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Shell-shock: why Marj Halperin quit as public school spokesman

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The final straw, says Marj Halperin, came last month when she was ordered to stop talking to reporters about the Board of Education's budget.

It was a strange ultimatum; she was, after all, General Superintendent Ted Kimbrough's press secretary. But it followed months of behind-the-scenes fighting between Halperin and board bureaucrats and members. "They said I didn't promote the schools enough; they said I was too close to Kimbrough," says Halperin. "After a while, I just said 'Forget it.' You can only take so much."

On April 26 Halperin quit, leaving the school system without a chief press spokesman. Not that that's such a terrible calamity--at least not in contrast to, say, the board's looming budget deficit of $600 million. Nonetheless, she did work hard and she was honest to reporters, and her woeful one-year stint at the board's central office reveals some interesting things about school board politics.

"My experience left me shell-shocked," says Halperin. "You hear about the entrenched bureaucracy, but until you're there--until you actually experience it--you can't know what it's like. You have no idea how hard people will fight to preserve their jobs. You can't imagine how resistant they are to change. We would spend hours arguing over the tiniest, most mundane details that had nothing to do with public education. It was enough to drive you mad."

What surprised most observers is that Halperin took the job in the first place. Before that she had been a reporter for WXRT, a free-lance writer, and deputy press secretary for Mayor Daley (a fact that some activists couldn't forgive or forget). On issues of education, she was known as a reformer, a reputation solidified by her December 1988 Chicago magazine article on magnet schools.

"Until that article, I didn't really realize how corrupt the system was," says Halperin. "I discovered a principal who was manipulating the selection process so only high-scoring children were admitted to this particular magnet school. It was cheating, and when I pointed it out to a high-ranking school official, he got angry at me. There was this attitude that you have to cover up, like it never happened."

At the time she was also active in her daughter's north-side school and in the fledgling school-reform movement. "I drove to Springfield in June 1988 to help draft the school-reform law," says Halperin. "I'm proud of that."

The new law was based on the premise that central-office administrators exercised too much control over curriculum and spending. With the reform, each of the system's 540 schools was placed under the jurisdiction of a locally elected council of parents, teachers, and residents. When Halperin accepted Kimbrough's offer in early 1990, many of her longtime reform allies felt she had deserted.

"I never felt Marj was selling out, but there are those who said that," says Joan Jeter Slay, acting executive director of Designs for Change, a school watchdog group. "That must have been hard and made her feel very isolated."

It didn't help that Kimbrough--with a salary-and-benefits package of more than $200,000--stumbled at first, with several ill-conceived attempts to strip authority from the local school councils. When Halperin defended her boss, many former allies were dismayed. How could she shill for an antireformer?

"I didn't agree with all the policies we implemented," says Halperin. "I felt better choices could be made. But if I firmly felt something was wrong, I wouldn't endorse it. I would fight like hell to change it. I had made a choice. I wasn't on the outside anymore; I felt I was fighting for reform on the inside. It's different on the inside. You don't burn the system down when you're on the inside. You can't be a revolutionary."

Her first goal was to take control of all publications issued by the central office. "There are dozens of newsletters, announcements, and policy pronouncements that come out of the central office. Most of them were poorly written and confusing," says Halperin. "For instance, we sent out a general bulletin from the superintendent--it's really a weekly listing of events. In the past, its items were organized by department heads. That is, the first heading was under Robert Saddler's name because he was the deputy superintendent. The second heading was under Margaret Harrigan because she was second because she was the associate superintendent. It didn't make sense. If you didn't know the board hierarchy, you wouldn't be able to find any relevant information. It was just a waste of paper.

"So, I set up a table of contents in which items were arranged alphabetically. If you want to know about curriculum, you look up curriculum. Well, it took weeks to get that change through. Everyone was scared. They said, 'You can't do this.' I said, 'Why?' They said, 'Who would take responsibility for it?' In other words, who would be blamed if some higher-up got angry over the change? I said, 'The hell with it, I'll take responsibility.'"

