Vallas in with roar, out with rancor

The city's polarizing schools chief leaves a five-year legacy of broad achievements but also some stinging failures.

Posted: June 17, 2007

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission was prepared to fete departing chief executive officer Paul Vallas at its board meeting. There would be a resolution, applause, smiles, pictures - a celebration of his five years at the helm of the nation's eighth-largest district.

The 1 p.m. event had been touted to the media the day before, and television cameras and reporters awaited Vallas' arrival in the district headquarters auditorium. The five members of the commission, his bosses, were waiting, too.

But Vallas, feeling he had been unfairly scapegoated and tarnished for the district's budget deficit, had left the building an hour and a half earlier and had no intention of returning.

"I'm not coming. I'm done. I'm out of the building," he told a staffer by cell phone before the event Wednesday.

Later, with the meeting under way and the commission still waiting, a top aide called again, frantic to get him to return.

"I don't need to go through a phony resolution thing," Vallas told the aide.

"I'm tired," he said, turning his attention to a reporter. "I've got this [heart] arrhythmia. I'm beat up. I've got a headache. I've got boxes all over the house. . . . That's why I don't want to put up with any bulls-. I just want to go and get out."

Vallas, 54, who came to town in July 2002 like a dynamo bringing a wave of optimism to a beleaguered district, left office last week at odds not only with the board that hired him but also with Mayor Street. He will start as superintendent of the New Orleans district tomorrow.

The unrest has come despite his tenure's plethora of accomplishments, which have earned the district and him national recognition in recent weeks: substantial increases in elementary test scores, a proliferation of smaller theme-based high schools, a standardized curriculum, more certified teachers, and more programs for the youngest students and those most disruptive.

But those accomplishments became clouded by a $73 million "surprise" deficit that surfaced in the fall in the district's $2.02 billion budget and the ensuing power struggle between Vallas and his commission bosses. The district's money crunch is expected to force layoffs, the loss of supplemental arts programs, and other cuts in the months ahead.

The relationship between Vallas and the commission turned even icier in the spring. Vallas disclosed last week that Chairman James Nevels had summoned him and told him that he "no longer had the support of the commission" and that it was time for him to leave - an assertion that Nevels has denied.

Vallas, who earned $375,000 this school year, including performance and retention bonuses, leaves the district awash in another funding crisis while teachers, parents and educators wonder whether the good he did can be sustained and improved upon, or whether it was a mirage that will fade as money woes persist.

"For me, the jury's still out on what his final legacy will be," said Helen Gym, a parent and education activist, "but it's obvious we're going to be living with a deficit. That's a responsibility shared by the SRC, Vallas, the city and the state."

Gov. Rendell, in a telephone interview last week, blasted commissioners for failing to support Vallas and said they were as much to blame for the deficit as Vallas was.

"He did not get the support throughout his tenure that his accomplishments deserved," Rendell said.

He wishes Vallas were staying: "It's a real loss."

Some parents, including Keri White, who has two children at McCall School in Society Hill, still see Vallas as "a knight in shining armor" who delivered on promises as best as he could.

"I don't think you can do all these incredible things without spending money," White said. "And I think the fact that he is going on a sad note is sort of tragic."

While his fortunes faded in Philadelphia, his reputation soared nationally.

The Washington Post featured in a front page article last week the district's progress in lifting its lowest-performing students. A laudatory piece in Time on June 4 highlighted two elementary schools that made a dramatic turnaround. And Tuesday evening, as Vallas stood on the steps of the administration building on North Broad Street, he took a call from 60 Minutes, which wants to profile the New Orleans district.

"I'll give you all the time you need," the press-friendly Vallas told the news program.

Vallas' trouble with his bosses in Philadelphia began more than a year ago. Some observers at the time cited a power struggle pitting Commissioner James Gallagher and then-Commissioner Daniel Whelan against Vallas, who chafed at being treated as an employee and preferred acting as an independent leader. They clashed over the effectiveness of certain programs, the toughness of educational standards, and budget decisions.

