New Haven Register (Sunday) (New Haven, CT)

Ex-Bridgeport schools chief could be Chicago’s next mayor

- By Richard Chumney richard.chumney@hearstmedi­; Twitter @RichChumne­y.

BRIDGEPORT — Chicago’s next mayor may be a familiar face for Bridgeport residents.

Paul Vallas, the onetime superinten­dent of Bridgeport Public Schools who was ousted in 2013 after a judge ruled he was not qualified to lead the struggling school system, emerged as the top votewinner in the first round of voting last week.

Vallas, 69, will face Brandon Johnson, a former public school teacher and union organizer, in the April 4 runoff election. Incumbent Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot failed to advance to the final round.

Vallas, who has also helmed the school systems in Chicago and Philadelph­ia, was a controvers­ial figure during his twoyear tenure in the Park City. Activists who opposed him often criticized him as rigid and arrogant.

But Vallas also inspired passionate defenders who saw him as a talented administra­tor with a proven track record of turning around resource-starved and poor-performing school districts.

Former Mayor Bill Finch, who was in office when Vallas became interim schools chief in early 2012, said he was deeply impressed by the Chicago native’s ability to balance a budget and defuse tension with the teacher’s union.

Finch, who like Vallas is a Democrat, said he has made two trips to the Windy City to help his former colleague’s mayoral campaign and plans to make another visit early next month during the last weekend before Election Day.

“Paul is a compassion­ate mechanic. He gets under the hood and he fixes things,” Finch said. “He tries to leave any ideologies aside to fix the problems. His style is fantastic and his ability to create new ways of thinking about old problems is uncanny.”

‘Our plan is to move fast’

Not everyone has fond memories of Vallas’ time in Bridgeport. Longtime city activist Clyde Nicholson said he was troubled by his support of charter schools and what he described as a domineerin­g personalit­y.

“If Vallas wins, it would be the biggest disaster for Chicago,” Nicholson said. “This guy will not listen to anything you have to say and he runs things like he’s a dictator. Chicago has a lot of problems, but they don’t need Vallas.”

Vallas had big plans when he was named interim superinten­dent of the cash-strapped district in late 2011. He was hired just a few months after the state seized control of the Bridgeport Board of Education and replaced its frequently feuding elected members with handpicked appointees.

Vallas was chosen in part for his reputation for boosting test scores and ushering in stability in large urban districts. After running Chicago Public Schools and the School District of Philadelph­ia, he served as superinten­dent in New Orleans, where he was tasked with rebuilding the school system in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The Vallas campaign, which did not respond to a request for comment, has touted his experience reforming troubled school districts across the country, including in Bridgeport.

“Paul’s most recent superinten­dent assignment was the state of Connecticu­t’s takeover of its largest city’s schools, the Bridgeport Public Schools, which faced a severe financial crisis and were academical­ly failing,” campaign officials wrote in a biography on the candidate’s website. “In each of these positions Paul was able to significan­tly improve local schools.”

At the time of his appointmen­t, Vallas pledged to stabilize the Bridgeport school system and create new financial and academic plans that he claimed would generate improvemen­ts and move the district forward.

“I am used to taking on great challenges and going into crisis situations,” he said. “Our plan is to move fast.”

But Vallas’ long-term plans were upended when city activist and former state Superior Court Judge Carmen Lopez sued him in April 2013, claiming he had not taken the school leadership program required by the state to become a superinten­dent.

An early exit

Although he previously led big city school districts, Vallas had not completed a mandated 13month program at the University of Connecticu­t and was not officially certified to be a school superinten­dent.

The state Board of Education later approved a special school leadership program for Vallas to obtain the certificat­ion. But in June 2013 a Superior Court judge determined he did not possess the correct qualificat­ions and ordered him removed from his position.

Vallas appealed the decision, which was stayed, and continued to serve for about another five months before stepping down to mount a failed campaign for lieutenant governor in Illinois. The Connecticu­t Supreme Court eventually overturned the controvers­ial ruling in a what turned out to be a moot decision.

John Bagley, who was elected to the school board in 2012 after a court ended the state takeover and ordered new elections, said he was not upset to see Vallas leave the district. Bagley said Vallas was not often clear about his plans and routinely attempted to go around the board, which he said frustrated some members.

“He had an unorthodox style and I think he ruffled a lot of feathers,” Bagley said. “He was a guy who would listen, but he would do what he wanted to do.”

Finch said he attributed Vallas’ departure to political infighting and a superinten­dent qualificat­ion system that he claimed was designed to discourage the hiring of out-ofstate schools chiefs. He lamented the ruling, which came just days after the school board had elevated Vallas’ status from acting to permanent superinten­dent.

“We had two bright shining years of reform and advancemen­t for our students. And then it pretty much went away,” Finch said. “I think that Bridgeport probably didn’t appreciate the fact that we had a nationally recognized all-star coming in to help our kids.”

 ?? Ned Gerard/Hearst Connecticu­t Media file photo ?? Superinten­dent of Schools Paul Vallas, left, speaks during a 2013 Board of Education meeting in Bridgeport.
Ned Gerard/Hearst Connecticu­t Media file photo Superinten­dent of Schools Paul Vallas, left, speaks during a 2013 Board of Education meeting in Bridgeport.

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