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Paul Vallas school ouster case is heard by Connecticut Supreme Court

Paul Vallas

Paul Vallas

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Did Paul Vallas, the former Chicago schools chief who’s now schools superintendent in Bridgeport, Conn., properly receive a waiver to state certification requirements for his current job, or did he and Connecticut education officials flout the law to make it easier for him to take the helm of the northeastern city’s struggling school district?

Those were the arguments the Connecticut Supreme Court heard Monday as it considers whether Vallas should be ousted as schools chief. It’s not clear when the court will issue a ruling.

Vallas, 60, a nationally known school reformer from Chicago who previously also led big-city school districts in Philadelphia and New Orleans, is appealing a decision in July by a judge who ruled that an educational leadership course Vallas took to receive the certification waiver was inadequate and that he should leave his job. That ruling was stayed pending the appeal.

Vallas, who didn’t attend Monday’s arguments, said in an interview later that he didn’t want to get into specifics about the course he took, citing the pending court case.

“The bottom line is the state laid out what the requirements were, and I exceeded the state requirements,” said Vallas, who started as acting Bridgeport superintendent in January 2012.

Several Vallas opponents attended the arguments including former state Superior Court Judge Carmen Lopez and parent Deborah Reyes-Williams, the two Bridgeport residents who sued Vallas and state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor in April over Vallas’ qualifications.

Lopez alleges Vallas received preferential treatment by state education officials including Pryor and was held to lower standards than other superintendent candidates.

“We’re interested in holding the executive branch accountable,” Lopez said after the arguments. “And what do you do? You go to court. Because it’s only the courts that can check the power of the executive branch.”

At issue is a state law that was changed last year to allow Vallas and other educators to bypass the usual route of superintendent certification by completing a “school leadership program.” The program must be approved by the state Board of Education and be offered at a public or private college or university in the state.

Earlier this year, Vallas completed an independent study course at the University of Connecticut that was approved by the state Education Board. He received an “A,” and Pryor — Vallas’ friend who recruited him to Connecticut — approved a certification waiver.

But Bridgeport Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis ruled in July that the independent study course was not a UConn-approved “school leadership program,” and wasn’t the program that was approved by the state Education Board.

Bellis noted that program was designed by Vallas and an official at UConn’s Neag School of Education. She said Vallas never attended a class or an in-person seminar and didn’t participate in any technology assisted discussions, all of which were required under the course description approved by the state Education Board.

Steven Ecker, an attorney for Vallas, defended the independent study course in his argument before the Supreme Court and said Vallas showed that he has a high level of expertise in leading school districts.

“This gentleman demonstrated complete mastery over the subject matter,” Ecker said. “I don’t think there’s any question about it. There was no finding to the contrary.”

The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Norman Pattis, later responded to the “complete mastery” remark.

“Well, small wonder. He helped design his own course,” Pattis told the justices.

Lopez said she believes the case is about upholding the integrity of the law.

“For the state Board of Education to approve that particular course — custom-made and partially designed by the individual who’s going to benefit by it — seems to smack a little bit of abuse of discretion,” she said.

Vallas said his opponents are spreading misinformation about him and blamed part of the opposition on politics and fears of change and increased accountability.

“The school reform debate has become really polarized. It’s descended into a slug fest, a street brawl,” Vallas said. “There’s always somebody who’s going to oppose change.”

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