FILE – This May 6, 2008, file photo, shows then-New Orleans Recovery School District superintendent Paul Vallas during a news conference in New Orleans. Vallas became superintendent in January 2012 of the Bridgeport, Conn., school system. But Vallas isn’t certified by the state to be a school superintendent, and a lawsuit challenging his credentials is scheduled to go before the state Supreme Court Monday, Sept. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Bill Haber, File)
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Paul Vallas was hailed by his supporters as a proven reformer who would turn around Bridgeport schools when he took over the superintendent’s job in January 2012, after having led troubled, big city school districts in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans.
Less than two years later, however, he’s fighting to keep his job in battles being waged on two fronts: a lawsuit challenging his credentials that has reached the state Supreme Court and a city Board of Education election in November that could change the majority from pro-Vallas to anti-Vallas and lead to a vote on his ouster.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments Monday on whether Vallas, who is not certified to be a school superintendent in Connecticut, properly fulfilled requirements in state law that allow a certification waiver. He is appealing a ruling in July by Bridgeport Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis, who said Vallas didn’t meet the waiver condition because the course he took on educational leadership was inadequate.
Five anti-Vallas candidates are running against three pro-Vallas candidates in the November election for five seats on the board, potentially jeopardizing the current 5-4 pro-Vallas majority.
Vallas, a 60-year-old Chicago native, didn’t respond to requests for comment by The Associated Press. He told the Connecticut Post in a recent interview that he has no plans to leave the state’s largest city and its school district of more than 21,000 students.
“I am going to keep this job till someone says I can’t,” Vallas said. “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.”
Vallas, on the school system’s website, touts his accomplishments in Bridgeport, including closing the district’s $12 million budget deficit and implementing a five-year budget and school improvement plan.
But critics say his reform methods haven’t worked at other school districts, rely too heavily on increased student testing and resulted in lower scores on statewide testing this year.
“We want the same kind of superior, qualified, credentialed person running our school district as anyone else,” said Board of Education member Sauda Baraka. “From my perspective, he probably doesn’t have the expertise or knowledge base to bring about the changes we need in Bridgeport.”
Baraka and fellow school board member Maria Pereira said districtwide student testing has increased dramatically under Vallas — to every six weeks — and they believe students’ education is being harmed by teachers teaching for tests. They also say educators don’t have enough supplies, including copy paper and science classroom materials.
Two supporters of Vallas on the school board didn’t return messages left seeking comment.
On the 2013 Connecticut Mastery Test for grades three through eight, the percentages of Bridgeport students meeting or exceeding the goals for math, reading, writing and science decreased in most cases compared with last year, though school officials have touted successes in many areas of the struggling district.
Vallas’ lawyers, in documents filed in the Supreme Court case, say he is a nationally recognized education leader who raised test scores and balanced billion-dollar budgets in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans. They also say he gained international recognition when he helped rebuild and improve Haiti’s school system after the 2010 earthquake.
Vallas, however, also faced criticism in Philadelphia and New Orleans.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, changes were made in New Orleans schools that were widely heralded as innovative but were painful locally as thousands of teachers and school workers were laid off amid a takeover of most schools by the state. After Vallas arrived in 2007, he drew critics there for his sometimes brusque manner.
In Philadelphia, fighting over a $73 million deficit in 2007 eventually led to Vallas’ departure.
Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, a top Vallas supporter, disputed criticism of the school chief in a statement emailed to the AP.
The mayor said the school district under Vallas has opened two new high schools, is building new schools and made significant improvements at low-performing schools.
“This progress is commendable,” Finch said.
The lawsuit before the Supreme Court was filed by a retired judge and a mother of four children in the school district. They claim Vallas received special treatment from the state, and the case is about upholding the integrity of the law.
After Vallas was hired as acting superintendent with the approval of his friend, state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, the state legislature and governor approved a change to the law that allowed Vallas and others to receive a waiver to the superintendent certification process if they completed a school leadership program at a university.
Vallas completed an independent study course at the University of Connecticut designed solely for him, but Bellis, the Bridgeport judge, ruled the course was not a school leadership program required by law. Bellis said Vallas should leave the job immediately because he wasn’t qualified, but the ruling was stayed pending the Supreme Court appeal.
Vallas’ lawyers rejected the lawsuit’s claims in their brief to the Supreme Court. They wrote that Vallas fully complied with the requirement to complete an education leadership course to receive a certification waiver.
“Plaintiffs’ case is based on spin, insinuation, innuendo and semantic gamesmanship,” Vallas’ lawyers wrote. “The tyrannical ‘farce’ and conspiratorial ‘sham’ that plaintiffs find everywhere is only a function of how they see the world, and exists independent of reality.”