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Returning Vallas defends school record in Connecticut

 
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Illinois Gov. PQuinn (left) arrives news conference where he announced thformer Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas (right) is

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (left) arrives at a news conference where he announced that former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas (right) is his running mate. | Andrew A. Nelles~AP

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Updated: December 14, 2013 6:37AM



Chile. Haiti. New Orleans.

When there is devastation, Paul Vallas says he’s drawn to serving.

His latest stop?

Illinois.

As Gov. Pat Quinn on Tuesday lauded his new lieutenant governor pick, he painted Vallas, a former Chicago schools chief, as a white knight — a school reform champion — who now would help focus his expertise on fixing the state’s pension crisis.

However, Vallas is coming from a place where detractors paint a dramatically different picture of his accomplishments. Vallas served his last two years as superintendent of schools in Bridgeport, Conn., where groups heaped criticism on him for everything from approving no-bid contracts, using school funds to pay his attorney fees to failing to improve test scores, complaining all the while that he shut out parents and teachers from critical decisions.

“The most significant positive contribution that Paul Vallas left in Bridgeport is the fact that he united teachers, students and parents in opposition to everything he spent his lifetime creating,” Jon Green, National Deputy Director at Working Families, told the Sun-Times on Tuesday.

Green portrayed Vallas as bringing on controversy where he goes and alienating “large segments of the electorate.”

“His track record, other than self-promotion, is quite dubious,” said Green, pointing to school systems Vallas once headed in Philadelphia, New Orleans – and Chicago.

In a news conference on Tuesday, Quinn heaped praise on Vallas, saying the two held similar values and said Vallas had dedicated his life to tackling school systems in crisis across the country.

“This is a man who takes on some of the toughest challenges in America,” Quinn said of Vallas. “He puts his body and soul into it. He has a servant’s heart.”

The Sun-Times reported on Friday that a firm Vallas formed was awarded an Illinois state contract that paid $1,200 a day at the same time he served as superintendent in Bridgeport.

On Tuesday, Vallas said that contract had ended, that he would no longer do business with Illinois but said he would continue doing outside work as long as he’s not elected to office here.

Vallas, a onetime gubernatorial candidate in Illinois, denied he had designs on higher office – including Chicago Mayor.

As for Vallas’ job in Connecticut, there’s no doubt now was a good time for him to leave – before he was forced out. Just last week a school board election meant the majority would tilt in opposition to Vallas. Vallas’ tenure in Bridgeport was a brief but undeniable roller coaster. In two years, he faced a legal challenge over his education credentials in Connecticut as well as criticism that he was out to reform schools by privatizing them.

“On Tuesday, the electorate sent a pretty clear message that the corporate agenda that Vallas represents was basically toxic to what they wanted to see for their school system,” said Green. “I wonder how carefully thought out this pick was. Here he had a very recent track record of alienating voters.”

Vallas defended his stint in Bridgeport, describing himself as a person who attracts naysayers because he’s charged with overhauling systems. He said he took a disastrous school budget and balanced it in two years.

“I not only gave teacher salary increases,” Vallas said. “I did it without laying off a single teacher and I did it without closing a single school and I did it without chartering a single school.”

Vallas has not been a friend of the unions because of his efforts to privatize schools when he took the helm in New Orleans. Vallas has traveled to earthquake-ravaged Chile and Haiti in the past. It was in Haiti where Vallas made a Bridgeport connection, which eventually brought him to head up the schools there.

As for Illinois, Vallas said he would help Quinn achieve his “legacy” initiative.

“The number one need is to get the pension issue resolved. And that is to solve the problem permanently . . . because that impacts everything,” Vallas said. “I think that’s the number one issue and everything else takes a backseat to that. . . . The political focus has to be on resolving this issue.”

Email: nkorecki@suntimes.com

Twitter: @natashakorecki



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