THE LOOP — Board of Education Vice President Jesse Ruiz took charge of the city's schools Wednesday and immediately moved to suspend a controversial no-bid contract and halt the approval of any such deals.
The board passed a resolution Wednesday to "enjoin the duties" of Ruiz as both vice president and interim chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools during Barbara Byrd-Bennett's leave of absence. He will not receive a salary in either role.
Ruiz immediately moved to suspend a $20 million no-bid contract granted in 2013 to SUPES Academy at the urging of Byrd-Bennett, who previously worked for that company.
Board President David Vitale announced last Friday that Byrd-Bennett was taking a leave of absence amid a federal investigation into that deal, and that Ruiz would replace her.
"We are taking this matter very seriously," Ruiz said during Wednesday's board meeting at CPS' Central Offices. He called for an "immediate halt" to what the district refers to as "sole source" contracts not put out for bids. He also suspended the SUPES contract to provide training for principals, saying it was in "the district's best interests."
"We must stay focused so we can continue our progress," Vitale said.
Ruiz echoed that, citing the "tremendous progress inside the classroom" he claimed CPS had made in recent years.
Vitale has said that Ruiz is uniquely positioned to guide CPS through its pension troubles as a former state head of education who served for seven years.
Ruiz found himself immediately tested on that front, as Chief Financial Officer Ginger Ostro reported that the district faces a $1.1 billion deficit in the 2016 budget for the fiscal year beginning in July. Ostro said $700 million of that was in overdue pension payments required by state law.
"We can't hope to cut our way out of this gap," Ostro said. She called for "pension reform" granted by the Illinois State Legislature, as well as additional state funding.
Yet Michael Brunson of the Chicago Teachers Union immediately dismissed that as the "annual dance of the deficit" and said balancing the budget was simply "a matter of priorities." He said the money is available, suggesting a tax on financial deals on Chicago markets as one option.
"We'll show you where the money is," Brunson said.
Ruiz said he hoped to draw on contacts formed while he was chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education to get necessary pension reforms and additional funding from the Legislature before it adjourns at the end of May.
Ruiz said Byrd-Bennett had presented the SUPES Academy deal as a "sole source" contract, in that it was the only company providing its unique training. Ruiz didn't counter that, but said he was bringing in a third party to examine that deal and the legitimate value of that training. Ruiz said the third-party contract to examine that deal would be put out to bid.
SUPES Academy did not endorse the suspension.
"We were disappointed to learn this morning that the Board of Education of the City of Chicago has suspended our contract to provide leadership training and mentorship to Chicago Public Schools principals, pending its investigation," said SUPES spokesman Dennis Culloton. "We stand behind the training we provide, bolstered by the positive feedback we have received from these same principals. We are committed to continuing our great work with CPS once this review is completed."
Erica Clark of Parents 4 Teachers announced that group would be holding three public forums in May and June to address the "wall of silence" between CPS and CTU and provide a foundation for more open contract talks to put off a possible teacher strike next school year.
"Public trust in this district is at an all-time low," Clark said, adding that the board has "zero credibility." She encouraged board members to attend the forums.
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