The Inside Scoop on CMSD CEO Eric Gordon’s Resignation

Justin Bibb, education power players and the future of the Cleveland Plan

Eric Gordon in September announcing his impending resignation - CMSD/Twitter
CMSD/Twitter
Eric Gordon in September announcing his impending resignation

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb phoned local educational leaders and political allies on the day Cleveland schools CEO Eric Gordon announced his forthcoming resignation, multiple sources told Scene, trying delicately to evade culpability by communicating that the decision was Gordon’s alone.

Bibb’s personal outreach included calls to Shari Obrenski, President of the Cleveland Teachers Union, Ronn Richard, President and CEO of the Cleveland Foundation, John Ryan, the state director for Sen. Sherrod Brown, and other prominent stakeholders.

Gordon, beloved by students and cherished by the armada of local nonprofits working in the education arena, has held the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s top post since 2011. Before that, he served for four years as its Chief Academic Officer. His tenure has coincided with the design and implementation of the Cleveland Plan, the multi-pronged blueprint for local school reform, and the marquee achievements therefrom, including a high school graduation rate that skyrocketed from 52% in 2011 to better than 80% in 2019. (It dipped back into the 70s during Covid.)

Gordon’s leadership has been heralded as a stabilizing force after a dismal procession of clowns and crooks at CMSD. In more than a dozen interviews that Scene conducted for this story, colleagues and friends praised him as a consummate professional and total sweetheart. Even those who have disagreed with him on policy and operational decisions in the past cited his accessibility, his compassion, and his tireless commitment to students.

Gordon’s bombshell Sept. 12 announcement, that he would resign at the end of the 2022-2023 school year, betokened – to some – a rift between him and the Bibb administration. Mark Naymik of Signal Cleveland, while first breaking the news on Twitter, alluded to tension between Gordon and City Hall, referencing disagreements about charter schools.

Gordon himself cast the decision as largely a strategic matter, saying that with the district’s finances, facilities and personnel in good shape, conditions were optimal for a transition. He said that announcing his decision early would give the mayor and school board a lengthy runway to select his successor. (An RFP was issued last month for an executive search firm to lead that work.)

“The best thing a leader can do is set the next leader up for success,” Gordon told the CMSD News Bureau on Sept. 13. “I’m not leaving because I’m tired or burnt out. I could have been selfish and stayed. I still love this work.”

Nevertheless, the job took its toll. Gordon joked during his State of the Schools address that he hadn’t turned off his cell phone in 15 years and couldn’t remember the last time he’d leisurely read a book before bed. Sources close to Gordon confirmed that presiding over the schools during Covid had been especially taxing. He was forced to wear multiple hats and work even longer hours than usual.

“I’d regularly see Eric for a 5:30 or 6:00 p.m. meeting,” said Dr. Sajit Zachariah, the longtime Dean of CSU’s College of Education and Human Services and a founding member of the Cleveland Transformation Alliance. “For most of us, that was the end of our day. But Eric was usually off to another meeting when it was over.”

In public statements, both Bibb and Gordon maintained that they enjoyed a healthy and productive working relationship. Multiple close associates, including Bibb’s Education Chief Holly Trifiro and the Cleveland Transformation Alliance Executive Director Meghann Marnecheck, told Scene that nothing in their experience led them to believe otherwise. Marnecheck said that she witnessed and partook in multiple conversations about charter schools on the Transformation Alliance, which the Mayor chairs, and never sensed tension in that setting.

But sources who spoke to Scene under condition of anonymity told a different story: They said that Bibb treated Gordon callously; that he viewed Gordon as “an employee, not the leader of a major urban school district”; that he was high on his own supply and hellbent on disruption for disruption’s sake; and that whether he intended to or not, he undermined Gordon’s leadership in public pursuit of rapid progress.

As mayor, these sources said, Bibb saw himself as the leader and change-agent of Cleveland’s schools, and that this hubris led to a series of miscalculations that resulted in Gordon’s forthcoming departure and – for the first time in his young tenure – open skepticism among institutional stakeholders about Bibb’s leadership.

