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In Chicago, a Battle Over School Closures Heats Up

As corporate school reformers push ahead with their offensive, resistance to their plans is building among ordinary Chicagoans.

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Earlier in the day, CPS announced that its new CEO, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, would seek a four-month extension on the December 1 deadline for announcing the list of schools slated for closure, consolidation or turnaround.

Setting aside its questionable legality, such a delay would mean that parents would miss critical deadlines for enrolling their children in educational alternatives for the next year--and likewise, it would narrow the time for opponents of closure to get their arguments and their protests heard.

The rationale given by CPS for extending the deadline only confirms that officials have been unable to find authentic grounds for continuing to close neighborhood schools while simultaneously opening charter schools. But Emanuel and the city remain stalwartly opposed to the proposed school closures moratorium. On the contrary, neither the mayor nor Barbara Byrd-Bennett has agreed to speak with anyone opposing the closures.

For those familiar with the newest big-salary, out-of-towner brought in to run CPS, this should come as no surprise. Despite the language of a recent letter sent home to CPS parents championing a "rigorous and respectful community engagement process," Byrd-Bennett has made a career out of ignoring community input--and being accountable to one person only.

Byrd-Bennett got her first taste of unaccountable autocratic control as the superintendent in New York City's Chancellor's District. The "district" was a haphazard conglomeration of schools deemed to be performing poorly and heaped together under the control of Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew. After two years of Byrd-Bennett heading it up, the Chancellor's District was said to be a "national model for turnaround school efforts."

In 1998, Byrd-Bennett was appointed by Cleveland Mayor Michael White to be the CEO of Cleveland Public Schools, also under the exclusive control of the mayor. For seven years, Byrd-Bennett rang up an impressive list of scandals and abuses, ranging from spending disproportionate amounts on voucher students and outside "cosmetic" renovations to schools; to mismanaging resources and manipulating data; to awarding herself a $54,000 bonus the same year she fired 52 assistant principals and 172 school teachers.

Byrd-Bennett is alleged to have have treated herself to lavish dinners and extensive travel paid for out of a special fund provided by wealthy Cleveland business interests. Critics claim many of those same business interests were on the receiving end of "tax abatements, exemptions and reductions on property taxes" doled out through CPS policy decisions made primarily by Byrd-Bennett.

Meanwhile, during her seven years in near-complete control, the Cleveland Public Schools showed no "marked academic improvement," according to Voice of Detroit , an independent newspaper.

But if her slow-motion failure in Cleveland wasn't proof enough, Byrd-Bennett's time in Detroit showed she can also wreak havoc at a fast pace.

In 2009, Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb--invoking his complete control over Detroit Public Schools (DPS)--hired Byrd-Bennett as Chief Academic and Accountability Auditor. Paid over $200,000 despite working only two days per week, Byrd-Bennett quickly found herself at home with the disinvestment, privatization and cronyism synonymous with Bobb's oversight.

While continuing to raise the district's debt Byrd-Bennett handed out lucrative upper management positions to her friends and former colleagues; contracted with her son-in-law, Edmenson Suggs, for a $107,250 analysis of the DPS athletic program (which never materialized), and facilitated a historic $40 million book contract with her one-time employer Houghton-Mifflin Publishers.

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For Chicagoans concerned with the state of public schools, this should raise significant red flags. But it should also sound familiar--the city has followed a similar agenda, though not at the same pace, in recent years.

The minor difference between Chicago school leaders is that the former CEO Jean-Claude Brizard led successful attempts to close, downsize, and turnaround public schools by attacking schools as "underperforming"--whereas Byrd-Bennett has swiftly the rhetoric to be about "under-enrollment."