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No. 1 job for Chicago Public Schools: Resurrect trust

"We’re in for a very, very, very difficult road ahead at CPS, and so the trust is going to be tested," says former Chicago Board of Education President Jesse Ruiz, shown here in December. Sun-Times file photo by Rich Hein.

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How do you restore trust in the Chicago Public Schools?

“We’ve got some very, very trying times in Chicago,” Jesse Ruiz replied. “We’re in for a very, very, very difficult road ahead at CPS, and so the trust is going to be tested.”

No one knows better than Ruiz, who stepped down from the Chicago Board of Education in December in the wake of massive school closings, a tumultuous school strike and an ugly corruption scandal. Today, CPS faces a monstrous budget and pension deficits, another potential strike and a state takeover.

Resurrecting trust is Job 1, said Ruiz and other leading voices Tuesday at the League of Women Voters State of the City luncheon.

OPINION

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I moderated the conversation with Ruiz, now president of the Chicago Park District Board; Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and professor of political science at the University of Illinois and Chicago; and Paul Vallas, former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools.

“Often there are public meetings by the school board and hundreds of people may show up and testify,” Simpson said. “And the general perception is that the school board doesn’t listen, that the decisions don’t follow the will of the people who come before them, the teachers, the parents, the community.”

Ruiz acknowledged the gulf. The board gets its staff briefings, and examines crucial issues, behind closed doors, he said. That inspires suspicion and cynicism. He recommended holding those briefings in public. “Frankly, there are some ways that we need to start acting more like an elected school board … that will help build more of that trust.”

A horde of public officials, educators, activists and parents want an elected school board for Chicago. “That’s not a panacea,” Ruiz said.

From 2004 to 2011, Ruiz served as chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education. There were “three districts we took over,” he recalled, “because of the incompetence of the elected school board,” plagued by “nepotism” and “corruption.”

“I still remember sitting there for five hours at the Calumet Park school board meeting,” he said. “It was chaos. Those people were all rightfully elected where there was nothing we could do to remove them other than come and bail them out.”

Illinois government and politics may be the most corrupt in the nation. Another layer of elective offices is begging for more.

An audience member asked: “Why not use bankruptcy as a reset mechanism?”

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has long called for a CPS bankruptcy. In February, he directed his State Board of Education to begin considering a state takeover of Chicago schools.

“Bankruptcy will really destroy the system,” Vallas replied. Vallas, who also ran school systems in Philadelphia, Bridgeport, Conn., and New Orleans, watched as the city of Detroit went bankrupt in 2013. “The bondholders didn’t get the money that they loaned,” Simpson added. “If I was a bondholder, I would never loan money to the Detroit school system again. And the people who worked and honestly paid their pensions are not getting their full pensions.”

Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy piled up $226 million in legal and accounting fees, Vallas said. “And the city has a budget of like, $900 million. Ponder that for a second.”

Detroit’s schools are “all failing, both financially and academically.” Vallas argued. “So there’s a lot of people who love bankruptcies. We love our bankruptcies …”

Simpson interrupted, “but they’re mostly lawyers and accountants.”

In Chicago, bankruptcy would surely erase any trust that remains.

All agreed that the governor and Illinois legislature should instead work together to create an independent School Finance Authority to oversee CPS troubled finances.

Good luck with that. There’s no trust in Springfield.

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