Monday, January 28, 2008

Recovering the School District

Back in October, I wrote a piece regarding Mr. Paul Vallas, the head of New Orleans' Recovery School District.

I later removed the post but I think it is now important to revisit the crux of what I discussed.

This is what I wrote:

Today's Times Picayune reports on the Recovery School District's two-year spending plan, as unveiled by Superintendent Paul Vallas. The blueprint calls earmarks $248 million over the next two years toward reforms involving the reduction of average classroom size, the modernization of classroom technologies, etc.

The article emphasizes that the spending plan is both ambitious and risky:

The strategy will set the district down a path of instituting costly reforms in the next two years that will likely have to be scaled back thereafter. That tack initially drew concern from members of the state school board, who feared the district might spend beyond its means. But Vallas seemed to ease their fears in a presentation before the board in Baton Rouge on Wednesday by promising to steadily reduce future spending.

It does not surprise me one bit that Vallas was able to calm the stooges in the Rouge. He is famous and he is a hard worker and he has successful statistics from previous stints helming the schools in Chicago and Philadelphia. The man sounds like he knows his stuff, he's a nerd. His quotes in the paper emphasize his awareness of the direness of the New Orleans schools.

"We can't wait. We can't phase these things in... It's emergency time here."

He's right, there is an emergency here. Serious things need to be done. I'm glad Vallas works hard and thinks big.

But let's be careful here. Vallas wants to get in and get out. Controversies dogged him in Philadelphia once Vallas' budget bit off more than it could chew. Observe these Vallas quotes from the Philly Inquirer:

"The first two years you literally get to do just about anything you want. You're a demolition expert," said Vallas, who can spin the heads of his audience with his incessant speech and ability to rattle off details of his agenda. (they ain't used to that in Baton Rouge!)

"By year four, there's a lot of people walking around pissed off because you're getting so much credit for it. And by year five, you're chopped liver.

...He won't stay in New Orleans as long: "Three years tops."

Vallas has now learned to get out after he can take credit for spending money quickly but before the budgetary realities catch up to him and begin to make his decisions seem less responsible. Here's an article detailing some of the anger that developed toward Vallas' leadership:

It was perhaps one of the best-orchestrated public responses to mounting concerns about the academic and financial condition of the 174,000-student district in years, with members of the clergy, the local NAACP, and advocacy groups joining in.

Parents, teachers and students complained about rising class sizes, lack of art and music programs, fewer librarians and their fears that even more programs and services would be taken away as a deficit that stands at $182 million next year without cuts and more funding is closed.

I was a public high school student in Philadelphia when Paul Vallas was hired. The district at the time needed miracles. Vallas came in and had all sorts of ideas out in the papers. For years Philly school people had been decrying the state of Pennsylvania for holding back funding from the district. Vallas took a new approach, promising to enact reforms to squeeze new money from the existing budget. He proposed selling off the Philly district's posh downtown facility and trimming the fat from the bureaucratic staff. He promised new facilities, smaller classrooms, higher scores, safer schools, and so on and so forth. At first, the man was an absolute revelation.

Sound familiar?

The first article I cited provides a good overview of his time in Philadelphia, it's "Vallas in with roar, out with rancor"

Here's a letter to Vallas from Michael Nutter, hero of the Philly internet community and the man who will take over as mayor in January.

Tom Ferrick, an ace columnist with the Inquirer writes a send-off to "the master of pretend and spend"

A take from Young Philly Politics. Here's another FANTASTIC take by those fellas on the media's Vallas-inspired boner.

Here's Vallas embroiled in a severance pay controversy, but that might just be sour grapes on both sides.

Meanwhile, Philly's public school district is still looking for miracles. Paul Vallas is famous.

The lesson he learned is that he needs to leave sooner, before his budget fantasies turn into budget realities. He hasn't learned that he needs to be a more realistic and responsible steward of a budget.

The Baton Rouge people got their pants charmed off and won't provide the guidance and oversight to force Vallas be a responsible CEO.

"The first two years you literally get to do just about anything you want."

They will, however, happily stonewall the city of New Orleans three years from now when we have a multi-million dollar school budget shortfall and look to the state capital for a bailout. Baton Rouge might hate New Orleans more than Harrisburg hates Philadelphia. Vallas won't have to worry though, because he'll be on a plane to another city giving interviews for puff pieces in that town's local papers, Time magazine, and the New York Times. Vallas won't have to worry about "all those people walking around pissed off because he's getting the credit," he'll be long-gone. "Three years tops."

