The two top education and health officials at Chicago Public Schools are leaving the district and are among several major leadership changes coming in CEO Pedro Martinez’s first few months on the job.
The departures, largely by choice, mean much of former schools chief Janice Jackson’s cabinet has left in the past year, including almost all of the school system’s top Black leaders.
Interim chief education officer Maurice Swinney is resigning and chief health officer Ken Fox is retiring, both effective in February. After Clarence Carson’s ousting as facilities chief this past fall over dirty schools complaints, the district’s three highest-ranking Black men are gone in the span of three months.
Alexandra Sontag, a nurse practitioner who has been a key member of the district’s pandemic response, has also left for a role with the Chicago Department of Public Health.
Martinez is appointing Bogdana Chkoumbova, who oversees the team of administrators that manages the district’s 500-plus principals, to fill the chief education officer role in place of Swinney. That position is essentially the district’s second-in-charge.
District officials confirmed the moves will be up for Board of Education approval at Wednesday’s monthly meeting after the Sun-Times learned of the changes from sources close to CPS’ central office late last week.
In an interview Monday, Martinez said he’s sensitive to the unexpected departure of Black leaders.
“I’ve been very committed to diversity. If you look even at my former district, I’m very proud that over six and a half years I built a very diverse leadership team that had a very, very deep bench that was also diverse,” Martinez said. “And it’s been my commitment publicly here at CPS. If anything I just have not had the time to really be able to build out my team yet. And this is really the first round, and it’s all internal promotions.”
Martinez added he was “hoping [Swinney and Fox would] be part of my team going forward, especially as we continue to navigate through this pandemic.”
Other changes include Adrian Segura moving from interim to permanent family and community engagement chief; Ivan Hansen to full-time facilities chief; Crystal Cooper as permanent chief of staff; and Melissa Stratton as communications chief. Martinez announced the changes to central office staff in an email Monday morning.
Martinez said he’s committed to keeping diversity in mind as he looks for the right people to fill out the rest of his team.
“We are in a point now where, in order for me to put in strong initiatives for next year, this is the time where we begin to plan,” Martinez said of the leadership changes.
The district’s central office leadership, including dozens of mid-level managers, is 41% white, 34% Black, 18% Latino and 4% Asian, a spokeswoman said. Martinez noted that Latinos remain the most underrepresented among the full leadership group. CPS students are 48% Latino, 36% Black, 11% white and 4% Asian, while Chicago’s population is 33% white, 30% Black, 29% Latino and 7% Asian.
Among the top executive team, made up of about a dozen and a half leaders, no more than four Black officials remain.
Chkoumbova is a Bulgarian immigrant who rose through the district from special education teacher, to the founding principal at the Disney II Magnet School, through mid-level management and now the chief education officer. Chkoumbova, along with Lindy McGuire as interim chief operating officer and Martinez as CEO, now make up a top three at CPS that 12 months ago was filled by Jackson, LaTanya McDade and Arnie Rivera.
Martinez tried to bring over two administrators from his former San Antonio district for the education and operating officer positions in the fall, but sources said they backed out of the opportunities.
Swinney spent six years as a CPS principal before he was elevated to lead the district’s then newly created equity office in October 2018, where he oversaw budgets and policies to help address the inequitable allocation of resources. He took over as interim education chief in June when McDade left for the top job in a Virginia district.
Swinney was a rising star at CPS, largely trusted by principals and parent advocates alike in a district where confidence in leadership isn’t always high. Jackson, the former CEO, involved him in various facets of decision-making after she created the equity office, and one of her last moves as CEO was installing Swinney as the interim chief education officer. He was a candidate for filling the position on a full-time basis, a role that now carries a particular importance with the CEO job taken by Martinez, who has never been an educator.
Despite those factors, Swinney submitted his resignation this month. He’s staying with the district through February. He doesn’t have another job lined up.
Fox, the district’s top doctor, was previously retired when he started his role in 2016 and has over 30 years’ experience as a pediatrician. His focus has been on eliminating health-related barriers to learning and considering social factors that affect children’s health. One of his most recent initiatives was to revamp sexual health education and make available free condoms in all schools to promote healthy and safe sexual outcomes.
Fox has been front and center for the school system’s pandemic response but had a recent health scare and wants to spend more time with family. He’s leaving in early February.
Elizabeth Todd-Breland, a school board member, said Swinney and Fox are “major losses” for the district.
“This has been a really hard time to be a leader,” Todd-Breland said Monday. “And I don’t think it’s by accident that we’ve seen so much turnover not just here in Chicago but nationally in school system leaders.”
Todd-Breland, chair of the board’s workforce development and equity committee, which is working toward more racial representation in the educator ranks, said Swinney’s equity efforts are the “north star” which the district should continue to follow. Martinez has said the equity officer position will be filled, likely by an internal candidate.
“I believe very strongly in having a racially representative workforce of our students and families, and certainly making sure that Black leadership is a part of that,” Todd-Breland said. “It has been historically and I believe CEO Martinez also values that.
“It’s something to continue to push for and to reinforce.”
Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, said his primary concern is making certain CPS finds “the best people doing the work for our children.”
But the alderman said he’d also like to ensure “diversity is part of what CEO Martinez is looking at and looking for when he’s making these decisions.”
“If those three African Americans are replaced by individuals who are not African American, of course that will give pause to people,” Ervin said Monday.
“I understand the gentleman wants to bring in his [own] team. But we also need to be respecting the diversity of our city in some of these moves that are made. I have not spoken to him directly about those specific decisions. But I would hope that diversity and diverse candidates are in the conversation.”
Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) said the changes are “upsetting.”
“Those were a lot of quality gentlemen,” Sawyer said. “I understand you want to put your own team in place. But the team so far doesn’t reflect the city of Chicago at all.”
The alderman was particularly saddened to lose Fox, a grammar school classmate.
“I know him to be a quality individual — a very intelligent, most capable doctor,” Sawyer said.
Contributing: Fran Spielman