Mid-Renaissance Move (Chicago IL)

Richmond resignation leaves Renaissance 2010 without a clear leader.

In a move that surprised some – but not all – of Chicago’s education community, charter schools guru Greg Richmond announced his resignation from the Board of Education on Wednesday, leaving the district’s Renaissance 2010 initiative without a clear leader just as it begins its second round of school openings and closings.

Richmond’s departure reveals (and resolves) some of the long-standing conflicts that have arisen during recent months among various powerful players and offices within the Board and among the funding and business community.

In particular, the move may consolidate future leadership of the initiative under New Schools for Chicago, headed by Phyllis Martin, and a new management team established outside of Richmond's New Schools Development office.

Describing Renaissance 2010 as “off to a strong start,” Richmond’s resignation letter states that he is leaving of his own volition after 10 years at the Board in order to take over as president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a Washington, DC-based national organization he helped found (and a position he already holds), starting in early March.

Indeed, there is no indication that Richmond was forced out. Richmond came to the Board as a downstate lobbyist during the mid-1990s, and then helped found the charter schools office in 1997.

While sudden, Richmond’s departure had been rumored among Chicago insiders at various times over the past year.

Early in the fall, Richmond was given a direct report to schools CEO Arne Duncan, according to one insider, giving his New Schools Development Office independence from COO Vitale, former CEO of the Chicago Board of Trade, and CAO Eason-Watkins.

But fundamental problems remained, according to many.

‘Greg never had budget support,” said John Ayers, the recently-departed head of LQE. “He did a remarkable job with just seven people.” Indeed, questions of funding and control had surrounded Renaissance 2010 from its announcement in June: Uncertain funding for 100 new schools (Catalyst).

“It was a constant roller-coaster ride,” said LQE’s Pam Clarke. “Things were worked out, then they weren’t.”

Most recently, in December, project implementation staff from the orphaned Mid-South Initiative (including Karen Daniels and Lisa Schneider) were reportedly put under Eason-Watkins, rather than being integrated within Richmond’s office. This was done at the urging of New Schools for Chicago, according to a source who says that the idea was to have Richmond and his staff help pick new schools but give ongoing responsibility for getting them started and running to others with more of a project management mentality.

Some indications of the struggle going on for control over Renaissance 2010 have been covered since the summer, mostly in the Chicago Sun-Times:

In September, the Sun-Times covered a protest staged outside Vitale’s house, at which protesters called Vitale the “hidden hand” behind the Mid-South and Renaissance 2010 initiatives. (Ironically, Vitale may have had relatively little to do with either.)

In November, another article from the Sun-Times highlighted concerns about the potentially undue influence of New Schools for Chicago, which one Julie Woestehoff of PURE called a “secret cabinet.”

In a December letter to the editor, New Schools board chairman Don Lubin responded that these concerns were unwarranted, and that the New Schools board would “leave to educators the task of operating them and educating our children.”

While refusing to discuss specific details, Richmond did allude to some of the issues that made the last year so difficult:

“The Board is a hard place to work,” said Richmond in a telephone interview. “It always has been, and it always will be.”

“While everyone thought I ran Renaissance 2010,” said Richmond about his very public roll in presenting and implementing the early phase of the initiative, “not everyone working on Renaissance 2010 worked for me.”

In his resignation letter, Richmond praises the hard work of his staff and pays special thanks to John Ayers, the recently-departed executive director of LQE, as “the first person who pushed CPS to embrace charter schools and continued to serve as their primary advocate until earlier this year.” (See: Waiting for the Other Shoe To Drop)

The combined loss of Richmond and Ayers – two of the city’s most knowledgeable and savvy charter school advocates -- raises new questions about whether Renaissance 2010 can succeed.

“They really are responsible for bringing high-quality charter schools to Chicago,” said Clarke about the Richmond-Ayers duo. “This is a big loss to Chicago.”

A third source of expertise, Mike Klonsky at the Small Schools Workship, has also been largely frozen out of the CHSRI and Renaissance 2010 processes, though Klonsky continues to work with individual schools.

One key area of concern in Richmond’s absence is the Board’s community relations capacity, which was sorely wanting last summer during the ham-handed rollout of the Mid-South Initiative and the ill-timed effort to push a Naval Academy at Senn High School. Mid-South was quickly shelved. The Naval Academy was approved over intense community objections.

Community opposition to the parts of Renaissance 2010 that Richmond spearheaded has generally been much more muted. Richmond said he particularly relished the community involvement work that he did as part of helping community groups and transitional advisory committees decide which proposals to accept, even though it frequently forced him to face the ire of advocates and community members opposed to the Mayor's plan. See: Gutsy leader in the 'hot seat' with schools plan (Chicago Sun Times).

For his part, Richmond believes that Renaissance 2010 “will be fine” without him. And indeed, that may be true. In recent months, the Board has improved and developed its school closing and opening processes compared to last year, and opponents have thus far been unable to muster enough attention to slow down the new/small/charter schools juggernaut.

However, Richmond's departure does help shine a light on some of the powerful forces at work within and around the Board of Education: the business community that pressed for Renaissance 2010, existing foundation-funded entities such as CHSRI and the local funding community, the powerful but usually unseen COO David Vitale, who controls the budgets and the buildings, and the influence of City Hall.

“To some extent,” said Ayers about recent events, “Greg and I are road kill.”

See also:
Charter schools trailblazer resigns Chicago Tribune


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