Jesse Ruiz, one of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first appointees and the last remaining Latino member on the Chicago Board of Education overseeing a district that’s nearly half Hispanic, said Tuesday he will be replaced by another Latino when he departs for the Chicago Park District.
“There is a commitment that the next person who’s going to fill my role is also going to be Latino,” he told the Sun-Times in an interview. “The mayor’s incredibly conscious of the importance of diversity. I realize that’s one of the reasons I was on the school board. I’d like to think it’s just because of my background and, you know, my incredible talents but it also has to do with the fact that I’m Latino and I happen to bring that perspective to the board.”
Emanuel’s office has only said he’ll name a successor before January.
Ruiz said he hasn’t offered any recommendations but trusts the mayor and Latino Advisory Council to find someone qualified.
His formal resignation next week from the board overseeing CPS’ $6 billion operating budget to accept the presidency of the $450 million Park District also ends his 17-year formal tenure in public service to schools. The 50-year-old was the chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education from 2004 to 2011, when he accepted Emanuel’s appointment to the city’s school board. Before ISBE, Ruiz also served five years on a CPS desegregation monitoring commission.
Ruiz sat down Tuesday to talk about his four and a half years as school board vice president, during which he cast votes to close a historic number of public schools and to approve a no-bid contract that resulted in federal indictments against CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and company owners. When the scandal broke in April, it also suddenly turned Ruiz, a partner at the law firm Drinker, Biddle & Reath and married father of two sons, into Byrd-Bennett’s day-to-day replacement for about three months.
Sun-Times: How long did you have to decide whether to take the CEO position?
Jesse Ruiz: A number of hours. It was an urgent case. … Not many folks get an opportunity to step into a job like that and take on a higher level public service full-time job while still having the luxury of knowing their day job is waiting for them at the end of it. It was a rare opportunity.
S-T: What’s something you did right at CPS?
Ruiz: Engaging a little bit more. We got there and we had a system where people still had to get up at the crack of dawn to sign up to speak at board meetings and that was something I noticed, that (former board president) David Vitale noticed. We immediately got on that and automated that system ’cause I thought, “No wonder some folks are kind of testy when they get up there to talk if they’ve been waiting for five hours, there’s got to be a better way to do that.” … Trying to be customer-focused and customer-friendly.
S-T: What can new board members learn from some of your missteps such as the SUPES contract vote?
Ruiz: There’s a couple of things there that I wish we might have caught but if people really, really, really want to deceive you, human beings have an incredible knack for figuring out ways to do that. It unfortunately keeps happening. And we’re going to keep trying to elevate ways to make sure that they can’t. … We reformed the (no-bid contract) process that started this past summer. … Hopefully management appreciates that the role of the board is to respectfully challenge them on anything they’re proposing and to really kick the tires on everything and to make sure we’ve addressed every possible shortfall in every proposal we can think of.
S-T: What other systems could be in place to make that easier for the board?
Ruiz: Something I’ve advocated is perhaps doing our board briefings in public like ISBE does where you have all the board members present, an additional meeting of the board, and challenging folks publicly. Unfortunately, one of the things that is at times frustrating, is that folks don’t see how much work goes on behind the scenes, and perhaps we should show them a bit more of that work so they can have faith and confidence in the system to know, this is what happens, this is how many hours and hours of questioning of management that happens behind the scenes.
S-T: Any indication that’ll actually happen?
Ruiz: That’s up to this board and management. But I would encourage them to explore it. It’s something that could change the public’s perception of the board and how it functions.
S-T: Is the board aware that many members of the public don’t trust you?
Ruiz: Oh yes, I’m very much aware of it. … I was frankly opposed to the physical setup of the space. We sit up there like we’re an appellate court. At the State Board of Education, we were U-shaped, ground level and we seemed more accessible. (At CPS) it looks more like a courtroom, it doesn’t look like a school board meeting. Just the physical setup of things, that we’re kind of apart and above … sends the wrong message. … The other thing I think we get tagged with is that we’re a corporate board. They see me who I am today. They didn’t see where I came from or what my background is. That I grew up in Roseland where my family still predominantly lives. That I understand where they’re coming from. Because in some cases, it might be the same exact place they’re coming from.
S-T: Meanwhile, there will be no Latinos on the board.
Ruiz: The things that folks have to get a little bit above is that yes, we all come from certain communities, and yes, it’s great to bring those perspectives but education is universal and it transcends all our communities. … Highlighting it if we’re not doing it for certain communities — that’s where a certain background can help, like I did with (English Language Learners). … The majority, but not all. ELL students are Spanish speakers, predominantly Latino. So yes, that there’s some unique background and knowledge is helpful.