Proviso Township High Schools District 209 Supt. Jesse Rodriguez is resigning to take the superintendent position at Zion-Benton Township High School District 126. The District 126 school board approved a three-year contract for Rodriguez at a meeting on Dec. 17. He’ll leave the Proviso district on June 30, 2020 and start in his new role at Zion on July 1, 2020.

“This is a life-changing opportunity,” Rodriguez said in an interview on Dec. 18, adding that the move will allow him the opportunity to work five minutes from where he lives and devote more time to his family. Rodriguez said that his son will be a senior at the Zion high school in the fall.

The superintendent’s decision comes less than a year after the D209 school board voted 4-3 in favor of granting him a new 5-year contract that would have had his annual base salary growing to $257,648 by 2023, district records show. Theresa Kelly — the board’s longest serving member who voted against the contract, arguing that it was too long — said at the time that the contract was the lengthiest she’d seen during her some two-decades-long tenure on the board.

On Dec. 18, Rodriguez, who was hired to a 3-year contract in February 2016, rattled off the district’s major achievements during his tenure — among them the implementation of a 5-year financial plan, the creation of a 5-year facilities master plan that provides funding for upcoming capital improvement projects that are among the most substantial in the district’s history, the implementation of International Baccalaureate and additional Advanced Placement coursework across the district and a higher bond rating.

Just last week, Rodriguez announced that the state-mandated Financial Oversight Panel would leave the district by Dec. 31. The FOP was appointed by the Illinois State Board of Education in 2008 to help a district that, back then, was in dire financial straits. At a joint meeting between the FOP and the school board, FOP Chair Craig Schilling praised the district’s progress, citing the 5-year financial plan and the fully funded facilities master plan — both aspects critical for the FOP agreeing to leave the district.

“Proviso is in a much, much better place to attract superintendent candidates,” Rodriguez said. “It’s in a much better place and I think there will be a lot of folks attracted.”

But those achievements haven’t come without some friction. In April 2018, after the D209 board voted against a series of key hires and staffing adjustments within his office, Rodriguez said he was “at a crossroads.” And just last week, the board voted 4-2 to reinstate Proviso West Principal Nia Abdullah who Rodriguez had suspended for matters that were not made public, with some board members denouncing the suspension and others claiming that the vote and comments related to it undermined the superintendent.

“All the data was laid out and the superintendent asked for the board’s advice and direction, and no one on the board said anything,” Ned Wagner, school board president, said during the Dec. 10 meeting where the vote was made.

“I was the only one who said that I didn’t think it was a good fit. I looked around at everyone and said, ‘OK, the superintendent is asking for direction in this matter. This is our chance.’ And no one said anything,” he said. “We told Dr. Rodriguez to do what he saw fit and the board would back him up and now we’re hanging him out to dry.”

On Dec. 18, both Rodriguez and Wagner dismissed any notion that the reinstatement or any other previous board table friction played major parts in the superintendent’s resignation.

“Prior to that [Dec. 10 board meeting], I had already decided that it was in my best interest to move forward,” Rodriguez said. “That meeting was transactional to me. Over the last two years, with the work we’ve done as superintendent and board, we’ve had a lot of support.”

“The Proviso West situation was not the first time he had the board disagree with him,” Wagner said. “I think it was more of a situation of him thinking about his family.”

Cynthia Moreno, the district’s communications director, echoed those points, explaining that the superintendent has had overwhelming board support on most of the major decisions his administration has made.

“Overall, I think we received the support we needed,” she said on Dec. 18.

“I know the timing [between the Proviso West decision and his resignation] seems like, ‘Wow,’ but you do have to go through a process, it’s an intensive process,” Rodriguez said, referencing his hiring in Zion. “Yes, I was in the fast route and did not spend three months doing this, but it was not a one-week thing either.”

“I was not expecting this at all, I have to admit,” said Wagner. “It was surprising. I spoke with him and I think he’s doing this for all the right reasons that are best for him and his family. Speaking for myself, the work he did was absolutely phenomenal.

“He did things in collaboration with the board that no one thought was really possible,” Wagner said. “He got the district on a firm financial footing to the point where the FOP left. He was a unifying force in our community, pushing and helping define the pre-K to 12th-grade mindset in our education community. That didn’t really exist before. He supported our building principals [within D209] in creating these transformational plans to set the groundwork for sustained academic improvement.”

Rodriguez acknowledged that many people he has called and texted in the wake of his decision to resign have expressed concern that his departure might mean going back to the days of no-bid multi-million-dollar contracts and a district rife with patronage hires.

“I have answered many, many calls or text messaged everybody who has contacted me and they have said, ‘This type of change can set us 20 years back,'” Rodriguez said. “But we do have very strong structures in place within the board and administration that will sustain progress regardless of leadership changes.

 “For example, we have a construction model for how decisions are to be made,” he said. “This model will have checks and balances to prevent operations that are not aligned with best practices.”

Rodriguez said that he now commutes more than an hour to and from his District 209 office within Proviso Math and Science Academy in Forest Park each day, and would often work nights and weekends in the district — a situation that took a toll on his family life, he said.

In a statement released Dec. 17 by the Zion-Benton Township school board, Jerry Nordstrom, the school board president, said that Rodriguez “brings a history of excellence, improving student performance and creating a strong, collaborative culture that provides pathways for every student to succeed.”

The board explained that it utilized consultants School Exec Connect to facilitate the search process. They said that the consultant received more than 30 applications. Rodriguez will succeed retiring District 126 Supt. Chris Clark.

“He really put his heart and soul into working on behalf of the children of our community and probably, most definitely, to the detriment of his personal life,” Wagner said. “He was absolutely consumed with transforming our school district and it became that time.”

Wagner said that the board plans on holding an emergency meeting to discuss next steps before the year is out.

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