In the more generous interpretations, Bibb did these things inadvertently. He surfed into the mayor’s office on a wave of good will and was, justifiably, motivated by the mandate for urgent change that voters issued in the Nov. 2021 election. He wanted to move fast and take bold action, and he wasn’t bashful about demanding more and better from everyone, even respected leaders.

But from another vantage point, Bibb was careless, craving innovation above all else, and too often chased headlines without having done his homework. Both the failed attempt to expunge marijuana convictions en masse and the recent re-apportionment of dollars initially intended for the Lead Safe Fund were referenced as “debacles” in a similar vein. Bibb was pursuing big, splashy wins, the criticism held, to pad his resume for the next political stop. On top of that, he was alleged to have private interests, notably charter school executives, in his ear, shaping educational prerogatives that centered high-quality schools, not high-quality public schools, (an important distinction about which, some sources were distressed to observe, the mayor didn’t seem particularly concerned.)

In any case, the rumblings and finger-pointing at the Foundations and elsewhere began almost immediately after Gordon’s announcement. The mayor was thought to be taken aback by the outpouring of support for Gordon and related concerns about his vision for charter school expansion. That’s why sources suspect Bibb hit the phones that day, to patch up the levees before they publicly breached. He reassured Cleveland’s education and philanthropic big wigs of his commitment to the Cleveland Plan and, to the extent he could, deflect blame.

“It was like that Shaggy song,” one source said. “It wasn’t me.”

Indeed, the administration has strenuously rejected to Scene all notions that Bibb was responsible for Gordon’s decision, noting that it was Gordon himself who communicated to Bibb, in a meeting on Aug. 1, that he wouldn’t be seeking a contract renewal.

In response to a series of questions from Scene, Bibb issued the following statement:

“Every child in the city of Cleveland deserves access to a high-quality education. My education has been the foundation of my ability to lead and to work with others effectively. I know how much education matters for our kids and their families. My desire to accelerate progress for our students is grounded in the reality that too many of our kids do not have the essential skills they need to be successful and too many do not have access to the high-quality learning experiences that engage them and prepare them to make meaningful contributions to our society. The pandemic dramatically impeded our kids’ progress as shown in the National Assessment of Education Progress scores released this week. I believe the Cleveland Plan set the right foundation for change and I can appreciate the time and challenges inherent in changing a complex system. But at this moment, we need to be focused on ensuring that all of our kids, families and educators have what they need to be successful. We need our full community focused on helping our kids catch up – particularly in literacy where we have seen such a significant impact locally.”

“I believe the Cleveland Plan set the right foundation for change and I can appreciate the time and challenges inherent in changing a complex system. BUT—” isn’t quite the message local stakeholders will be tickled to hear.

Multiple sources communicated their belief that Bibb doesn’t appreciate the time and challenges inherent in changing a complex system at all. Fully a quarter of CMSD’s 36,000 students are designated as having a disability, for example. A significant number of them have been poisoned by lead paint. Many of them live in extreme poverty, food insecurity, and are proximate to the trauma of gun violence on a regular basis. The Cleveland Plan succeeded in spite of these devastating social and economic factors, sources noted, and it’s ludicrous to believe that a viable policy solution in this context is simply to give more money to charter schools.

“The truth is he doesn’t have a solution,” one source said. “I believe in his heart that he honestly cares about schools, but he has no ideas. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

***

Justin Bibb appointed Holly Trifiro as his Chief of Education on Feb. 15. Trifiro, the former director of Teach for America in Ohio, was unveiled alongside Sonya Pryor-Jones, who was appointed Chief of Youth and Family Success.

“Education is the foundation for a stronger future, and Cleveland’s children are a priority for this administration,” Bibb said in a press release at the time. “In order to implement our new vision, we need collaborative city-wide efforts to deliver an ecosystem of support that strengthens families and neighborhoods. These two leaders will focus on the success of our children and their families from early childhood to adulthood.”

Trifiro’s first day on the City Hall payroll was Feb. 28, but she didn’t start working full-time until June 1, an arrangement not previously known.

Trifiro told Scene that at the time of her appointment, there had been a leadership transition at TFA’s national office, and as such there was no one to hire her replacement in Ohio. She worked part-time for the city while coordinating her succession plan at TFA.

