CN December 6, 2012

Jesse Ruiz was appointed Vice President of the Chicago School Board when Mayor Emanuel took office. Two years and one teachers’ strike later, his Board is facing a budget shortfall of nearly a billion dollars, stubbornly intransigent academic improvement, and about a hundred-thousand unused seats in the schools -almost a 20% surplus.

Is he concerned that there was such a wide-spread public perception that he and his board-mates were installed for the purpose of turning over a maximum number of schools to private charter operators?

“I’m neutral on the type of school it is”, he says. “I’m pro-providing good options for students.”

Sarah Karp, Catalyst-Chicago’s ace reporter, also joins the panel.  She asks Ruiz about the new schools-closings commission that CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has created to deal with the incredibly complex issue of closings – before declaring a five-year moratorium on any further shut-downs.  She says it doesn’t seem clear whether the commission is just going to recommend a general direction or devise a specific list of schools to be put out of business.

“It’s a decision that hopefully this commission tackles and gives us actionable recommendations”, he explains. “And that would mean, I would think, a list of schools that, this would be the best combinations. And that would be closures, but also consolidations.”

Acknowledging the difficulty of closing and/or consolidating schools, he says it simply has to be done. There are schools built for hundreds of students with barely a hundred in them, and few prospects for enrollment increases any time soon.  And it’s worse in the most economically stressed neighborhoods.

“I grew up in the Roseland community, my parents still live there, same street for fifty years”, he tells us. “And all the jobs they look at, all the gentlemen who were working at Sherwin-Williams and General Motors, those jobs are gone. And so if those jobs are gone, people left the area…The reality is we have this situation, we have to address it today.”

Further complicating matters is that, in addition to the 300-or-so “underutilized” schools, there are also more than 80 that are overcrowded.

He says that something the Board is looking at is the life-span of a school building. The average age of the City’s fleet of schools is 74, he says. “We build schools, supposedly for a hundred years, and maybe we shouldn’t be building hundred-year schools. Maybe we should build them a little less durable because we know in 25, maybe 40 years we have to address demographic shifts.”

Still, he acknowledges, there isn’t much use for a 70-year old school in a struggling neighborhood, especially if it needs a million-dollar boiler replacement. So many of them will simply have to be demolished.

We ask a direct question: does the number of union teachers actually drop significantly if you close 50 or 60 schools?  “It could,” he says, “but I don’t think it’s gonna be significant, and that’s not one of the drivers here. The driver is the cost of the physical plant.”

Sarah asks about the Gates Foundation, which has announced that it will not be funding CPS at this time because, it says, of the recent staff changes at the top. However, CPS has been invited to reapply in a few months.

“There’s this figure in the application for the Gates money, saying we’re gonna put in sixty charter schools over he next five years”, Karp asks. “I’ve heard CPS officials say, oh, that was just a promise, it’s not really gonna happen. But you go to these meetings and everybody says, how are we closing a hundred schools and opening sixty charters? Aren’t we just going to be in the same place in five years? ”

Ruiz reiterates that nobody has said a hundred schools will close, that the commission will be helping decide that.  “The goal is to have high-quality options in every single neighborhood of the city. We look at charter operators as an opportunity to do that and to bring high-quality options to certain neighborhoods…It’s gonna be a challenge for us,  frankly, to bring those options to a district where we’ve already right-sized things…but we’re not gonna add excess capacity where we just took out excess capacity.”

Is it fair to say that the hundred thousand empty seats have been created in part because forty thousand kids have been pulled out of traditional schools and put in charters, we ask? “It could be a factor”, he responds. “There’s a number of factors. Is it a one-to-one correlation? Probably not.”

Sarah: “I’m wondering whether one of the plans is, because you don’t want to open up new schools, is to sort of give some of the existing buildings over to, say Noble Street, like, let’s say ‘Marshall High School-hyphen-Noble Street?”

“When we talk about adding new schools, that could be an option”, says Ruiz. “Given what we have today, and who we have out there, the teams that, how many years have some of these schools have been at a level-three status, that we just can’t wait, and maybe somebody else that has a slightly better proven track record…”

We ask about the billion dollar deficit. Sarah Karp points out that most of it is pensions, and that any solutions will come from Springfield. So isn’t the pension piece unfairly inflating the “we have a billion dollar shortfall” argument?

“So, yes, largely due to the pension issue, but those are our obligations until maybe there’s some reform in Springfield that lessens that burden, and federal support that has helped us in past years and this year they’re gone…without going to the taxpayers every year to seek more revenue, we’ve gotta be able to run the system with what we’ve got”, he says.

And a parting question. Was Ruiz shocked to see the near unanimity of the CTU, and the strong support from parents? (and their ability to supersede the 75% support level demanded by new State legislation).

“No. Not that shocked. I expected, maybe not the level they got to, in terms of the percentages, but we need our communities to support our teachers.”

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About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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