Paul Vallas, former Chicago school chief, fighting to keep his latest job
By DAVE COLLINS Associated Press September 21, 2013 10:42PM
Updated: September 21, 2013 11:00PM
Paul Vallas was hailed by supporters as a proven reformer who would turn around the public school system in Bridgeport, Conn., when he took over the superintendent’s job in January 2012 after having led troubled, big-city school districts in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans.
Less than two years later, Vallas is fighting to keep his job.
He’s facing battles on two fronts: a lawsuit challenging his credentials that has reached the Connecticut Supreme Court and a Board of Education election in November that could change the majority from pro-Vallas to anti-Vallas and lead to a vote on his ouster.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments Monday on whether Vallas, a 60-year-old Chicago native who was a top City Hall finance official in Chicago before being named schools chief but who is not certified to be a school superintendent in Connecticut, fulfilled legal requirements for a certification waiver. He is appealing a ruling in July by Bridgeport Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis, who said Vallas didn’t meet the waiver condition because the course he took on educational leadership was inadequate.
Five anti-Vallas candidates are running against three pro-Vallas candidates in the November election for five seats on the board, potentially jeopardizing the current 5-4 pro-Vallas majority.
Vallas said in a recent interview he has no plans to leave the state’s largest city and its school district of more than 21,000 students.
“I am going to keep this job till someone says I can’t,” Vallas said. “I have a three-year contract, and assuming the Supreme Court rules in my favor, I just will continue to work as long as I feel I am making progress.”
Vallas touts his accomplishments in Bridgeport, including closing the district’s $12 million budget deficit and implementing a five-year budget and school improvement plan.
But critics say his reform methods haven’t worked at other school districts, rely too heavily on increased student testing and resulted in lower scores on statewide testing this year.
“We want the same kind of superior, qualified, credentialed person running our school district as anyone else,” said Board of Education member Sauda Baraka. “He probably doesn’t have the expertise or knowledge base to bring about the changes we need in Bridgeport.”
Baraka and fellow school board member Maria Pereira said districtwide student testing has increased dramatically under Vallas — to every six weeks — and they believe students’ education is being harmed by teachers teaching for tests. They also say educators don’t have enough supplies, including copy paper and science classroom materials.
Two supporters of Vallas on the school board didn’t return messages left seeking comment.
On the 2013 Connecticut Mastery Test for grades 3 through 8, the percentages of Bridgeport students meeting or exceeding the goals for math, reading, writing and science decreased in most cases compared with last year, though school officials have touted successes in many areas of the struggling district.
Vallas’ lawyers, in documents filed in the Supreme Court case, say he is a nationally recognized education leader who raised test scores and balanced billion-dollar budgets in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans. They also say he gained international recognition when he helped rebuild and improve Haiti’s school system after the 2010 earthquake.
Vallas also faced criticism in Philadelphia and New Orleans.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, changes were made in New Orleans schools that were widely heralded as innovative but were painful locally as thousands of teachers and school workers were laid off amid a takeover of most schools by the state. After Vallas arrived in 2007, he drew critics there for his sometimes brusque manner.
In Philadelphia, fighting over a $73 million deficit in 2007 eventually led to Vallas’ departure.
Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, a leading Vallas supporter, disputes criticism of the school chief. The mayor said the school district under Vallas has opened two new high schools, is building new schools and made significant improvements at low-performing schools.
“This progress is commendable,” Finch said.
The lawsuit before the Supreme Court was filed by a retired judge and a mother of four children in the school district. They say Vallas got special treatment from the state, and the case is about upholding the integrity of the law.
After Vallas was hired as acting superintendent with the approval of his friend Stefan Pryor, Connecticut’s state education commissioner, the state legislature and governor approved a change to the law that allowed Vallas and others to receive a waiver to the superintendent certification process if they completed a school leadership program at a university.
Vallas completed an independent study course at the University of Connecticut designed solely for him, but the Bridgeport judge ruled the course wasn’t a school leadership program required by law. Bellis said Vallas should leave the job immediately because he wasn’t qualified, but the ruling was stayed pending the Supreme Court appeal.
Vallas’ lawyers rejected the lawsuit’s claims in their brief to the Supreme Court. They wrote that Vallas fully complied with the requirement to complete an education leadership course to receive a certification waiver.
“Plaintiffs’ case is based on spin, insinuation, innuendo and semantic gamesmanship,” Vallas’ lawyers wrote. “The tyrannical ‘farce’ and conspiratorial ‘sham’ that plaintiffs find everywhere is only a function of how they see the world, and exists independent of reality.”