After four years on the Chicago Board of Education and a three-month stint over the summer as interim CEO, Jesse Ruiz is leaving the school system. Last week he sat through his last School Board meeting, and next month he moves to the Board of Commissioners of the Chicago Park District, where he’s expected to be elected president.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel abruptly moved Ruiz off the School Board last month, and insiders have said it was due in part to conflicts between Ruiz and CPS CEO Forrest Claypool. Until now, Ruiz has avoided talking about that decision. Earlier in the summer, Emanuel also passed over Ruiz in picking the School Board president. The mayor’s office has not yet named a replacement for Ruiz, the only Latino on the seven-member board. About 46 percent of CPS students are Latino.
In a recent interview with Catalyst Chicago, Ruiz talked about what it means to leave CPS and the need for more Latino leadership in the school system. He also reflects on what he sees as his greatest accomplishments at CPS and the changes he would have made if he’d been asked to lead the Board. Ruiz, who works as an attorney at Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, previously chaired the Illinois State Board of Education for seven years
(This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Catalyst: So what happened?
Ruiz: Well, the mayor reached out to me and offered me the presidency of the Park District Board. I think they thought since I’d been interim CEO that obviously there was some trust and faith that I could lead. I accepted it.
Catalyst: Why did you accept?
Ruiz: You serve at the pleasure of the mayor. And it was a very thoughtful and kind offer. And having served as the vice president of the CPS Board, I know it’s a meaningful position with a lot of responsibilities. I enjoyed leading as chairman of ISBE for almost seven years. Vice president is a leadership position, but it’s not the same as being the president or chairman of the board. So I was looking forward to getting back to being the chairman or the president of a board and helping shape the agendas and how we conduct our business.
Catalyst: Did you want to leave CPS?
Ruiz: I care a lot about public education. It’s been my opportunity to honor my parents, especially my dad, who didn’t get an opportunity to be educated, who came here as a migrant farm worker, worked his butt off, so I could have an opportunity he never had.
Catalyst: But did you want to leave CPS?
Ruiz: I wasn’t soliciting the position, no. But it was offered, and I gladly accepted it.
Catalyst: Was there any other option?
Ruiz: I didn’t consider it. I didn’t think I could say, ‘No. I’m fine. Just leave me here.’ I was honored by the offer to go there and, frankly, the opportunity to lead a board.
Catalyst: If you were the chair of the CPS board, what would you change?
Ruiz: I think we need to do our briefings in public, the way we did when I was at ISBE. Briefings are done one or two board members at a time. (State law allows public bodies to hold closed-door meetings as long as there isn’t a quorum.) And that’s where the real work of a board happens. The entire purpose of a board is to deliberate and to wrestle with the issues and challenge management.
And it’s the power of the collective. And when you do it one or two people at a time, that power is gone, or it’s not maximized. Being able to hear what other people are thinking, to get their perspectives and insights, to have that impact how I’m thinking and potentially change my views on issues, I miss that.
I think it’s healthy for government, it’s healthy for democracy and it’s healthy for Chicago Public Schools for the public to see that there is a school board that actually does these things. We do it, but it’s just behind closed doors, and nobody ever sees it.
Catalyst: I understand there has been some tension between you and Claypool. What can you say about that?
Ruiz: The press wrote about me voting ‘no’ on a couple of positions, which I suppose folks interpreted as tension, but I didn’t see it that way. Again, I think that it’s healthy for a board to disagree at times. You have independent thinkers, and intelligent people will sometimes disagree. I don’t view that as a negative. I view it as a very positive thing that bodies can have intelligent people disagree, and I was on the losing side of both votes and that’s fine.
Catalyst: Why did you vote against the appointment of Ronald Marmer for general counsel?
Ruiz: I felt the general counsel that we had [James Bebley] was the person I wanted to have in that role. I respect the fact that every leader gets to pick their own team. I was involved in the board that picked the prior general counsel, and so I guess I was a little partial. It wasn’t necessarily a vote against a Ron, he’s a fine lawyer and individual. But it was more so out of allegiance to James Bebley.
Catalyst: You also voted against giving a residency waiver to Ron DeNard, whom Claypool brought in as senior vice president of finance.
Ruiz: On that one, we received a memo from the inspector general. He admonished us about approving that. And so I took his memo to heart and voted accordingly. That was before I even met Ron DeNard. He’s a very capable individual. But I just followed the admonishment of the inspector general. Again, intelligent folks can at times disagree, but the majority of board members voted to appoint both Marmer and DeNard and I support the decisions of the board. I have now had several months to work with both gentlemen and have faith and confidence in them, and know that they will both serve the children and families of CPS well.
