Paul Vallas–arguably this nation’s No. 1 superintendent–has just signed on for what many would have good reason to call America’s worst superintendency. What’s more, it appears he’ll be climbing aboard at a substantial cut in pay. Reflecting on his move, one nagging question leaps to mind: Is this guy nuts?
Next month, as you can read on the Front Page of this issue, Vallas–riding high after predominantly successful superintendencies in Chicago and Philadelphia–intends to take the helm of the New Orleans Recovery School District. He wants to lift those troubled schools out of a Louisiana swamp of disaster, back-biting, racial suspicion, infighting, corruption, and hopeless resignation. Not many with anything serious to lose would risk tilting at this particular windmill.
But then, not many are just like Vallas.
Consider how he got his start. Most career executive educators toil in the classroom, the principal’s office, central administration, and then finally–if they’re lucky (or unlucky)–make it to their first superintendency. Vallas got his start in school administration piloting the third-largest school district in America–first time out.
Now, you know a rail is the most common mode of transportation for a departing urban superintendent, and tar and feathers the most customary parting gifts.
But when Vallas left the Chicago superintendency in 2001, he bid farewell to a reluctant Mayor Richard M. Daley, then strode out of City Hall on to LaSalle Street, where he received the accolades of a grateful city. Passersby on that downtown street literally shouted congratulations on a job well done, and drivers in passing vehicles honked their horns and yelled “Great job, Paul!”
His Philadelphia story wasn’t so much different. Detractors certainly can be found, but not, for example, on the editorial page of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which offered up this nunc dimittis: “Paul Vallas leaves his successor a school system that is in far better shape than when he came to town.”
But the past is prologue. Now comes the challenge of a lifetime. Not many could survey the problems besetting the Crescent City without despair. Yet Vallas is undeterred. In fact, he says he’s energized by the opportunities of a nearly blank slate.
Knowing what it takes to improve a school district is a “no brainer,” Vallas confidently told the local press shortly after being hired. All you need to do, he explained, is hire top-notch staff to carry out academic reforms already proven elsewhere. No problem. That’s exactly what he means to do. In fact, some of his most trusted lieutenants from his stints in Chicago and Philadelphia are already in New Orleans. And, in fact, so is he, although his tenure doesn’t officially begin until July.
Beyond populating his management team with hard-charging staff members, Vallas says his early challenges will be restoring the devastated facilities and recruiting talented teachers.
“The condition of the facilities is really pretty striking and pretty depressing,” he told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He says he’s already talking to corporations such as Apple, Dell, and Microsoft, because he wants to improve technology in the schools. Declared Vallas: There’s a tremendous reservoir of untapped good will available to New Orleans.
More foundations called him in the first week after his job announcement, he claimed, than he got during his entire five-year tenure in Philadelphia. And he plans to take advantage of every bit of the largesse, according to the newspaper.
“I leave no dollar behind,” Vallas told the Times-Picayune. “I beg. I’ve got the ugliest knees you ever saw.”
New Orleans has a legacy of bringing in notable superintendents and tarnishing their reputations. In spite of their welcoming embrace of tourists, native residents are known for being slow to warm to outsiders settling in their midst. None of this seems to worry Vallas.
“I think that if I articulate a vision, and then I reach out to the community to develop a consensus around that vision,…I’ll get community support,” he explained. “That said and done, you don’t need to reach a community consensus to know that the facilities need to be upgraded. You don’t need the community consensus to know that you better have qualified teachers in the classrooms.”
That kind of cut-to-the-chase, straight talk might be just what New Orleans needs. The long-term survival of New Orleans as a great city might well depend on transforming a wretched, ravaged school district into something to be proud of, something that will help repopulate the city and bring an end to the modern-day Diaspora set off by Hurricane Katrina.
New Orleans needs a hero, and Paul Vallas–come triumph or tragedy–will strive to be the hero New Orleans needs.