January/February 2016

Jesse Ruiz guided CPS at critical time

Gary Adkins is IASB director/editorial services and editor of the Illinois School Board News Blog.

On Nov. 20, 2015, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the appointment of veteran Chicago Public Schools school board leader Jesse Ruiz to the Board of Commissioners of the Chicago Park District. With the appointment effective Jan. 1, 2016, Ruiz stepped down from the CPS board in December, which also ended his role as the district’s representative on IASB’s Board of Directors after four-plus years.

Fellow IASB directors and Executive Director Roger Eddy thanked Ruiz for his service to the Association at the board’s Nov. 22 meeting.

“We are truly grateful to have benefited from Mr. Ruiz’s sage counsel and contributions to the Association,” said Eddy.

Ruiz said his legacy on the Chicago District 299 Board of Education has been increasing public access to the administration, which reports directly to the mayor’s office.

“We became more accessible and open. Office hours happened in the time we were there,” he noted.

In April 2015, Ruiz took on a much greater role at CPS, when he was named interim chief executive officer. This move came at a time when the district faced union negotiations and a looming budget deficit. His appointment was announced when the previous chief executive left the job amid a federal investigation into her role in a controversial no-bid contract.

But Ruiz stepped in with plenty of experience at his back.

He previously served as chair of the Illinois State Board of Education from 2004 until 2011. Other service includes positions on the U.S. Department of Education Equity and Excellence Commission, as legal counsel to the 14 Illinois senators and representatives who formed the Illinois Legislative Latino Caucus and the Illinois Legislative Latino Caucus Foundation, and was appointed to the ABA Presidential Advisory Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities. He is a past president of the Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois, past chairman of the Hispanic Lawyers Scholarship Fund of Illinois, and past chairman of the Chicago Committee on Minorities in Large Law Firms.

He also serves on the board of directors of Commonwealth Edison Company and on several other civic and charitable boards and committees.

Ruiz is a lawyer with the firm Drinker Biddle & Reath, LLP. He concentrates his practice in mergers and acquisitions and the representation of public and middle-market companies. He has taught corporate law at John Marshall Law School and received his law degree from The University of Chicago Law School, where he served as an editor of the University of Chicago Law School Roundtable. He received his bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The Illinois School Board Journal recently asked Ruiz to share his thoughts on his unique experience in state and urban educational leadership.

What did you learn from your stint as CEO of CPS?

I’ve served on school boards and commissions at the local, state, and federal level for over 16 continuous years, and have learned a great deal about public education during that time. That said, all those experiences did not fully expose me to all the issues I had to manage as the interim CEO of the third largest school district in America. It is a very complex organization with many constituencies.

Why were you chosen as acting CEO, and asked to wear two hats by staying on as vice president of the board?

I believe I was chosen because of the experience I have had in public education in Illinois, as well as the other management and legal skills I bring. Early in my career, I was part of a turnaround team of a large steel company. Following law school, I worked as an operations management consultant with a global management-consulting firm, prior to joining my current law firm as a corporate and securities lawyer. I can truly say that I drew upon all my professional experience, as well as volunteer experience in public education, in performing the duties of interim CEO of CPS. Of course, no one accomplishes much on their own. The relationships I have built over the years in federal, state, and local government, as well as within the education community — in Illinois and nationally — were incredibly helpful to me. Organizations like IASB help foster these relationships, and spread best practices around public education, so they too are invaluable resources for school board members, especially ones who end up becoming the CEO of their school district.

As far as wearing two hats, the mayor wanted me to stay on the board following my time, so this is why I did not resign from the vice presidency of the board to assume the interim CEO role.

What was the dynamic of that experience?

It was pretty intense. On a moment’s notice, I had to step out of my day-to-day role at my law firm, and an 18-year law practice, and start putting in 10- to 12-hour days in the CEO’s office of Chicago Public Schools. I had not previously worked in the public sector; it was a challenging but yet extremely rewarding experience. I will always be grateful to Mayor Emanuel for having the faith in me to [lead] Chicago Public Schools at a critical juncture.

With regard to also serving as vice president of the board, I agreed not to vote on any matters while serving as interim CEO. It did change the dynamic with my fellow board members. As colleagues on the board, we have a unified role to provide oversight and governance to the management of the school district. [But] Overnight, I became the head of that management team, so I understood that my colleagues now had to challenge and question me in my role as interim CEO of the district.

What was your commitment in the CEO role?

My commitment, and the commitment of my law firm, was that I would give 110 percent to the job. It has awesome responsibilities for almost 400,000 students and tens of thousands of teachers, administrators, and employees, and the administration of a $5.7 billion budget. Let’s just say there were a number of [times] last summer when the thought of it would wake me up in the middle of the night and make me think about what could go wrong, and what I could proactively do about it.

How did you go about learning to lead the district?

My time chairing the State Board of Education and serving as vice president of the Chicago Board of Education gave me the broad knowledge of school district functions and operations. Having worked in a number of other organizations also gave me the general organizational skills I also had to draw upon. That said, an organization the size of CPS depends on a number of great managers, leaders, and a board. All help run it on a day-to-day basis and guide its work. CPS is a mayoral control district, so there are folks at City Hall who also help guide our work, especially Mayor Emanuel, who would check in often to ensure things were going well. So while I “quarterbacked the team” for a while, there is in fact a team — dedicated public servants who lead the district every day. I was privileged to be allowed to be a part of it on a full-time basis this past spring and summer.

