Four months ago, the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus demanded to know why Mayor Rahm Emanuel bypassed Jesse Ruiz for the job of school board president when it was Ruiz who rode to the rescue after a federal investigation forced the ouster of schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.
On Friday, aldermen got their answer and Ruiz got a consolation prize. He’s the new president of the Chicago Park District replacing Bryan Traubert, the husband of U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.
Emanuel, who is on a brief trade mission to China, announced the changing of the guard in a news release.
Ruiz is being appointed to the board that oversees the Chicago Park District to replace Traubert, who is stepping down at the end of this year, with the recommendation that he be elected president. It’s the same job Traubert has held since 2010.
“Jesse and Bryan are both committed public servants who have worked tirelessly to improve Chicago’s schools and parks,” Emanuel was quoted as saying.
“Jesse’s leadership is ideal to build on the incredible progress made during Bryan’s tenure. Jesse is the perfect choice to lead the Park District Board as it moves forward under the long-term plan for our parks that I will outline later this year.”
Friday night, Ruiz said he was “honored” the mayor offered him the job but would not say whether he considered it a promotion.
“It’s not about rank, it’s about opportunities to serve; this is another unique opportunity to serve children and adults,” he said, calling the park system “a vital resource … and part of what makes a good quality of life for the citizens of Chicago.”
Emanuel credited Traubert with presiding over a dramatic expansion of Chicago’s park system, with a $500 million capital investment adding 1,000 acres of new park land, 27 new turf fields, 17 new parks, 11 new community facilities and 225 refurbished playgrounds.
Neighborhood parks have added basketball courts and artificial turf fields. The park district has also added marquee projects such as the Bloomingdale Trail project, better known as the 606, and Maggie Daley Park with its climbing walls and skating ribbon. A nature preserve finally opened on Northerly Island, formerly home to Meigs Field.
Ruiz takes the reins at a pivotal time.
Not only is Emanuel poised to launch what he calls a “major parks initiative in December.” The Park District is in the thick of the planning for the Lucas Museum on 17 acres of free lakefront land near Soldier Field and for the Obama Presidential Library in either Washington or Jackson parks.
Traubert took a pass on the Obama library debate because of his wife’s role in the president’s cabinet and her past roll as Obama’s finance chair.
Ruiz leaves the school board with his integrity intact, even after the $23 million contracting scandal that culminated in Byrd-Bennett’s guilty plea. Ruiz cast one of the six votes for the SUPES contract that resulted in the ouster and indictment of Byrd-Bennett, and Friday, he defended that decision: “If folks want to deceive you, they’re going deceive you once in a while.”
But he believes his legacy has been adding public access to the nation’s third largest school system whose leaders and board all are appointed by the mayor.
“We became more accessible and open. Office hours happened in the time we were there,” he said. He also tried to persuade the board to open its monthly briefings to the public, which hasn’t yet happened.
In July, the Hispanic Caucus demanded to know why Ruiz was bypassed in favor of Frank Clark, retired chairman and CEO of Commonwealth Edison.
Clark, who is African-American, co-chaired the mayoral commission that held countless public hearings across the city that culminated in the mayor’s decision to close a record 50 public schools.
He was part of a new leadership team led by newly appointed Schools CEO Forrest Claypool and including charismatic former principal and network chief Janice Jackson as chief education officer.
The appointment of a white male as schools CEO to replace a black woman — who was part Puerto Rican, though few knew it — made it all the more important for Emanuel to make Claypool part of a racially mixed leadership team.
Hispanic aldermen said they understood the politics behind the decision. But they argued that it didn’t justify the lack of respect shown to Ruiz, who selflessly agreed to put his law practice on hold for three months to serve as acting CEO after Byrd-Bennett took a leave of absence, then resigned.
Sources said Ruiz confided to his City Council allies that he was so miffed about the slight, he was considering the possibility of resigning from the board altogether.
At the time, Ruiz would only say, “I believe diversity is critical in any organization, and its leadership should be reflective of the people it serves.”
But CPS later released a statement quoting Ruiz that said he had no intention of leaving because, “Remaining on the board allows me to have a greater impact on behalf of the students, families and communities I represent.”
On Friday, Ald. Danny Solis (25th), former chairman of the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus, said he’s pleased with the City Hall shuffle—even though the school board is far more powerful than the park board.
“It certainly doesn’t have the same headaches that the Board of Ed has. But, that’s a good place to be right now. I like it because after-school programs and recreation programs for kids are important. I’m not disappointed. This is good,” Solis said.
Ald. George Cardenas (12th), chairman of the Hispanic Caucus, said he, too, is pleased that Emanuel “made up for Jesse being bypassed” at CPS.
“Would I like him to be head of the Board of Education? Sure. He would have made a lot of difference with his experience in education. But that’s not an option,” Cardenas said.
“But heading the park district is also important from a symbolic standpoint for Latinos. If Jesse accepted, I’m fine with it.”
As for Emanuel, who got 39 percent of the Hispanic vote in the April 7 runoff, Solis said, “The mayor has done some good things since the question was raised. The new deputy in the Police Department [John Escalante], second in command, has an excellent resume and he’s done a great job. And I believe the mayor will continue to put qualified Latinos in top positions in his administration.”
Exacerbating the problem For Emanuel is the presence of only three Hispanics in Emanuel’s City Hall cabinet at a time when Hispanics are Chicago’s fastest-growing group.
The caucus, citing state Board of Education figures, argued then that Latinos make up just 4.8 percent of all teachers at Chicago Public Schools, even though 46 percent of CPS students are Hispanic. Emanuel’s rejiggered Board of Education lost a Hispanic member, too — Carlos Azcoitia was not replaced by another Latino when he left on June 30. It now has Ruiz, four whites and two African-Americans.
Just one CPS department head is Latina, according to CPS: Karen Garibay-Mulatierri, chief of language and culture.
Before stepping down, Ruiz will vote at one more CPS board meeting in December.