These were pivotal months.

Cleveland.com’s Courtney Astolfi broke the news that the Cleveland School Board was prepared to offer Gordon a contract extension this spring, but it was contingent upon Mayor Bibb’s approval, which never came. Bibb said he hadn’t had time to meet with Gordon to discuss the future. And for that matter, he hadn’t yet decided if he wanted Gordon in charge. (In the view of some critics, Bibb was arrogating unto himself a selection that was ultimately the school board’s to make.)

The Plain Dealer editorial board bashed Bibb for dilly-dallying.

“It’s not clear that Bibb understands what an immense loss to the district this will be,” an Oct. 2 editorial read, “or how disrespectful it was to leave Gordon hanging in that way for months, to not even show him the common courtesy of a meeting.”

While it’s true that Bibb and Gordon never discussed his contract explicitly, it was not the case that Bibb and Gordon did not meet until the fateful encounter on Aug. 1. Quite the contrary. Multiple sources told Scene that Bibb and Gordon met regularly for the first few months of 2022. And Trifiro confirmed that they had a standing weekly meeting. Once she started full time in June, the Bibb-Gordon meetings shifted to “a monthly cadence.”

Trifiro said that while the administration was aware the Board was considering re-appointing Gordon, Bibb had requested more time to iron out his own vision.

“Eric’s contract was not up until June of 2023,” she said. “Candidly, it was not flashing on our screen as something we had to address right this minute. The conversations [Bibb and Gordon] were having were not about long-term vision. They were really focused on what was most pressing for families and kids in the district. It was a pretty continuous set of crises.”

Trifiro said that in her observations, the working relationship between Bibb and Gordon was strong and guided by mutual respect. She said she found it “fascinating” that sources had suggested Eric was ever publicly or privately undermined.

“What I would say is that the new administration works in different ways than the last administration,” she said. “That’s not good or bad, but it is requiring some change and some new relationship-setting for that work to really happen. I think everybody needs to recognize that building up trust takes time.”

On the larger question of the mayor’s educational priorities, particularly as it pertained to charter schools, Trifiro said that Bibb was open to a “broad set of solutions” to address the enormous educational impacts of Covid.

“What’s true about the mayor,” she said, “is that he understands that getting the kind of educational outcomes and opportunities that we want for all our kids requires solutions that happen in school and out of school. And we’re not taking off the table the notion that charter schools in our community can contribute to learning. They are serving a meaningful number of kids and we need to be attentive to their success as well.”

Trifiro rejected unequivocally the idea that education was not a priority for the Bibb administration and reframed a critique of her early part-time status.

“There was a conversation about me potentially waiting to come on until June,” she said. “But the Mayor felt like there was so much important work in education to be done, and that the challenges were so immense, that we wanted to ensure City Hall was leaning in and providing as much support as possible through that period.”

Trifiro also pointed out that education was a core part of the mayor’s transition, and that Eric Gordon and a number of the Cleveland Plan’s stakeholders served on the education subcommittee.

“It’s not like he forgot,” she said. “It’s not like he wasn’t paying attention.”

***

Like many of Eric Gordon’s friends and colleagues outside CMSD, Cleveland City Council President Blaine Griffin had no advance notice of the CEO’s decision. Also like others, he heard from members of the Cleveland Plan coalition the day of Gordon’s resignation, who called him to share concerns about what the departure portended.

Griffin said he reached out to Bibb immediately to express concerns of his own.

“I was concerned about charter schools and privatization in general,” Griffin told Scene. “My position is that I am a staunch believer in public education. I’ve put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into helping change the trajectory of this school district, and I wanted to ensure that [the administration] intended to preserve and protect CMSD, and to preserve and protect the momentum we’ve been building since 2012.”

Griffin said that Bibb scheduled a meeting between Griffin and Trifiro in the ensuing days, and that Trifiro communicated to Griffin that the administration would be putting some of its proposals and activities “on pause” until they had a clearer understanding of where they intended to go with the district.

The administration’s direction will come into sharper focus this week.

City Hall intends to release a report Thursday on its priorities for education, the result of a summer listening tour with students, parents, educators, clergy, and the Greater Cleveland Partnership.

