Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Rahm’s Pick For Chicago’s School Board Is Sure To Make Some People Mad

The pick to replace wealthy businesswoman Penny Pritzker is investment banker Deborah Quazzo, a charter-school advocate and advisor to education companies.

Rahm Emanuel CPS

Photo: Zbignew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune

Rahm Emanuel probably guessed that his pick of millionaire venture capitalist Deborah Quazzo, 52, to replace billionaire Penny Pritzker would infuriate some people. Not just CTU President Karen Lewis, but parents and activists who fear—in the wake of 49 school closings and layoffs of 850 workers, including 500 teachers—a move afoot to weaken the public schools to the point that charter schools, by default, seem the far superior alternative.

Pritzker, who quit the board last March in advance of her nomination as commerce secretary, sent her children to the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (where Rahm sends his) and Quazzo sent her three to the Latin School.

Quazzo’s appointment came three days after a speech Lewis delivered at the City Club of Chicago in which she asked what “rich white people” know about what’s best for minority children. She noted that the one thing these “elites” did know is “what good education looks like because they have secured it for the own children.” 

And, Lewis continued (as if she might have had Quazzo in mind): “When did all these venture capitalists become so interested in the lives of minority students in the first place? There’s sometime about these folks who love the kids but hate their parents … these folks who use little black and brown children as stage props at one press conference while announcing they want to fire, layoff, or lock up their parents at another press conference.”

The office of the mayor of Chicago issued a statement calling Quazzo—bachelor’s, Princeton ’82 and MBA, Harvard ’87—“a life-long advocate for providing children with an education that prepares them for college, career and life…” and touting Quazzo’s “valuable perspective [that] will help make sure we can provide all of our students with a path to a bright future.”

It described the decades-long investment banker for firms such as Merrill Lynch as a “small-business woman,” referring, I guess, to her current gig as “founder [in 2009] and managing partner of GSV Advisors—part of GSV Capital Corp., “a publicly traded investment fund that seeks to invest in high-growth, venture-backed private companies. GSV Advisors is “a firm that provides advisory services to companies in the education and business services sectors.” In plainer language, GSV Advisors invests in firms that that bring high-tech to solving problems in education. An example is GVS-backed DreamBox Learning, online individualized math instruction that, the company claims, “improves early educational outcomes for every child—regardless of zip code.”

We also learn that Quazzo is a board member of Steppenwolf and board chairman of Marwen, an “after-school program that gives disadvantaged young people hands-on experience in visual arts.”  (She replaced Penny Pritzker’s husband, Bryan Traubert.) 

Quazzo is also an ex officio board member of KIPP Chicago (Knowledge is Power Program), a charter school operator; New Schools for Chicago, an organization that raises money for charters; NFTE (Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship) through which she has mentored public school students. The organization’s goal is to teach inner-city kids the skills they need to become successful entrepreneurs.

Whew! 

She has also served on the board of America’s Promise Alliance, founded by General Colin Powell, and Teach for America Chicago, one of Lewis’s many boogeymen because, she charges, it puts the most elite college graduates in the classrooms—it’s said to be more difficult for college seniors to get a TFA spot than to get into Harvard—allowing them to add a notch to their resumes on their way up the ladder at an investment bank or hedge fund. (The Quazzos’ daughter, a Harvard graduate, has worked for Teach for America.)

After the announcement, Karen Lewis, predictably, declared herself “unsurprised at the tone-deafness of the mayor,” noting that Quazzo is a “charter school proponent” and contributor to the campaign of Rahm ($5,000 when he ran for mayor) and to Rahm buddy/advisor Republican Bruce Rauner—Quazzo gave Rauner, a unrelentingly harsh critic of both Lewis/CTU and CPS, $3,500 this year for his run for governor. “This is a missed opportunity,” Lewis lectured, “to include a compassionate voice that will fight for an equitable, thriving school district for all students.”

What more do we know of Quazzo?

Deborah Tyler Hicks grew up in Jacksonville, Florida where her father was a corporate CEO/bank chairman and her mother head of the board of the Jacksonville Art Museum. She moved to Chicago after marrying Stephen Quazzo in 1987, and she lives on Lake Shore Drive. She successfully climbed the ranks of investment banking and venture capital—she worked for J.P. Morgan and, for 13 years, for Merrill Lynch, starting at the latter as an associate in the investment-banking division and rising to managing director and head of the firm’s Global Growth Group.

In 2001, with fellow Merrill Lynch executive Michael Moe, Quazzo cofounded a San-Francisco-based firm (Quazzo was based in the Chicago office) called ThinkEquity Partners, “a research-focused, institutional investment firm boutique concentrating on companies of the`knowledge economy’  [including education], providing “brokerage and investment banking, M&A advisory, and private-placement services and research….” Quazzo became head of its investment banking division.

Six years later, ThinkEquity was acquired by Panmure Gordon, a London-based stockbroker firm, for $62.3 million in stock and cash. ThinkEquity had run into some problems—it had lost “milions” in 2006 “because of high compensation costs for its 180 employees” and “needed a quick capital injection,” according to a 2007 AP report.

Both Quazzo and Moe were given places on Panmure Gordon’s board, but in late 2008 came the announcement by the firm’s US subsidiary, ThinkPanmure, that Quazzo had “decided to leave the firm to pursue other interests.” By 2012, the American subsidiary, renamed again as ThinkEquity—by then both Quazzo and Moe were out—was liquidated and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection.

On the personal side, her husband, Stephen, is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Business School, CEO of Perlmark Real Estate Partners (formerly Transwestern), and previously headed “a subsidiary of investor Sam Zell’s private holding company.”  He started his career at Goldman, Sachs.  Stephen Quazzo is also a trustee of Latin. For students of the New York Times Sundays wedding announcement, theirs reads like a description of a corporate merger.

How much this business background means for Quazzo’s management of CPS remains to be seen.

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