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Judge rules Bridgeport (Conn.) Superintendent Paul Vallas removed from office

A judge has ordered Bridgeport (Conn.) schools superintendent Paul Vallas to leave office immediately, ruling that the national education reform figure is not properly certified for the position.

Vallas is the former leader of troubled urban districts in Chicago, Philadelphia, and post-Katrina New Orleans. He was named interim superintendent of Bridgeport Public Schools in December 2011, a few months after the state took over the district of 21,000 students. The state reversed its takeover decision in February 2012.

“I am going to continue to do what I have for nearly 20 years and focus on improving schools for students desperately in need of a better education,” Vallas said in a statement. “That has to remain our focus despite any other distractions as our students deserve nothing less.”

Vallas has brought sweeping reforms to Bridgeport, including establishing partnerships with local universities that allow high school seniors to take college courses, finalizing the development of four new magnet high schools, and closing a $12 million budget deficit without firing any teachers.

Connecticut superintendents must be certified through a 13-month program at the University of Connecticut. The state approved an abbreviated independent study course for Vallas, and offered him a three-year contract as superintendent.

But in April, activist Carmen Lopez filed a lawsuit over the contract, charging that Vallas lacked the proper certification. In June, the judge called Vallas’ course a “sham” and ruled that Vallas did not fulfill all of the requirements that the state had set out, which included classes and seminars.

The certification process is based largely on course credits, says Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, of which Vallas is a member. The association believes that the process should be more clinical, he says, and include a method for determining whether a candidate has the capacity to do the job, be it a teacher, principal, or superintendent.

“It doesn’t make much sense for people who want to come to Connecticut for a job to go through whatever procedures they have to go through if they’ve demonstrated elsewhere that they can do the job,” Cirasuolo says. “When someone comes in from out of state, there should be a process for determining if they’ve demonstrated the competencies for the position.” 

Stefan Pryor, commissioner of the Connecticut State Department of Education, says Vallas successfully completed the probationary period of one year as acting superintendent.

“We disagree with and are disappointed by the court’s decision,” Pryor says. “Paul Vallas’ superintendency – affirmed by Bridgeport’s democratically elected school board – has brought to the city invaluable expertise acquired over Mr. Vallas’ previous 15 years as superintendent of three major urban districts. We support Bridgeport’s decision to pursue next steps in the legal process.”

Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch’s office also disagrees with the judge’s decision. “We’re incredibly supportive of Superintendent Vallas,” says Joshua Thompson, director of education and youth policy for Mayor Finch. “We are, as a lot of community members are, extremely frustrated, and supportive of an appeal process.”

As of this writing, the city attorney’s office says it will appeal the decision quickly, and file papers to keep Vallas in charge.

The independent, union-funded Connecticut Working Families Party, which sought to remove Vallas from his position with an online petition, a door-to-door campaign, and a rally, applauds the decision. The party believes that Bridgeport’s political leaders, including Finch, gave Vallas preferential treatment, and that he acts more as a businessman than a school leader.

“It’s a victory for parents and voters in Bridgeport,” Connecticut Working Families Party Director Lindsay Farrell says of the court ruling. “The loophole created for Paul Vallas was typical of the city’s political machine that always seems to be cutting corners, disenfranchising residents, and making up their own rules.”

Farrell says the changes Vallas has made in the district are “unequivocally bad.” Teachers and students are spending more time preparing for standardized tests, administrative costs have risen, and funding for school supplies, special education, and elective programs has been cut, she says.