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Getting to Know Your School Board: Jesse Ruiz, From VP to CEO to President

Jesse Ruiz’s list of accomplishments qualify him for his next endeavor in Chicago’s political scene. As December marks the last month of Ruiz’s tenure serving as Vice President of the Chicago School Board, starting next month, he’ll begin to serve as President of the  Chicago Park District. Payton students have benefitted from his tenure on the school board as he has helped make key decisions that affect selective enrollment as well as all of the Chicago Public Schools. 

Chicago is one of the country’s most diverse cities in the United States. Not only do Chicagoans get to experience world cultures in seventy-seven neighborhoods, but also in the Chicago Public school system. Payton itself is diverse and values a global education and draws from all of the city’s neighborhoods. Each neighborhood school reflects the community’s unique niche such as its residents’ ethnic, social economic and religious backgrounds. When exposed to such a wide-spectrum of perspectives and identities, people begin to define their characters and become who they are. Being raised in such a neighborhood, outgoing Chicago Public School (CPS) Vice-President, Jesse Ruiz, attributes his success to the environment in which he grew up.

Ruiz grew up in Chicago’s Roseland community, and like many Payton kids who grew up on the outskirts of Chicago, Ruiz attributes much of his success and passion for public education to his childhood. His parents were devoted Catholics who migrated to America during the Bracero farmer movement during the 1940s, eventually settling down in Chicago in April of 1946. Because his parents are religious, Jesse and his two sisters attended Catholic schools. Ruiz attended Marist High School in the Mt. Greenwood neighborhood. He remembers the daily commute, after school,  fondly although he would take three CTA buses, as his parent had no other form of transportation. His story is similar to many Chicago Public School youth living in the far corners of Chicago. Like education, Chicago’s transit system is vital to meeting the needs and desires of working class families. It is the means to access quality education, jobs, food, and city offices. Even now, as an adult, Jesse Ruiz believes the CTA is “effective,” and he appreciates it, for he understands how important it is for the vitality of Chicago. This appreciation and understanding is the same that he tries to instill throughout his time on various educational committees, whether it be at a national, state, or local level.

Serving on the Illinois State board of Education from 2004 to 2011, Ruiz accounts the success of their work due to the way they conducted their business:

“People saw that it was real and authentic and with people who cared a lot about their job… there was a lot of respect FOR the way we conducted our business.”

The Illinois State Board meetings were open to the public and with “smaller crowds” filled with “professional advocates who know the issue backwards and forwards, typically with all the comments specific to what was on the agenda that day and these folks came armed with a lot of data and were highly informed with less personal attacks and more debating issues with facts. Those who spoke knew the issue, they had their facts, and it made us question our agenda….,” said Ruiz in an exclusive interview with Paw Print. This method is something the Chicago Public School board should adopt, so that the public’s trust can be regained. Mr. Ruiz said he wishes “the structure of the board meeting could change…to get to the heart of  the work that goes on behind the scenes, of really kicking the tire on issues, and really challenging management on proposals. There’s a lot of homework that gets done that folks don’t get to see… let the folks see that this is real, there is a review process and that it’s authentic, it’s transparent, and it’s not just a scripted meeting.”

While he goes on to say that on the day of board meetings, board members have already reached a conclusion, but that sometimes they don’t and that he is:

“Comfortable with it [decisions] sometimes not having consensus. I think others are uncomfortable with that, you know at the State Board of Education we had nine members and we had a lot of 5-4 votes, and as chairman I didn’t like to see folks not voting for something I was voting for, but I was okay with it… Sometimes intelligent people disagree and folks can gain more trust and confidence in that process…,” said Ruiz.

While Mr. Ruiz hopes his “colleagues going forward, will hopefully adjust some of those things so that we make it more transparent and participative,” he ask that folks will adjust their “level of discourse to specific issues and really hard data.”

However, some data seems to have slipped under the rug during Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s years as CEO. Ruiz characterizes her actions as:

“Regretful” and that he never imagined the severity of her actions “would create the need for an interim CEO.” Knowing it was “a critical time for CPS schools and to be a leader and really care, it was put up or shut up time,” Jesse Ruiz accepted the Mayor’s invite to become CEO.

In an attempt to be modest, his experience at the national, state, and local levels qualified him to serve as interim CEO. His excitement when recollecting his time as CEO was apparent, and rightfully so, for he was the first school board member in the state of Illinois that has stepped into the role as CEO of a school district, a proud Latino, and someone who,

“Work hard in life to get the skills, that  at some point allow you to step up and do it.”

Looking back, he wished he could’ve implemented more, such as the public hearings, because he questions if the Barbara Byrd-Bennett scandal could have been avoided if they deliberated in public. However, he still believes that “ if someone really wants to lie to you and be deceitful and commit a crime, all the systems in the world are really hard to detect that in advance .”

The federal investigation of CPS’s former CEO allowed for Jesse Ruiz to be appointed interim CEO during the 2015 summer. During his interim, he “was very happy” that  he was finally able to accomplish something he was made aware of during his years chairing the state board. This achievement was ordering “an audit of all our ELL services that we’re providing throughout the district.”  There were mandates, and state law required districts to follow in providing education for ELL students. He “knew that it had been in issue in the past for CPS and an ongoing issue.” He felt it was time to “know what’s happening, what’s not happening, and what changes have to implemented. And as the only Latino CEO CPS has ever had, I thought it would be a shame if it’s something I didn’t look into… I benefit from being Latino, but I am aware that at times our background can be held against us, but it’s a positive that can lift you up, so for those benefits I may have received in life, I owe something back,” said Ruiz.