Catalyst: What do you think was your greatest accomplishment during your short tenure as CEO?
Ruiz: The audit of the ELL services is something I’m quite proud of because it’s an issue that I was aware of at ISBE but I didn’t have control over then. I’m anticipating those gaps in services will be addressed because it’s the law.
And also, the fact is it was a very tumultuous time. It’s not easy to step into a situation like that and keep things steady and moving forward. We set up to pass a budget which we did.
Catalyst: What was the workload like at the time?
Ruiz: It was three months of working seven days a week, 16 hours a day. I would at times come back to my law office at 10, 11 at night, and put in a couple of hours. Every weekend I had to work. But again, how many people get the privilege of doing public service at that level and keep the day job they love as well? Thank God for some very understanding colleagues at my law firm, and clients, who supported my efforts to help Chicago Public Schools in a time of need.
Catalyst: At every CPS board meeting, you’ve had to recuse yourself on a number of votes. Why was that?
Ruiz: We run a very conservative conflicts check process at my firm. If there’s anyone who is a client of the firm – and we run a large national law firm, 11 offices from coast to coast, an office in London – it’s attributed to me. I may not even know the client exists. And if there’s anybody who is adverse to that client, I can’t vote on those items either. Because they don’t want it to seem like I’m helping or hurting someone who is opposed to our client. 99.9 percent of the times I don’t know who the parties are when I recuse myself. Other than Commonwealth Edison, which was a client of mine, there is no other client I have personally who does business at CPS.
Catalyst: One of the issues I’ve written about is the lack of Latino leadership in the district. What advice do you have for Mayor Emanuel or to Claypool on this issue?
Ruiz: Diversity matters. It’s something I’m always going to advocate for because I know it makes an organization better. It’s important we have the perspective of everyone in the community at the table when making decisions. I’ve had clients tell me, general counsel of Fortune 10 corporations, if they don’t have a diverse team, they assume they’re not getting the optimal solution to their problems.
Catalyst: Why do you think the mayor isn’t making this a priority?
Ruiz: I think he is. We’ve seen the hiring of our chief administrative officer, (Jose Alfonso de Hoyos-Acosta) and I trust we’ll see more. It’s not always an easy gap to close. There aren’t folks who are running to take these challenges and yet we have to find high-quality individuals who are prepared to meet the needs of the district. And, as a Latino community, it’s up to us, too, to encourage folks to seek out those opportunities, to bring candidates forward and make sure we’re prepared to take on these positions.
Catalyst: Do you think there will be a strike?
Ruiz: My firm hope is that there is not. There is a fiscal crisis, and that’s a reality. And so I hope the teachers acknowledge that and that we work hard on this together. It’s not really an ‘us versus them.’ We’re in this boat together. We need to figure out how to bail water collectively otherwise we’re all going to go down. Each side is going to have to give and take a bit, and that’s what negotiating is all about, and collectively approach Springfield and see what we can do to get additional resources, and first and foremost, get our fair share.
Catalyst: I’ve heard rumors that you’ve thought or are thinking about running for state office. Is that true?
Ruiz: I had in the past but never pursued any elected office. I think it’s a noble endeavor. And I have a tremendous amount of respect for the folks who do that. Those three months as interim CEO gave me a trial run at doing public service on full-time basis, and it’s a lot of hard work, sometimes thankless work, but incredibly important. I have no plans to run for anything. I am grateful that I have had, and continue to have, wonderful opportunities to engage in public service through appointed positions.
Catalyst: Going back to that first question, why do you think the mayor wanted you off the School Board?
Ruiz: I guess I didn’t look at it that way. There are board members he didn’t reappoint and I was reappointed by this mayor. I don’t think he would have offered me the interim CEO position if he didn’t want me on the School Board. I was honored, that he essentially was giving me a promotion, to be president of the Parks Board.
Catalyst: It’s not as politically sexy.
Ruiz: But it does good work and it touches as many, if not more, Chicagoans than our schools do. You have a lot of people, including a lot of folks who don’t live in Chicago or Illinois who enjoy our parks. There are international visitors to our parks and museums sitting on park land, and we’re going to have a presidential library sitting on a park and we’re going to have a new museum, the Lucas Museum, sitting on park property. They are an important part to the quality of life and the economic foundation on our city.