Unionists trying to run successful superintendent out of Bridgeport, on a technicality or through termination

Sep 25, 2013 by

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – The Connecticut Supreme Court heard legal arguments Monday as to whether Bridgeport Superintendent Paul Vallas is qualified for his job.

Vallas, a renowned education reformer who has led and helped improve some of the nation’s largest school systems – including Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans public schools – took over the helm of the troubled Bridgeport district in December 2011 and is already putting things back on track.

In his short tenure, Vallas balanced two consecutive district budgets without a single teacher layoff or school closure – no small feat considering that Bridgeport schools were teetering on financial collapse when he arrived.

The problem is, Vallas’ master’s degree is in political science, not education, so he doesn’t meet the requirements of Connecticut law to serve as a superintendent.

“That’s like saying Michael Jordan can’t coach basketball because he doesn’t have teacher certification,” Vallas has said of the situation, according to media reports.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has also defended Vallas and called the situation “beyond ludicrous,” the New York Times reports.

Despite decades of proven leadership in districts far larger and with much bigger problems than Bridgeport, local teacher union officials and members of the Working Families Party – a New York City-based political party founded by ACORN – are attempting to use Vallas’ alleged lack of credentials to oust him from office.

While Vallas is clearly improving the relatively small urban district of about 21,000 students, his opponents view his case as a bellwether moment in their ongoing effort to stop education reform and preserve the status quo in failing urban schools.

A school board primary election earlier this month already has them claiming victory.

Vallas was hired as Bridgeport superintendent by a state-appointed school board in 2011, but shortly after his arrival “the (Connecticut) Supreme Court … ruled that the takeover, devised in secret by Mayor Bill Fitch and a majority of the school board, was illegal,” the Connecticut Post reports.

“The court ordered the return of an elected board, which by a 5-4 majority has kept Vallas in office.”

But in the recent Sept. 10 school board primary, several Working Families Party candidates defeated Vallas’ supporters.

“In a nearly 10-to-1 Democratic city, the primary winners are all but guaranteed to win the November elections and team up with Working Families Party members (already on the board) to form an anti-Vallas majority on the nine-member school board,” The Atlantic reports.

Joe Dinkin, a spokesman for the Working Families Party told the Atlantic he believes the primary “was a repudiation of the corporate-reform model, a repudiation of Paul Vallas, and a call for community control of education.

“There are major fights over the future of education going on in a lot bigger cities than Bridgeport,” he said. “I hope people in those places will see this and take heart. The (corporate reformers) have gone close to undefeated in expanding their agenda for the last couple of decades. But this shows they can be beaten.”

Track record

Vallas’ success at transforming large urban school districts is undeniable.

The former budget analyst was first tapped by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley as CEO for the city’s schools, a post in which he improved relations with the Chicago Teachers Union, balanced the district’s budget and expanded charter, magnet and other alternatives to traditional public schools.

Vallas eventually ran for governor of Illinois, but lost to Rod Blagojevich in a close Democratic primary in 2002. He was then appointed CEO of Philadelphia’s public schools.

In Philly, Vallas worked to transform the district by privatizing management of some of the district’s worst schools, “with the management of over 40 schools turned over to outside for-profits, nonprofits, and universities beginning in the fall of 2002,” according to Wikipedia.

Then, in 2007, he accepted a position as superintendent of the Recovery School District of Louisiana – comprised mostly of very poor performing schools that were ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Dawn Ruth, an education reporter for MyNewOrleans.com, described his tenure in the Big Easy.

“He throws out ideas at lightning speed, makes use of the best ones and then moves on to the next challenge when the balls he put in motion are spinning too fast to stop. That was his modus operandi in New Orleans,” Ruth wrote in a column about the “absurd drama” taking place in Bridgeport.

“When he took over the majority of New Orleans’ storm damaged schools in 2007, two years after the state seized them because they were ‘failing,’ he became impatient with continued poor performance and handed over the lowest performers to semi-autonomous charter operators.

“When he left in 2010 to help Haiti restore its schools after a devastating earthquake, 71 percent of the New Orleans’ schools were charters, Tulane University’s Cowen Institute’s 2011 report shows. Today more than 80 percent are charters. That shift has made all the difference to the future of thousands of school children because (New Orleans) charters have raised students’ test scores dramatically over the years.”

Vallas’ penchant for turning schools over to non-government operators is obviously the main reason many folks in Bridgeport don’t like him very much. While he hasn’t indicated a desire to do the same in Bridgeport, it’s clear his past successes are viewed as a threat to local union officials and others vested in the status quo.

“People don’t want to let go of public education,” Bridgeport Education Association President Gary Peluchette told the Post. “They don’t want it privately managed and they don’t want a Board of Education that is going to rubber-stamp everything the administration does.”

Qualifications to lead

Shortly after arriving in Bridgeport, a retired judge filed a lawsuit to contest Vallas’ credentials to be a superintendent in Connecticut because state law requires an education-specific degree.

Initially, the state allowed Vallas to take a condensed version of University of Connecticut’s 13-month school leadership program to fulfill the requirement.

“I didn’t view it cynically and I didn’t complain,” Vallas told the Times.

Vallas completed the coursework over several months, but a judge ridiculed his efforts as “a sham” and ruled Vallas must be removed from his position.

Vallas appealed the decision to the Connecticut Supreme Court this summer.

“Vallas must have left the courtroom feeling like a character in an absurd drama,” Ruth, the New Orleans reporter, opined. “He served as CEO for schools in Chicago and Philadelphia, turned around failing schools in New Orleans, and influenced education policy in Haiti and Chile, but isn’t qualified to govern 37 floundering schools in Bridgeport?”

Throughout the court drama, union officials and the Working Families Party continued their campaign to run the well-known reformer from town by stoking misplaced fears about privatization of local public schools.

“He abuses local school districts to create profits for his business allies, and implements extreme policies that exacerbate racial and economic inequality in the schools,” a memo circulated by the Working Families Party alleges, according to the Times.

“Mr. Vallas’ opponents said they worried he would move, as he had in other cities, to demand concessions from teachers in contract negotiations, and to expand charter schools, which the opponents believe would drain money from public schools,” the news site reports.

Some reformers and prominent education officials have come to Vallas’ side.  Duncan, the U.S. Education Secretary told the Times the battle in Bridgeport is an obvious example of adults protecting a failed status-quo.

“This, to me, is just another painfully obvious, crystal-clear example of people caught in an old paradigm,” Duncan said. “This is the tip of the iceberg.”

“Anytime you push reform, you’re going to create controversy. Why? Because you’re upsetting the status quo,” Vallas told the Atlantic. “We closed a massive budget hole. We brought this district back from the brink without cutting a single teacher. If that’s controversy, it’s made-up controversy.”

If the Connecticut Supreme Court rules in Vallas’ favor, he will remain in his position as a majority of anti-reform school board members take over the board.

Maria Pereira, chairman of the Bridgeport Working Families Party, predicts Vallas’ tenure at Bridgeport is coming to a close, one way or another.

“I think, whatever the ruling is from the Supreme Court, that Vallas will in all likelihood either leave on his own or he will be terminated,” Pereira told the Post. “That is my guess.”

Vallas, however, has other plans.

“I am going to keep this job till someone says I can’t,” he told the Post. “I have a three-year contract and assuming the (state) Supreme Court rules in my favor, I just will continue to work as long as I feel I am making progress.”

Unionists trying to run successful superintendent out of Bridgeport, on a technicality or through termination – EAGnews.org powered by Education Action Group Foundation, Inc..

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