(An aside: Ideastream’s Conor Morris noted on Sept. 23, that the Mayor met in April with Jimmy and Dee Haslam and Jamie Woodson, a former Republican state legislator and charter school advocate in Tennessee who now serves as an advisor to the Haslam 3 Foundation, the Browns owners’ philanthropic arm. Trifiro, who attended the meeting as well, characterized it to Scene as an “exploratory conversation” to learn about the Haslams’ priorities in education. The meeting resulted in their financial support for the listening tour.)

Bibb teased the highlights of the report at a Directors meeting of the Cleveland Transformation Alliance last week.

“The headline is that we’re doubling down on the Cleveland Plan,” he said.

He identified priorities in the areas of Safety, (including safe routes to school and out-of-school opportunities); Facilities, (including a comprehensive review of all CMSD buildings and a focus on equitable access); and Academic Preparation, (including a 2023 citywide literacy campaign, the launch of “learning innovation centers” and attempts to increase teacher diversity). The administration also wants to “build on what’s working” and “elevate parent voices.”

After his presentation, Bibb was asked what exactly he meant by “doubling down” on the Cleveland Plan. Did this refer to a literal doubling of resources, or was this just a figure of speech?

“It’s not a figure of speech,” he said. “It’s a commitment that I intend to execute as mayor. Number one, I’m putting $20 million of American Rescue Plan dollars to support education …. We want children to be able to graduate from CMSD, go to CSU and pass English 101. That’s success. We can talk about data and numbers, but making sure that children and families, regardless of the neighborhood they live in, have access to a high-quality option that meets their needs: that’s my focus as mayor.”

Eric Gordon is a member of the Cleveland Transformation Alliance and was in attendance. He remains the CEO of CMSD until the end of the current school year. But he did not receive the Mayor’s presentation outlining his priorities until the morning of the meeting, an illustration to some of the lack of communication and collaboration from City Hall.

Gordon himself declined to be interviewed for this story. CMSD’s media relations team provided the same statement that has been provided elsewhere, in which Gordon said he made his decision “based solely on what I think is right for the district at this time.”

That statement corresponds to his message at the State of the Schools address, in which he emphasized the importance of setting up the next CEO for success.

But sources told Scene that the decision was also tactical, related to the current constitution of the CMSD School Board. The nine-member body is appointed by the mayor, and in June, the terms of five members will expire. (School board members who Scene reached for comment were unwilling to discuss the circumstances surrounding Gordon’s departure.)

Though according to state ordinance, the next CEO will be selected by the school board with the concurrence of the Mayor – and though Gordon himself was appointed due in large part to the advocacy of former Mayor Frank Jackson – by bowing out now, Gordon ensures that the current board will determine his successor, not a board composed of majority Bibb appointees who may hew to a different set of priorities. According to a CMSD RFP, the contract for an executive search firm will begin this month, with the goal of hiring the next CEO “by April or May of 2023.”

Even the sources most critical of Bibb and most suspicious of charter school expansion said they were confident that CMSD would land promising candidates to carry on Eric Gordon’s legacy. Both the financial position of the district and the robust community support make the job an attractive one, sources said.

But robust community support can be a double-edged sword. The major nonprofits, foundations and business interests that have invested so much time and money in the Cleveland Plan aren’t liable to be amenable to a change of course 10 years in. These institutional power players expect political leaders to “collaborate,” another way of saying, “play by their rules.” The impression conveyed by a number of sources was that Bibb should have been far more deferential in the early going, both to Gordon and to the coalition partners. In fact, one of the ‘miscalculations’ that sources referenced seemed to be attitudinal: They didn’t appreciate that Bibb was walking around like he owned the place.

But from the perspective of Bibb and his team, he sort of does. After running a spectacular political campaign in 2021, he and his administration operate from a position of firm, if occasionally grating, resolve. They embrace the aura of overachieving thirtysomethings who don’t have to put up with an institutional old guard if they don’t want to. They recognize that the major private stakeholders in Cleveland expect political leaders to kiss their rings.

But Bibb’s position is: I’m mayor now. My ring is bigger.

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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