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Charter question sparks tense dialogue between Board of Ed leaders

CPS staffer Abigayil Joseph talks to Chicago Board of Education President Frank Clark on Tuesday at the board meeting at Chicago Public Schools headquarters. | Brian Jackson/For the Chicago Sun-Times

Before Chicago’s appointed Board of Education adjourned for executive session, its new president routinely asked if any of his six colleagues present had any questions about what they had been listening to for nearly four hours.

And the long-serving vice president, who had been unceremoniously passed over a few months ago to lead the group after getting the district out of a bind, uncharacteristically piped up.

What, asked Jesse Ruiz, was the board’s official position on the Illinois Charter Commission?

The question was, at face value, straightforward enough: Since CPS is being asked to approve new charter schools at a time when the district’s current budget is short $480 million, then what was the board doing about the commission that could — and already has — overturned its denials of past charter applications?

Jesse Ruiz, then-Chicago Public School’s interim CEO, responds to a question at a news conference on July 1, 2015, in Chicago. | Christian K. Lee/AP

But the dialogue that followed appeared to reveal tension between Ruiz, the son of Mexican immigrants who put his law career on hold for three months to lead CPS in the wake of a contracting scandal, and Frank Clark, an African-American retired business magnate with a charter school named for him and his wife.

When Forrest Claypool was appointed in July as CPS’ leader, the last board president stepped down, saying he wanted to make room for a new leadership team. Ruiz wasn’t consulted about leading the board in a district where Latino students outnumber African-American and white students, angering the Hispanic caucus.

CPS’ board, entirely appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, rarely dissents in public, as the Chicago Sun-Times has chronicled. Votes are nearly always unanimous, and questions few and friendly.

“And so,” Ruiz continued, “I don’t know what our position is, in trying to reform, or frankly eliminate it.”

Clark, overseeing his second board meeting, gave a general answer about charters.

“With respect to this particular organization, Jesse, the more appropriate response I could give is not focused specifically on a particular type of school, selective enrollment, open enrollment,” Clark said. “The policy position that I advocate instead for this board favors quality schools.

He concluded, “It’s a complex issue. We’re here to listen, to learn and ultimately decide.”

“Frank, that’s not my question,” Ruiz quickly responded. “My question is what is our position on the Illinois Charter Commission.”

The last board president, David Vitale, had pledged to work with the Chicago Teachers Union to lobby legislators on a bill, currently stalled in Springfield, that seeks to weaken the commission, he said.

If the bill passed, “We could make our decisions as we saw fit, but without the risk of being second-guessed,” Ruiz said. “That’s my question.”

Clark answered immediately.

“I understood the question, Jesse. I wanted to give a broader answer. With respect to being opposed to or lobbying against a specific organization, frankly, this is a relatively new board with different members.”

Neither man answered messages seeking comment.