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Vallas’ cure for N. Chicago schools — mass layoffs — riles teachers union

 
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Paul Vallas listens reporter's questions after Illinois Gov. PQuinn introduced him as his choice for running mate Nov. 12 Chicago.

Paul Vallas listens to a reporter's questions after Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn introduced him as his choice for running mate on Nov. 12 in Chicago. Vallas was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools from 1995 until 2001. | Andrew A. Nelles~AP

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Updated: December 26, 2013 6:28AM



SPRINGFIELD — Since landing work outside Illinois more than a decade ago, former Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas hasn’t just focused on leading troubled school systems in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Bridgeport, Conn.

Last summer, in a little-publicized $311,000 consulting deal with the Illinois State Board of Education, Gov. Pat Quinn’s newly named running mate offered a financial blueprint to turn around the nearly bankrupt North Chicago school district.

Teachers weren’t happy.

To avert insolvency in North Chicago Community Unit District 187 by 2015, Vallas recommended closing four of the district’s nine schools and laying off 130 teachers and staff — 39 percent of the district’s workforce.

Vallas, a longtime backer of charter schools, also singled out the financial drain caused by the lone charter school in District 187 but didn’t offer strategies in the report to address what he said “inequitably amounts to a heavy subsidy at the expense of the rest of the district.”

His consulting company, the Vallas Group, also urged a rewrite of the district’s curriculum, with more intensive teaching of literacy, math, social studies and science and longer class periods.

“The Vallas Group hopes that the recommendations in this report will help North Chicago become a model for school improvement,” Vallas wrote in his June 2013 report obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times through an open-records request.

Vallas’ financial advice triggered pushback from the llinois Federation of Teachers, which represents District 187 faculty members.

“This is another typical stop on the education-reform road show. These so-called experts spend very little time on the ground and then suggest firing half the staff, closing half the schools, and expect, somehow, to see improvements,” said Aviva Bowen, a spokeswoman for the teachers union.

“Teachers in North Chicago are struggling to serve students with scarce resources. Funding should go into the classrooms, not the pockets of out-of-state consultants,” she said.

For years, North Chicago’s school system has endured extreme financial difficulties; been poorly managed; faced declining enrollment, and seen its state and federal funding drop. Its enrollment of 3,814 students is heavily Hispanic and African American, with 78 percent of students described as low-income.

District 187, which has repeatedly borrowed to fund its operating expenditures, contemplated dissolution in the early 1990s and is one of two school districts in Illinois now overseen by the State Board of Education.

In 2011, the district’s former school board president, Gloria Harper, and its one-time transportation director, Alice Sherrod, were charged in an $800,000 kickback scheme tied to student-busing contracts.

Given the financial and ethical messes, state School Supt. Christopher Koch said there was genuine value in dealing with Vallas, who was to be paid $1,200 a day for work he personally performed under terms of the contract.

“On balance, it’s definitely well-written, informative, well-done and credible in the recommendations, and I think you’ll see them implemented over the years,” Koch said of Vallas’ report.

Even though the Vallas Group was not the lowest bidder, it was chosen over competitors based on higher technical scores and Vallas’ experience as a turnaround expert in other school systems. State Board Chairman Gery Chico, who once was Chicago’s school board chairman, brought on Vallas to head the city schools during the 1990s.

“They had experience doing this in other places,” Koch said. “We felt at the time, they were the best to do the work, and I think they had some sound recommendations.

Earlier this month, Quinn chose Vallas to be his running mate, praising the longtime educator as “an independent problem solver with a proven record of reform.”

The pick drew condemnation from Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who said Vallas’ anointment takes Illinois in the “wrong direction for public education.”

“Vallas ushered in an era of massive expansion of standardized testing; the privatization of public schools through outsourcing and charter school expansion; and the devastating policy of school turnarounds, which resulted in the firing of scores of black and veteran teachers,” Lewis said after Vallas was picked by Quinn.

But with regard to his work at North Chicago, Quinn campaign spokeswoman Leslie Wertheimer championed its benefits.

Vallas’ “extensive evaluation” of North Chicago laid a path to “help save an extremely troubled district from financial collapse and help the district provide better education opportunities for its students,” Wertheimer said Sunday.

North Chicago Mayor Leon Rockingham Jr., who had not seen the report, acknowledged dramatic changes are necessary to repair the school district in which he was educated.

“It will be difficult, very difficult for the schools, the children, just to make sure they are getting a good education,” Rockingham said when asked how Vallas’ findings, if fully enacted, would affect the community.

“But it’s going to take that, I guess, to meet the deficits they’re facing. At this point, either those changes are going to have to be met, or the schools will be closed,” he said.



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