During this time, he also suspended the $20.5 million no-bid contract to SUPES. With these steps towards transparency done during his short time as interim CEO, the question many ask is if CPS would still be under much criticism and financial crisis if he remained as CEO. He says, “if we just focus on the kids, forget about the adults and… keep laser focus with the best intentions and best interest of our children in the CPS system, all 400,000 of them, that’s what is ultimately important. Yes, there are adults that help make the system work, but if we focus on what is best for them [students] the rest will follow and forget about us [adults].”

The Chicago Teachers Union has announced that an overwhelming majority of its members voted in favor of a strike. He believes both CTU and CPS,

“Have the same goals, they just have different vantage points…we have more in common than what divides us.”

However, the division between CTU and CPS extends beyond Springfield’s failure to adequately fund education. The refusal to retrieve millions back from Bank of America from toxic swaps, a moratorium on charter expansion [not just stricter regulations], amongst others are what currently stifles the relationship between the two entities.

Jesse Ruiz goes on to say, “like anything communication is key…and by collectively coming together and working on fixing the fiscal crisis, so that we have something to negotiate.” He furthers these remarks:

“Unfortunately without the resources there’s not much to discuss or negotiate over and a strike wouldn’t do much good, because it’s not like we are sitting on a pile of cash we are not willing to share. It doesn’t exist and folks aren’t making it up, that’s a fact, so we can collectively go and try to get that money, so we can at least get through this year and have adequate resources to make sure we finally get  out of this hold. These are issues decades in the making and now we finally have to sit down and fix them but fix them for the long term.”

While this rhetoric may sound familiar, for it is similar to what CEO Claypool continues to say, Ruiz sets himself apart by insisting that “we [Chicago] need to elevate the teaching profession. I entrust the most precious thing in my life to another person every day, to a teacher. And most parents would and do sacrifice much of their life for their kids. So if that’s the case we should be elevating teaching a lot more in our society and making it more of  a highly regarded and compensated profession. We have to get there in steps. We can’t do it in one handful swoop, but it should be a more highly elevated profession and hopefully collectively CTU and CPS can do that, but again being around the system we should always be civil and keep the lines of communication open.”

When asked how optimistic he is in regards to Springfield passing SB318, which seeks to grant CPS the money needed to avert massive layoffs come February, he said he is “trusting folks will realize how catastrophic it would be if CPS had to do that [layoffs]. Given that I am optimistic, rational minds and well-intentioned folks that were elected by Illinoisans to represent their best interest, it will be a bad thing for not only the students of CPS but also the teachers and families of CPS the entire city, region, and state if we didn’t get this fixed.”

He stands by his claim that “the ultimate fix is having the state support education properly and have our fair share of state funding that is robust and adequate and equitable. And we don’t have either right now…the communities that can’t, we should provide more support from the state level and making sure those kids get the same opportunities no matter where they live. It goes for the city of Chicago too, if we don’t turn a corner on this issue we will continue talking about it and the problems facing public education will continue to persist.”

Come February 8, CEO Claypool will announce a massive 5,000 teacher layoffs if Springfield does not pass a resolution.

Jesse Ruiz while a father, husband, education aficionado, retains a professional career as a lawyer. The self-interest aura of lawyers stands true with Ruiz. However, his self-interest is that:

“Getting education right is in my [his] self interest… if everyone is not well educated, the economics of our city will deteriorate, and you will see more social unrest.Let’s make sure that we prepare folks to navigate the legitimate economy and contribute to growing new business and keeping us in our economic place in the world and custom to living”

He is a firm believer that “education is the root cause of either good things or bad things. If you get it right, it’s the cause of a lot of good things. You educate a lot of enlightened responsible adults that will hopefully contribute and innovate … 80% last I looked, is the percent of our prison population in Illinois who were high school dropouts…If you don’t become educated, you aren’t equipped to navigate the legitimate economy, and you will do other things that aren’t as good for society or productive for yourself or fellow citizen so we should pay it upfront and get it (education) right and avoid the negative things that come from not having a good education system.”

He heavily disagrees with Governor Rauner’s comments of putting CPS through bankruptcy, because then you will,

“Tear something apart and try to salvage the good pieces. You don’t do that in school districts and frankly as long as I have the ability to speak out against it I will.”

Having Jesse Ruiz representing Chicago’s youth, by many, is seen negatively, but after attending board meetings this school year and after this interview he has been the board’s most outspoken board member who questions management during the meetings. Without intending to be controversial, he says he is:

“Striving to do the job well and striving to make sure people have confidence and trust in the body and institution of the school board that its doing its job, and the only way they can see us do that is if they see us talk about things. If there is something worth saying, I’m going to say it, and hopefully I’m adding to the discourse and discussion, and we have a duty to do that. I’m trying to do my duty as a board member and do it well and speak when its productive and be quiet when it’s not.”

He does so because once again he reiterated that education is “the crux of so many societal problems and the crux of so many societal successes.”

Who is Jesse Ruiz? “I’m the son of a Bracero who is grateful for the sacrifices his parents made to make sure he got an education and with that, I try to pay it forward.”

After massive student demonstrations protesting both the State and CPS’s handling of funds for education, there continues to be an aura of distrust. In an effort to regain public trust and allow students to get to know the board members who vote on their behalf, PNN interviewed the Board’s most independent voices: Jesse Ruiz. His experience serving on various educational committees has contributed to Ruiz’s devotion to the public education system. He has been influential in ensuring the proper support is given to ELL students and Latino students who comprise nearly 40% of the district’s population, and nearly 25% of Payton’s student population.

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