes for all those business leaders they’re talking about too. Why would we turn over education to the business community, which is losing out on the world market? There have been too many insults to the African American community for it to be politically safe for anyone to get this job who is not black.”
Kyle hopes to offset such opposition by building grass-roots support. He already has won support of Hispanic leaders like Congressman Luis Gutierrez and Dan Solis, head of UNO, the city’s largest Hispanic community organization. “The notion that I can’t have this job may bother James Deanes, but it is not a preoccupation with most black parents,” says Kyle. “I was out at Malcolm X College the other day for a forum. The parents were angry because 32 high schools do not even offer the courses you need to be eligible for state universities. This is the kind of serious educational problem that has nothing to do with race.”
Brown, who is black, may face opposition because of his political past. In 1979 Mayor Byrne hired him to run the city’s Department of Employment and Training. One year later Vrdolyak helped slate him as a candidate for Congress in the Second Congressional District. (Brown lost that race to Gus Savage.) “I should say that I supported many politicians, including Harold Washington and Jesse Jackson,” says Brown. “Jane Byrne appointed me on the basis of a speech she heard me give. Eddie did some things during Council Wars I didn’t like. But I’m not going to turn on him. I don’t think I should shun my friends just because it will help me politically.”
Brown was born and raised on the city’s south side; like his younger brother Charlie he was a basketball star at DuSable High School. He began his career as a substitute teacher. Over the years he rose through the ranks; in 1985 Byrd appointed him district superintendent in charge of south-side high schools. He’s best known for his ten-year stint as principal of Chicago Vocational High School. “I was Joe Clark before Joe Clark,” says Brown, referring to the principal about whom the movie Lean on Me was made. “I don’t take nonsense. I came into CVS when the school was going from white to black and there was a lot of turbulence. What I did was to continue the school’s great tradition, particularly in athletics. I’m proud of what we did there; the kids identified with me.”
Brown has also been principal of King, Manley, and Crane high schools. He came to Washington High at the request of the LSC there. Ironically, his years in the system may work against him. “There are special interests who want to throw out anyone who has been around,” he says. “But I was talking about empowerment years ago. What we did at CVS was about empowering the community. In City Hall, I oversaw the distribution of $200 million in federal funds; that prepares me to act as liaison with the feds. This is a job I have prepared my career for. If politics settles things, I probably won’t get it. But if you want the best, I’m your man.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.