Nevels and Commissioners Martin Bednarek and Sandra Dungee Glenn stood by Vallas, voting in August to give him a two-year contract extension. But Nevels' relations with Vallas became increasingly strained as the deficit unfolded.

The tall, gangly Vallas, dubbed a "whirling dervish" by the secretaries who kept his fast-paced schedule, said he wasn't surprised that "differences over governance" had marred his relationship with the commission and mayor. It's the typical course for a superintendent in a troubled urban district, said Vallas, who also ran the Chicago public schools for six years.

"The first two years you literally get to do just about anything you want. You're a demolition expert," said Vallas, who can spin the heads of his audience with his incessant speech and ability to rattle off details of his agenda.

"By year four, there's a lot of people walking around pissed off because you're getting so much credit for it. And by year five, you're chopped liver.

"It begins to come apart piece by piece, and it begins with micromanagement. You begin to lose the flexibility."

He won't stay in New Orleans as long: "Three years tops."

Critics and fans alike credit Vallas for raising the achievement of many of the district's lowest-performing students. More than 160 schools have met federal targets for improvement, compared with 26 when he arrived. Thirty-eight percent of students tested advanced or proficient in reading, up from 29 percent in 2002. The math proficiency rate jumped from 19.5 percent to 41 percent.

Vallas sought and got a technically advanced high school - now an international model - built in partnership with Microsoft Corp. It was one of about two dozen new, smaller theme-based high schools opened to give students choice.

High schools with Advanced Placement courses were increased from 18 to 48 in an attempt to boost rigor. Enrollment in early-childhood programs has nearly doubled. And nearly $80 million was spent on new textbooks.

Vallas built political goodwill for a district that had been non grata in Harrisburg, observers said.

But not everything went smoothly.

One of Vallas' first tasks was to establish a tougher "zero tolerance" discipline policy that would sanction principals who failed to report incidents and move out dangerous students to alternative schools. He rolled out the plan in September 2002, and in the next several years expanded disciplinary-school capacity threefold.

Yet assaults on teachers persist. The district was rocked in February after Germantown High School teacher Frank Burd was left with a broken neck from an attack by a student in a hallway. Chaos followed at West Philadelphia High after teachers complained of assaults. Violent incidents overall dropped 14 percent in 2005-2006, but are up slightly this year.

In another major initiative announced in his first year, Vallas said he would build nine high schools and almost as many elementary schools as part of a $1.5 billion capital program, the largest in the district's history. But progress stalled as the district struggled to find land and construction costs rose.

Eight high schools have been built or are being designed.

While the district built fewer elementary schools than projected, most of the capital program's renovation projects are done or in progress, officials said.

Vallas lowered class sizes early on, earning praise from the teachers union, but that effort faltered as funding tightened.

"Small class size has to be number one, and he didn't deliver," said Ted Kirsch, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, who generally praises Vallas.

Vallas considers it one of his biggest regrets along with not upgrading classrooms with technology fast enough. But, he said, neither could have been done without a significant increase in funding.

The district's finances are a huge unsolved problem. A report this month from state Budget Secretary Michael Masch blamed poor financial management and lack of oversight for the deficit. Each year, the district overspent, even though it was supposed to right itself financially after a 2001 state takeover pumped in hundreds of millions of dollars and allowed the borrowing of $300 million more.

Vallas said the overspending had been no secret, and he doesn't apologize for it; it yielded substantial results, he said. He knew the district was running short on funding, and the commission should have known, too, because it received private briefings from the finance team, he said.

"Let's not pretend we didn't know," he said.

The surprise, he said, came in the size of the deficit and its early arrival.

Vallas said he had asked Nevels, the commission chairman, whether he could change the financial team after the deficit emerged, but had been rebuffed. Nevels, he said, had selected the chief financial officer, Folasade Olanipekun-Lewis, who resigned a few weeks ago.

In retrospect, Vallas said, he should have insisted that he be able to appoint his own finance team throughout his tenure.

"I was too passive on those issues," he said.

