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The public will weigh in on new school chiefs pick, but mayor will make final call

Mayor Lori Lightfoot greets a Chicago student on March 1, 2021.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot greets a Chicago student on March 1, the day elementary school buildings reopened in the city.
Mila Koumpilova / Chalkbeat

Mayor Lori Lightfoot vowed an unprecedented process to find a new top leader for Chicago Public Schools, with more public participation and transparency than any recent district CEO appointments.

Still, speaking at a virtual town hall Thursday evening with outgoing CEO Janice Jackson and school board President Miguel del Valle, Lightfoot made one thing clear: She will single-handedly make the final call.

Lightfoot spelled out the next steps for the CEO search at the town hall, at which officials tackled pre-submitted questions about the CEO opening, a return to full-time in-person instruction and more. A firm the district has hired will recruit candidates and review the applications. The school board and “other stakeholders” will vet a short list of frontrunners, eventually narrowing it down to several finalists. Then, del Valle and Lightfoot will interview these finalists, and Lightfoot will make her pick.

She said parents and other residents will have opportunities to weigh in on the frontrunners to replace Jackson, who announced this week that she would step down when her contract expires this summer. Lightfoot said the process will stand in stark contrast to how the district’s CEO is usually appointed “behind closed doors.”

“There hasn’t been another mayor in recent memory who has invited public participation in this process,” Lightfoot said. “We’ve heard loud and clear from parents that you want a seat at the table.”

Some parent advocates and the district’s teachers union have called for more involvement in the selection, which comes at a crucial time for Chicago Public Schools as the system gears up to tackle the pandemic’s academic and mental health fallout with billions in federal stimulus dollars. The national search for a new CEO will play out against a push to institute a fully elected school board in the city, where the mayor now appoints the body’s members — a backdrop that increases the pressure to create at least a semblance of public involvement in the CEO pick.

Crucially, the new CEO would preside over reopening the district for full-time in-person instruction. At the town hall, Jackson said attending in person five days a week should be mandatory for all students in the fall, except those with underlying medical conditions.

The district has hired Illinois-based BWP & Associates, which Lightfoot said has “deep experience in exactly these kinds of searches.” In response to a Chalkbeat Chicago request to provide the firm’s contract, officials said it has not been finalized yet. The district said it initially solicited bids from executive search firms to help find a replacement for LaTanya McDade, Jackson’s second-in-command, who announced in March she would take over the Prince William County Public Schools in Virginia.

That request for bids was then tweaked to focus on the CEO search. Notably, the firm also handled the Prince William County superintendent search that recruited McDade away from Chicago.

Reached earlier this week, a BWP executive deferred to the school district until the contract is finalized.

“We’ll have no difficulty finding the right next leader for the schools,” Lightfoot said at the Thursday town hall.

Lightfoot and del Valle said the district will announce multiple opportunities for public engagement with the process soon; those might include surveys, focus groups, and forums with the finalists.

“This is not something that will be done by the mayor and school board chair alone,” del Valle promised.

At the town hall, district leaders also promised beefed-up summer learning offerings that would help students catch up on missed schoolwork, reconnect them to their schools, and prepare them for a fall return to full-time in-person learning. Those will include programs to prepare prekindergarten, kindergarten, ninth and 10th grade students for the fall, expanded programming for English language learners, and new enrichment opportunities for which principals received added funding in school budgets.

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