Mr. Vallas, please don't get ahead of yourself. We know this is an emergency. Let's be sensible. I want to like you. We know you know that nobody is watching you. When you move on to bigger things (he's run for governor of Illinois in the past) upon the "achievements" that you've broken our budget to list on your resume, please try not to saddle us with additional burdens to the ones you inherited.

That's what I wrote in October.

Since then, We Could Be Famous has remained largely silent on the Recovery School District, Mr. Vallas, and the state of public education in New Orleans.

I had to learn a few things, myself.

And though I still have a great deal to learn (about everything), I have indeed studied a whole bunch of material related to the RSD and Mr. Vallas' record in Philadelphia.

My silence on public schools must end.

Indeed, I think I'm running for Mayor and I'm the only candidate who cares about children.

This week, barring unforeseen developments, I hope to present what I've discovered.

In the meantime, the RSD has been making headlines.

Sometimes district news makes you cringe about how bad things have deteriorated in our public schools over the years. This is from December 8th:

Halfway through the school year, the Recovery District is still discovering millions of dollars in unpaid bills from last school year, causing what Superintendent Paul Vallas calls a "cash flow" problem that will delay teacher bonuses by two weeks.

"There was no budget" last year, Vallas said, when asked why invoices from last school year are still popping up. Vallas took the helm over the summer after the state-run system's tumultuous first year.

The district is trying to build a detailed budget for the 2007-08 school year -- from scratch -- and hopes to have one finished by February.

Pastorek said the district is in a difficult position because it gets reimbursed from FEMA for capital costs long after it spends the money -- and sometimes long after the contractors need to be paid.

He told the state board this week that "every day is a crisis in the RSD financially because of cash flow problems."

(Kind of fits into this larger context, no?)

That promised item-by-item budget has yet to materialize. This past Thursday, a long-time Vallas lieutenant who had major budget responsibilities, decided to leave the district:

Seven months into his executive post at the Recovery School District, Kyle Wedberg, a key steward of the district's challenging finances, will resign next month to take a leadership position at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, taking a $40,000 pay cut.

"Obviously, the decision was about more than money," said Wedberg, the deputy superintendent for administration and finance. "It was about my own professional development ... and my family."

The move comes as the district is poised to present a fuller version of its budget to the state board of education in February. After working with District Superintendent Paul Vallas in Chicago and Philadelphia, Wedberg followed his former boss last summer to New Orleans, and brimmed with excitement over the challenge and the opportunity of New Orleans schools.

"We can't fail," he said at the time.

Wedberg said the overwhelming and sometimes chaotic nature of his charge -- the district had no working budget when he signed on last summer -- did not cause his decision.

Of course it didn't.

Simultaneously, Mr. Vallas was making personnel changes elsewhere, firing the principal of Rabouin High, the largest school in the RSD.

Addressing the move at Rabouin, Vallas said, "I'm not going to get into the nitty-gritty about why she was reassigned. Suffice to say, I felt I needed a stronger leader . . . People need to get used to the fact that, on occasion, we will go in, and if we feel a leadership change is good for the school, that's what we will do."

"I never want to work for the Recovery School District again," she said. "I felt blindsided and I do not want to continue my career being uncomfortable."

She blamed the school's troubles on a wide-ranging lack of support from administration.

"I really think I did a great job with what we started off with and what we had to work with. I gave my all -- 12, 14, 16 hours a day. I never missed a day of work," said Boyd, a teacher for 10 years and a former assistant principal at Livingston Middle School. "I was met head-on with tons of challenges."

Boyd's removal sheds light on the challenges Recovery District schools face on issues as diverse as student violence, school scheduling and teacher assignments, facility maintenance and wireless Internet access needed for costly computer-based curricula.

Boyd said Rabouin's opening was rough with wide-scale scheduling problems. Students' schedules were a year behind, she said, placing them in classes they'd already taken. Faulty student transcripts and other data issues caused systemic foul-ups in teacher assignments, with some starting the year with one student while other classrooms were overloaded.

Boyd said adjustments that needed to be made to the master schedule to determine how many students needed a certain course were delayed because of faulty data.

Boyd said she got little district support.

Suffice it to say, I know that scheduling mayhem, though avoidable, occurred throughout the district and continued well into the school year.

On other fronts, the RSD and Mr. Vallas have fallen short of demands for transparency as they move forward with a master plan to rebuild (or demolish) the district:

Matt McBride
Karen Gadbois
Editor B.

The small achievements that the RSD touts merely make the Mount Everest facing the RSD seem that much more daunting.


I root for Paul Vallas and I root for the RSD. His job might be the most demanding in the whole city. I want to do whatever is necessary to improve the public schools. Please stay tuned for more local education news this week.

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