The turn-around queen
Cleveland's leader, one of the highest paid superintendents, earns her keep by setting the foundation for students learning
She misses the pizza. She misses her family, and her hairstylist. There is much to miss about any home, but Barbara Byrd-Bennett's home happens to be New York City.
In Cleveland there is no Lincoln Center, no childhood memories of Harlem, but the city more than makes up for the loss.
It has unequivocally embraced her as the school system's chief executive officer, although she stands out like a tourist does in Times Square. "I dress different, I talk different, I look different," she says, chuckling.
When she asked two elections ago for a $335 million bond issue for capital projects, she got it by a 60 percent margin. "It was a real message to me that the administration could be trusted with their dollars," she says.
Support continued this August, when the mayor-appointed Cleveland Board of Education increased her salary from $198,000 to $275,000, making her at least one of the top five highest paid superintendents in the country.
But perhaps the strongest message Cleveland has sent her yet came in November.
Byrd-Bennett made it clear she would leave her post if the city reverted to an elected school board instead of one appointed by the mayor. When the issue was put to a vote, slightly more than 70 percent elected to keep mayoral control, and thus keep Byrd-Bennett.
She left New York in 1998 so she could work under this particular governance structure with then-Mayor Michael White. Asking voters, however, to give up their right to vote for an elected board this fall was still a struggle. "Especially as an African-American," she notes.
The Civil Rights movement and the "power of the people" profoundly influence Byrd-Bennett, but she wants autonomy when running a school system. Working with an ever-changing set of elected officials who have political debts often results in loss of focus and direction, high turnover and too much change, she says.
Cleveland was taken over by the state in 1996 due to poor performance. Contentious labor relations, fiscal and academic crisis and 11 superintendents in 18 years were realities. Given control of the board in 1998, White recruited Byrd-Bennett. Despite the mayor's support, Byrd-Bennett had to win over the city. "It was a test every minute," she notes.
Byrd-Bennett's style is direct and honest, says Leaura Materassi, the district's chief instructional officer and colleague of more than 20 years.
"She believes that people are charged with doing good for others. It is a driving force in her life," Materassi says. "She sort of calls it like it is, and people appreciate that about her."
A Teacher at 19
Materassi also points out her friend's record of turning low-performing schools around. Before coming to Cleveland, Byrd-Bennett was responsible for direct oversight of New York City's lowest performing public schools. Prior to that, she was a superintendent in Brooklyn.
This is a woman who graduated high school in Harlem at 16 and was able to start teaching there at 19. "I had to get a special waiver from the state," she says. Having the resume she did started her off on the right foot in Cleveland.
When she first started negotiations with Cleveland's unions, Byrd-Bennett recalls serious trust issues. At one point she was negotiating with some transportation workers and found out that only those who were full-time were getting health insurance. "I said, 'Find the money. Get it for them.' "
These same workers had children in the schools, and when she arrived some 61 percent of the students were not properly immunized. Now, the district has around 95 percent of its children properly immunized.
In 2000, she completed contracts with the unions, and currently there is a contract extension to 2005.
Other accomplishments have established her reputation, as well. Attendance has risen from 80 percent to 96 percent, and the district, $200 million in debt when she came, is now $33 million in the black. New Yorker or Clevelandite, Byrd-Bennett makes things happen.
Amy D'Orio, email@example.com, is a contributing editor.