Paul Vallas has built his reputation by taking on enormous jobs. He headed public school systems in Chicago and Philadelphia, two of the top 10 biggest districts in the U.S.
He arrived in New Orleans when schools were in ruins and students were scattered across the country. From there, he moved on to disaster-stricken school systems in Haiti and Chile.
So his next act may seem like a head-scratcher: interim superintendent in Bridgeport, Conn.
Bridgeport is not even Connecticut's biggest school system; that would be Hartford. Bridgeport has about half the number of students as New Orleans and only three high schools.
But it does have what seems irresistibly attractive for Vallas -- headaches, among them an $8 million budget shortfall, a power struggle over who will govern public education in the city and dismal scores on state exams.
"We have a school district that's got a myriad of problems," said Bridgeport School Board Chairman Robert Trefry, who hired Vallas after the two were introduced by Connecticut's new education commissioner, Stefan Pryor. "We have funding problems. We have the lowest student achievement in the state of Connecticut. Vallas has the experience in urban areas and we can't wait for him to start."
Vallas will start soon -- Jan. 2 -- but probably won't stay for long. He'll be tasked with coming up with a turnaround plan for Bridgeport's public schools while the board looks for a permanent replacement who will carry the plan through over the long term. The board recently ended its contract with district's previous superintendent, John Ramos.
Trefry said Vallas' salary will depend on how long he ends up staying. He will keep the job for a year at most, but if the board can find a permanent replacement quickly, Vallas may phase out sooner. He'll also be keeping up his peripatetic schedule of international education consulting in places like Haiti, which may eat into his time in Bridgeport and hence his pay. Trefry said the board will limit his compensation to $229,000, the previous superintendent's annual salary.
The unlikely new assignment came about because of an existing relationship between Vallas and Pryor, who took over at the Connecticut State Department of Education just a few months ago.