Nevels vigorously disputed Vallas' account. He said the commission had received no private briefings from the finance team, and that he did not recall Vallas' asking him whether he could change the team. Olanipekun-Lewis, he contended, was Vallas' hire.

"The finance team was Paul's team," Nevels said.

And he said he had never told Vallas he wanted him out.

"Paul Vallas is a great change agent," Nevels said. "We were relying on him to move this district forward in an unprecedented way. . . . For that we are tremendously appreciative."

But Nevels said he was disappointed in the financial outcome, given Vallas' previous stint as Chicago's budget director.

"We thought we were getting a budget expert," Nevels said.

Confronted with Nevels' denial that he wanted him out, Vallas swore to its veracity. "I'll kiss my crucifix," he said, grabbing it from his neck.

The real culprit for the financial mess is inadequate city and state funding, Vallas said.

"This district is underfunded by $1,200 more per pupil," or about $240 million, he said. "It's time for people to fund their schools."

Vallas should have said that a lot sooner, and not doing so was his biggest mistake, said Shelly Yanoff, executive director of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, a nonprofit that advocates more school funding.

"At some point, we needed to say . . . we can't produce the changes we want fast enough and solidly enough unless we have more money," Yanoff said.

Rendell defended the state, saying his administration has increased education funding substantially. To expect more was "unrealistic," he said.

School Reform Commissioner Martin Bednarek said Vallas' "biggest downfall" had been trying to please everyone.

"He has a hard time saying no to people. He promised people a lot of things."

Vallas acknowledged: "I promise more than I can deliver, absolutely. . . . If I promise 10 things and deliver six or seven, I'm still ahead of the guy who promises two things and delivers one."

Last week, he visited Dobbins Vocational-Technical High School, which was supposed to be completely repainted inside. Three of six floors had been. A distressed Vallas called maintenance and ordered that the job be finished.

Principal Charles Whiting had only praise for Vallas.

"It's the first time in 20 years that Dobbins had something done in the hallways," he said. "That, in itself, speaks for Paul Vallas."


The Paul Vallas Years: 2002-07

Successes

  • Test scores improved districtwide.
  • Academics were enhanced with a new curriculum, double periods for math and reading in critical grades, higher standards, and more advanced-placement courses and teacher training.
  • Class sizes were initially reduced, textbooks were bought, and after-school offerings were expanded.
  • Struggling students were required to attend after-school programs.
  • Mandatory summer school for failing students was introduced, and enrichment programs for others were offered.
  • Funding from the city and state rose steadily.
  • A four-year teachers' pact in 2004 gave the district more flexibility in teacher assignments.
  • More funding and extra academic help were given for three years to 21 struggling schools, including M. Hall Stanton Elementary, which won national honors for improved test scores.
  • With Vallas' support, Edison Inc., a for-profit company, was blocked from becoming the lead consultant to the district in 2002.
  • Large high school and middle schools were divided, and K-8 school was introduced instead.
  • A $1.5 billion capital plan to build and renovate schools was executed. Despite delays, eight of the nine high schools Vallas promised have been constructed or are being built.
  • Support and optimism about public education in Philadelphia was generated.

Failures

  • A "surprise" budget deficit of $73.3 million triggered the loss of public and political support. Program cutbacks and layoffs are planned.
  • Political disputes eroded support from Mayor Street, City Controller Alan Butkovitz, and the School Reform Commission.

Left undone

  • Funding still falls short of district's needs.
  • Keeping classes smaller is a challenge.
  • The high school dropout rate remains high. Half the district's ninth graders do not graduate from high school on time.
  • Efforts to reduce school violence continue. While violent incidents dropped significantly in 2005-06, they are up slightly this school year, and assaults on teachers persist.
  • The School Reform Commission's academic targets for next June include having 80 percent of all students between grades three and 11 scoring at advanced or proficient on state tests.

- Martha Woodall


To see a video of Paul Vallas' last day, go to http://go.philly.com/vallaslastday


Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Martha Woodall contributed to this article.

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