BRIZARDWATCH: Tribune columnist Eric Zorn gets Brizard story straight on Tribune Op Ed page

An Op Ed column published in the Chicago Tribune by long-time Tribune columnist Eric Zorn about the selection of Jean-Claude Brizard to head Chicago's schools needs to be read by everyone concerned about Chicago's schools. [For those readers who can't get the hotlink above, the URL is

Our kind of guy to lead Chicago schools, By Eric Zorn, Chicago Tribune, April 20, 2011

Hey worrywarts, relax!

Though Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel has picked an outsider to run the Chicago Public Schools, the trail of news clippings following him here suggests he'll fit right in.

Can Rochester, N.Y., superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard (left) pad a payroll? Skirt the rules? Spend frivolously? Distort statistics to make himself look good? Infuriate his constituents with a high-handed style?

Check, check, check, check and check.

According to a robust archive of stories assembled by Rachel Barnhart, a reporter for Rochester's ABC network affiliate, Brizard expanded his Cabinet without the requisite school board approval after taking over the troubled system in 2008, boosting administrative expenses by 43 percent. He changed administrative job titles to justify raises.

As his district battled a $60 million deficit, Brizard spent $18,000 on a two-night "team-building" retreat at a conference center in Buffalo where administrators and teachers enjoyed "Jack Daniels marinated steak with tobacco onions, shrimp fritters, cheddar corn muffins and 'enticing desserts.' "

And best — or worst, according to his critics — he played fast and loose with the high-school graduation data that some are touting as his major credential.

Last November, the Rochester City School District announced "more students graduating high school in four years" under Brizard, "an increase of 16 percent."

But a look at the New York State District Report Card shows a graduation rate of 49 percent in the 2007-2008 school year, and a rate of 46 percent in 2009-2010.

"So who's right?" wrote Barnhart in the online print version of her story. "Brizard is using sheer numbers of students graduating, not the percentage. The 2005 cohort, or the group of students who entered 9th grade that year, was very large."

Brizard's predecessor got into the spat, accusing Brizard of taking credit for increases that "came before he stepped in the door," and of "actually losing ground" on graduation rates during his tenure.

Brizard "added that the community is too hung up on graduation rates," Barnhart wrote. "He says the focus should be on how students are doing two years after graduation. Are they ready for college and work?"

Good question. And to answer it Barnhart pointed to state Education Department data showing that only 5 percent of Rochester's high school graduates in 2009 were prepared for college based on their standardized test scores. The state average was 41 percent, and Rochester's was "the lowest rate of the state's cities," she wrote.

Now. To be fair to all sides, it's hard to credit or blame any education leader with incremental changes over just three years as he's trying to turn the massive ship of large school system.

"The seeds he's planted may bear fruit," said Felix Jacobs, a member of the school board's parent council. "We just haven't seen it yet."

Rochester has seen teacher dissatisfaction with Brizard polling at around 90 percent in surveys. I realize that many of you believe this is a feature, not a flaw — that self-interested, lazy teachers are the root our educational problems and anything they dislike is probably good for students.

I don't agree, but for your benefit, let's ask a few of the customers — parental stakeholders — who in 2008 were as hopeful as Chicagoans are today that Brizard would work magic for their troubled system.

"He fell on his face," said Jacobs when I asked him for a summation. "He lacks people skills."

Brizard "didn't listen to parents and didn't like being challenged," said Hilary Appelman, who has two students in the Rochester schools and runs the Flower City Parents Network, an online forum for discussion of local education issues. "It was hard to get information out of him, and it's wrong for anyone to say he reformed Rochester. Our system is in chaos right now."

Mary Adams, another parent of two students in the Rochester system whom I reached by phone Tuesday, criticized Brizard for being "autocratic and arrogant." She added, "Improve education? Absolutely not! He undermined it."

Our results may vary, of course, though it's hard to see what all the optimism is about

"I'm glad he's leaving," said Adams, "but I'm sorry for the city of Chicago, and I mean that."

Thanks. But we'll be fine. He seems like one of us already.


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