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More leadership changes for Chicago schools as No. 2 administrator, chief medical officer depart

Chicago schools equity chief Maurice Swinney speaks at the first public meeting on revamping Chicago’s school budget.

As chief equity officer, Maurice Swinney led a series of public meetings on revamping school budgets and more equitable allocations. Swinney, who was promoted to interim No. 2 at Chicago Public Schools, announced he is stepping down.

Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat

Six months into the tenure of CEO Pedro Martinez, there’s another wave of personnel changes at Chicago Public Schools: The district’s interim No. 2, Maurice Swinney, is stepping down; the chief medical officer, Dr. Kenneth Fox, is retiring; and Martinez is internally promoting several administrators to top roles. 

The district’s new CEO also is hoping to boost Chicago Public Schools’ position in Springfield with a hire from Texas. 

The most high-profile change is the departure of Swinney, a Louisiana native, a beloved former principal who served as the district’s first chief equity officer. After a series of top officials said they were leaving last spring, Swinney was promoted to chief education officer – second-in-command in Chicago Public Schools. Citing the “drain” of public service, he said Wednesday he will step down at the end of February to “heal.” 

“Public service takes a lot out of us,” Swinney told the school board. “It is time to move on. I’m ready to heal, rejuvenate, think, and allow my mind and heart to see new, non-existent possibilities and partner with other creatives on how we respond to the emerging needs of Chicagoans coming out of this pandemic.”

In the past year, Chicago Public Schools has experienced multiple departures among top leaders. CEO Janice Jackson did not renew her contract last spring, and her top lieutenants, LaTanya McDade and Arne Rivera, departed the district. 

Martinez, a Chicago Public Schools graduate who was hired away from San Antonio Independent School District last September, previously recommended two outside hires for their replacements, but withdrew that recommendation, saying he wanted to continue to steer the district with interim chiefs in key advisory positions. Lindy McGuire will continue as the district’s interim operations chief, a key role when it comes to finance, staffing, and daily logistics. 

Martinez said he will promote the district’s chief of schools, Bogdana Chkoumbova, a former principal, network chief, and 20-year district veteran, into the role of chief education officer. Her former job is now among several open leadership positions at Chicago Public Schools.

Also promoted in the recent administrative leadership changes is Ivan Hansen, a former deputy commissioner of facilities for City Hall who has been overseeing the district’s $1.5 billion capital plan, construction projects, and COVID-related ventilation improvements. He fills a role vacated by Clarence Carson, who was ousted in November over ongoing dirty schools complaints.

Melissa Stratton, who previously worked in external affairs for the Chicago Police Department, has been officially named chief communications officer after running the department on an interim basis. 

Among other changes, a spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday that Martinez will also deepen his policy bench with the hire of Seth Rau, an Austin-based policy director at Empower Schools. Rau formerly worked for the San Antonio school district in a state policy role, similar to what he will take on for Chicago Public Schools. Charles Swirsky will continue on as acting chief of public policy and focus on the federal and local levels.

Swinney offered no specifics about his next job but said he will be staying in Chicago. He said Wednesday that it was his decision to leave — something that Martinez affirmed. 

“When he told me, I asked him: How much time do I have to change your mind?,” Martinez acknowledged Wednesday.

Board members said Swinney’s departure was a loss and described his lasting impact on the district. 

Swinney, who was named chief equity officer in 2018 by Jackson, was instrumental in creating an equity grant program to help prop up struggling schools and in spurring reconciliatory conversations with community groups and parent advocacy organizations around chronic problems in special education and distribution of resources. His office established the district’s first equity framework to assess district-level budgeting and programming. 

Also leaving the district is Dr. Kenneth Fox, the chief medical officer. Board members said Wednesday that Fox came out of retirement to steer the district through the pandemic and helped it navigate an unprecedented shift in responsibilities around COVID, from launching a contact tracing team to rolling out a testing plan. 

Fox said Wednesday that the role of essentially being a community pediatrician was one of the most thrilling and challenging of his career.

Chicago has struggled, like many other districts, with rolling out districtwide programs around testing and vaccination — but its struggles have made national news due to the push from the city’s teachers union to secure a safety agreement and a subsequent standoff over remote learning. The district’s testing program, in particular, has hit multiple roadblocks, from delays in implementation to tepid sign-ups among students and families — an issue that helped galvanize the city’s teachers union to push hard for a reopening agreement after winter break. 

Swinney was at times emotional Wednesday as he described his reasons for leaving the district during a tenuous time for students and educators, not just in Chicago but in districts across the country. 

“Even without a global pandemic, our students, educators, and schools are facing many challenges,” Swinney said Wednesday. “My ask to everyone who has a vested interest in public education in Chicago: Please do not cancel each other out. We must balance calling people out with calling people in. The unjust systems are older than all of us and older than everyone who is trying to do good. How can we expect our students to have restorative conversations if we are not ready to have those conversations as adults?”

Chicago Public Schools had not yet named a replacement chief equity officer, but Swinney said the role will be filled. 

“Part of the job is for everyone to learn to do the work,” he said Wednesday when asked what advice he’d have for the district moving forward. “The frame creates the base and foundation to which we build other things. The office also stands as a place to audit, to review, to look at work, to make sure we are actually fulfilling promises and the commitments we’ve made.”

Mauricio Peña contributed reporting.

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