Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

Schools Chief in Bridgeport Is Under Fire A Judge Ruled That Superintendent Made End-Run Around Education Requirements

REMEMBER: Paul Vallas fired George Schmidt, longtime Chicago teacher and publisher of Substance--and sued George for $1.4 million for publishing the dreadful test the Chicago schools financed under his administration. Read Robert Tomsho's Page 1 coverage in the Wall Street Journal here. NOTE: The New York Times continues to ignore this story. Here's their latest mention of Vallas, Feb. 23, 2012

Paul Vallas, who still lives in Palos Heights, later ran the schools in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and in Philadelphia, and is temporarily overseeing a mess in Bridgeport, Conn., at the state's behest.

Here's lots more on the latest Vallas snafu.

by Joseph De Avila

Paul Vallas, schools superintendent in Connecticut's largest city, is no stranger to confrontation. He faced off with critics of his policies while leading high-profile districts such as Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans.

He isn't quite as accustomed to being called unqualified.

But that is precisely what a state judge has ruled in what may prove to be the most serious test yet of Mr. Vallas and his stewardship of the schools in impoverished and struggling Bridgeport.

Judge Barbara Bellis ruled that Mr. Vallas, who doesn't have an advanced education degree, did an end-run around state requirements for superintendents. Mr. Vallas failed to complete a program that had been tailored for him to satisfy the requirements, the judge said in her June 28 decision.

Mr. Vallas and the city have appealed. His defenders dismissed the idea that he lacks the bona fides to lead Bridgeport after an 18-year career heading up some of the nation's largest urban districts.

"The lawsuit isn't about the court. The lawsuit was about throwing another roadblock on our path to transforming the system," Mr. Vallas said. "It's the same old complainers. They are good at complaining and litigating, but the district is getting better."

Critics point to it as proof of their assertions that Mr. Vallas is unqualified to lead the 20,000-student system.

"We've always had problems, but he isn't correcting them," said Sauda Baraka, a Bridgeport school-board member. "He looks at public education as a business. But it's not a business."

The ruling was the latest in a string of standoffs between Mr. Vallas and his opponents in his 18-month tenure atop one of the worst-performing districts in the state. Only 42% of Bridgeport 10th-graders met or exceeded reading-proficiency standards and 37% met or exceeded math standards in the 2011-12 academic year, the most recently available numbers. Statewide, 81% of 10th-graders met or surpassed reading standards and 79% in math.

Although the judge ordered Mr. Vallas to step down immediately, he was allowed to remain in the post during the appeals process. He began a three-year contract on Monday.

Even before Mr. Vallas arrived, the schools were a source of conflict in Bridgeport, a waterfront city about 50 miles outside of New York. In July 2011, the Board of Education voted to dissolve itself amid an $18 million budget shortfall and infighting among members. Behind the scenes, the move was backed by well-funded outside interests, emails later showed.

Mr. Vallas started in January 2012, brought in by a state-appointed board, his $229,000 annual salary covered by anonymous donors for the first year. But in February 2012, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the state's takeover of the board was illegal and ordered a special election.

Now the nine-member board is split among five Democrats who generally support Mr. Vallas, and three members of the Working Families Party and one Democrat who generally oppose his policies. Critics object to his management style, which they say rankles parents and teachers, and his support of ideas that generally fall under a national movement known as school reform, such as increased standardized testing and tougher teacher evaluations.

"Paul Vallas, because of his significant record of action in other cities, has made Bridgeport a front line on the battle of what our public-education system will look like," said Lindsay Farrell, executive director of the state Working Families Party, one of the Mr. Vallas's leading critics.

Opponents point to his history in post-Katrina New Orleans, where charter schools proliferated. This fall, more than 90% of the district's public schools will be charter schools. No new charter schools, however, have opened in Bridgeport under Mr. Vallas.

His qualifications were challenged by Carmen Lopez, a retired Superior Court judge, and Deborah Reyes-Williams, a mother of four.

"I thought a lot of the actions taking place in the city of Bridgeport were an assault on democracy," Ms. Lopez said.

The Bridgeport Education Association, the local teachers union, applauded Judge Bellis's decision, as did members of the school board who oppose Mr. Vallas.

Despite the opposition, Mr. Vallas says he intends to finish out his contract to fully implement the changes he began. "I'm kind of used to this," he said. "You are always going to find resistance to reform."

Mr. Vallas's defenders say that he has taken steps to turn around a school district where more than half of the students fail to graduate and trimmed the budget gap by $12 million budget in his first year.

Mr. Vallas remade the curriculum for the district, plans to introduce a new teacher- and principal-evaluation system this fall and open four new magnet high schools. "Change makes some people uncomfortable. I think what we see is a group of folks determined to block progress at every step," said Jennifer Alexander, CEO of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, an advocacy group that supports Mr. Vallas.

Write to Joseph De Avila at joseph.deavila@wsj.com

— Joseph De Avila
Wall Street Journal





This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.