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Superintendent Paul Vallas’ fate in state Supreme Court’s hands

Vallas ordered to leave office after judge ruled he wasn't properly certified for position

With his position as Bridgeport (Conn.) Public School superintendent in jeopardy, Paul Vallas’ fate will be decided by the state Supreme Court in September, Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers ruled.

In early July, Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis ordered that Vallas leave office immediately, after ruling that the national education reform figure is not properly certified for the position in the state. Later that month, the Supreme Court approved Vallas to stay on the job during the appeal process. 

“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 stated after the first ruling. “That has to remain our focus despite any other distractions, as our students deserve nothing less.”

Vallas is the former leader of troubled urban districts in Chicago, Philadelphia, and post-Katrina New Orleans. He was named interim superintendent of Bridgeport schools in December 2011, a few months after the state took over the district of 21,000 students. The state gave back local control in February 2012.

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, including classes and seminars, that the state had mandated.

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 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. “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.”

Both Pryor and Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch support the appeal, and are confident that the justices will rule in Vallas’ favor. “We are heartened by the support that the superintendent’s case has received by the state Board of Education, which voted unanimously to ask the Supreme Court to hear the appeal, and the Attorney General’s decision to file a ‘friend of the court’ brief in support of the appeal,” Finch says. “It is our hope that this case will be heard and a determination in his favor will be made so that Superintendent Vallas can continue the work he is doing to help the school children of our city receive the world-class education they deserve.”

The independent, union-funded Connecticut Working Families Party, which sought to remove Vallas from his position in part with an online petition, applauded the first judge’s decision against Vallas. The party believes that Bridgeport’s political leaders, including Finch, gave Vallas preferential treatment, and that he acts more as a businessman and less of a school leader.

“It’s a victory for parents and voters in Bridgeport,” Connecticut Working Families Party Director Lindsay Farrell stated after the initial 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 has stated the changes Vallas made in the district were “unequivocally bad.” Teachers and students spend more time preparing for standardized tests, administrative costs have risen, and funding for supplies and special education has been cut, she says.