What was the biggest issue you faced?

Unfortunately, an issue the district is still facing; its budget challenges. This is not unlike the challenges some other districts across the state face, because our state is not leading when it comes to state support of public education; in fact it is dead last of all the 50 states. We must do better in Illinois to support our students and schools.

What is the most misunderstood fact about you or your tenure there?

Well, some folks believe that school board members are paid public employees, and do not realize that we are, in fact, volunteers. When I was named interim CEO, I saw a number of comments on newspaper sites and other social media about the raise in compensation I was likely going to receive upon becoming CEO, and the pension I would earn. In fact, I served as the interim CEO of CPS as a volunteer; my law firm donated my time for me to work there on a full-time basis. And of course, school board members and volunteer interim CEOs do not earn a pension as a result of their school board service.

In what ways can that experience be applied or informative to other school districts?

I think my experience taught me, and I believe this is also applicable to a large organization like CPS, that we always have to be prepared and plan for the unexpected. This is of course by definition very difficult, because how do you plan for the unexpected? I believe it starts with a disciplined approach to management and operations. Having good plans, detailed records, and good management tools and practices that can help guide an organization in challenging times, especially when a leader is abruptly changed. Good leaders manage their organizations so that they can one day run well without them, and train and groom several successors who can replace them in a time of crisis.

What did you change at CPS?

As the interim CEO, my top priority was to keep the academic progress of the district moving forward and not make big institutional changes which would be more appropriate for the next CEO to make. That said, I was given this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I did take advantage of it to address one issue that had concerned me. I had heard that there were some issues in providing the legally mandated services to ELL [English Language Learner] students. So I ordered an audit of the entire district to make sure that we were in fact providing ELL students with the services they were legally entitled to. I hope this leads to lasting change in how we provide these services that will benefit these students and our district.

What are you most proud of accomplishing there?

I am proud that when Mayor Emanuel asked for my help, I could answer his call to service at a critical time. I work at a law firm, Drinker Biddle & Reath, LLP, which values public service and “walked the talk” by donating my time for three months so I could serve as the interim CEO. I am also proud that I was able to bring stability and continuity to the district at a crucial time. Finally, I am proud that when I had the opportunity to address an ongoing issue with ELL students, I took it and finally got it addressed.

You also served on the State Board of Education; what did you learn from that experience?

I learned that there are tremendous educators, administrators, and school board members all over our great state, and that with adequate support they can do an amazing job preparing our students for college and careers. I had the privilege of serving with a number of great colleagues over the years on the ISBE board, who are all passionate about trying to improve education across our state.

What are you most proud of accomplishing there?

I often comment that one of my proudest achievements as chair of the ISBE board was leading an open and inclusive search process that led to the hiring of Chris Koch as superintendent. I believe our search process set the bar for how to conduct a nationwide search for such a critical position. ISBE board members spent countless hours receiving input from stakeholders across the state on the criterion for the ideal superintendent. We also interviewed a number of highly qualified candidates and deliberated carefully in finally selecting Chris. Chris served with honor and distinction for over eight years, becoming one of the longest-tenured state superintendents in the nation. It was good for Illinois to have his dedicated leadership and talent for a sustained period of time. I’ve heard said that the most important job of a school board is selecting the superintendent, and I believe that the ISBE board in April 2007 nailed it.

You also serve on the board of IASB; is there something unique you have taken from the experience?

Yes, there is a great deal of hard work put forth to develop systems of good governance on school boards that yield better results. Strong attention to detail and sound processes for optimal decision-making are learnings I have shared with the CPS board, and other boards I sit on.

Also, I was the only non-elected school board member on the IASB board. While that does distinguish me from others, the differences end there. What unites us is a passion to help our communities and the students in our schools. It is also like a second family in terms of the caring and consideration that everyone has for each other. It is a unique board in that sense, but then again, I think this is common among school board members, part of the DNA of a person who seeks service on a school board.

Where is public education headed in Chicago and throughout the state?

The adoption of the Common Core, and corresponding new assessments, continues to keep the focus on preparing all our students to be college and career ready. Unfortunately, this simply isn’t the reality today for every student in every school across Chicago or Illinois. We need to continue to support schools and districts that are achieving good outcomes for their students and look to provide additional systems of support to those schools and districts that are struggling. Technology will also continue to influence how students learn, and we will have to adapt to the changing needs of our students, so that they are prepared to navigate the 21st-century economy. This will bring some challenges, but I also hope the opportunity to provide new learning opportunities in every school in our state through expansion of technology.

What is the biggest impediment faced by public schools today?

While we continue to face challenges, in Chicago and across the state, I am optimistic that we are making gains, albeit never fast enough. I have great hope that we as Illinoisans will come together to address our funding issue, and finally implement a funding system that adequately and equitably supports all our students and schools. It’s in all of our best interest to get this right.