Resistance was even stronger when she attempted to restructure the board's employee phone book. "The old phone directory was set up according to an organizational chart that only board insiders understood, so the directory was totally useless to the average person," says Halperin. "I wanted each unit to be listed by its functional title, not its organization title. For instance, I wanted the Office for Reform Implementation to be listed under 'r' for 'reform' and not 'o' for 'office,' as it had been. Well, people were absolutely scared to make that kind of change. I had to write two memos saying that, yes, I, Marj Halperin, was the one initiating the change. I spent weeks working that out, wasting time and energy."

More serious was the fact that Halperin became a pawn in a larger dispute between Kimbrough and several board members. As with Kimbrough, Halperin had been hired during the reign of the previous board--the so-called interim board, whose members were handpicked by Mayor Daley. Several school activists contend that Halperin remained a Daley operative throughout her stint as press secretary.

"Marj is too close to Daley," says James Deanes, a member of two local school councils. "It's no coincidence that she got the job. Daley sent her over to watch over Kimbrough."

Daley chose the current school board from a roster limited to nominees approved by a school board nominating commission, and the mayor never concealed his contempt for the restrictions. "The school board nominating commission consists of local school council members; if you believe in reform and local empowerment then you should support this selection system," says Deanes, who's a member of the nominating commission. "Daley has vilified this current board from the outset because they aren't his handpicked puppets, like the old interim board.

"You never heard Marj bad-mouth the interim board, but she has plenty of bad things to say about the current board. In fact, she has nothing good to say about the schools at all. I never saw anything positive in the newspapers about the school system. You only saw negative quotes. She said she wanted to be a policymaker, but that's not her job. Her job is to be a salesman. And if she doesn't want to sell the schools, she shouldn't have the job."

Apparently, several board members felt the same way, even though Halperin's office churned out dozens of weekly press releases filled with happy chatter about the public schools.

"I was either criticized by reformers for issuing too many press releases or criticized by board members for not issuing enough. I couldn't win," says Halperin. "I'm glad James publicly says those things about me, because at least he has the guts to come right out and say what happened is all about politics. Yeah, I worked for Mayor Daley. I worked for him for 18 months out of my 15-year career in media. I'm not ashamed of that. But I did not come to the board as his puppet. I worked for Kimbrough; he's the man who hired me. A lot of board members didn't like that. They wanted me to work for them."

Bickering between Halperin and board members intensified to the point where board member Patricia Daley wrote six memos about Halperin to Kimbrough in four days.

"She wanted a copy of my resume, a printout of my budget, a list of every article I ever wrote, and a copy of my schedule for the last six months--it was all petty harassment," says Halperin. Another memo demanded that board members receive copies of all photographs taken of them. "That was too much. We have a budget deficit, crumbling schools, a bureaucracy so firmly entrenched you have to dig them out, and they're arguing over who [gets] the photographs."

Daley contends she meant no harm by the memos. "I'm a new board member, trying to learn all I can about the system. Anytime I asked Ted Kimbrough a question he said, 'Put it in writing,'" she says.

In March, the board banned Halperin from talking to reporters about the budget. "Kimbrough told me that the board had decided that from now on they didn't even want to see my name in the newspapers," says Halperin. "After that, I knew there was no point for me to stay."

On April 12 Halperin gave Kimbrough two weeks' notice. So far no permanent replacement has been named, and board leaders are acting as though the entire dispute never took place.

"There's no hostility between me and Marj; I hope she does well," says board president Clinton Bristow. "I can't say whether her allegations are true. I don't think we have an entrenched bureaucracy. But my focus has been on the larger issues, so the details she points out, I just don't know about."

As for Halperin, she says she's relieved her ordeal is over. "The week after I quit, I went on a field trip with my daughter's class," says Halperin. "My daughter told her teacher that I had quit my job to go on the field trip. I'm back to being a parent activist now, which is appropriate, because that's what school reform is really all about."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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