Tuesday’s Democratic primaries are over.
The three petition school board candidates won, beating the slate nominated by the Democratic Town Committee. That’s the same slate that embraced the education reforms being pursued by Mayor Bill Finch and Superintendent of Schools Paul Vallas.
So what does that mean for Vallas?
A celebrity in the world of school reform, Vallas was hired in December 2011 and granted a conditional three-year contract last winter by a divided Board of Education dominated by Finch’s crew. Then a Superior Court judge ruled that Vallas was not qualified for the position, and the matter is now in the hands of the state Supreme Court.
If the Supremes uphold the lower court’s ruling, Vallas is gone. But what if he wins?
As we’ve reported, while there remains a general election in November, Tuesday’s results all but guaranteed that those school board members loyal to Vallas will be in the minority.
Bridgeport’s a Democratic city. There are four Democratic incumbents on the nine-person board who are not on November’s ballot, and one of those is backed by the anti-Vallas Working Families Party. So add him to Tuesday’s slate of winning anti-Vallas Democrats, and that gives their side the 4 to 3 advantage on the Board of Education.
That leaves two open seats in the general election that can only go to a minority party – either the Working Families or a more pro-Vallas GOP.
Despite their differences with Finch, the Working Families Party has far more in common with Democrats than with Republicans, who are not known for winning elections in blue Bridgeport.
And according to Vallas’ three-year contract, either party can walk away, although the city would owe the departing superintendent a year’s severance.
Finch, Vallas and their allies knew this heading into Tuesday, which is why a victory was so important for them.
“I strongly support the Democratically- endorsed slate,” the mayor said a few weeks ago. “The other people have shown tendencies to be anti- reform. And I think we’re going in the right direction. I want to keep that direction. I want to keep Paul Vallas.”
So now that his side lost, what happens to Vallas?
An anti-Vallas board could potentially boot him as soon as they got the chance. But would they really want to do so in the middle of the 2013-14 school year? They’d need someone to fill his shoes while conducting a search for a replacement.
Alternatively Finch could appeal to the board to give Vallas a chance and perhaps reach a compromise.
Vallas could also leave.
“He’s gonna stay as long as I can keep him here,” Finch said following a community meeting in the North End Thursday night.
Vallas’ future didn’t come up during the event, and Finch didn’t broach it with the crowd of 50 or so residents.
In a brief interview the mayor said he has reached out to the winners of Tuesday’s primary and hopes to meet with them soon.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to rethink things, recalibrate and keep moving,” the mayor said.
Finch’s liaison with the schools, Joshua Thompson, also attended Thursday’s North End meeting, quietly standing in the back with some of the mayor’s other staff. While walking out Thompson said he wasn’t ready to talk about Vallas in the wake of Tuesday’s primaries but understood it is an important question that needs to be answered soon. He said either he or the superintendent may be prepared to make some comments Friday.
In an interview Thursday Democrat Andre Baker, one of the three winning petition school board candidates, said it was too soon to talk about canning Vallas since the Supreme Court still has to rule on the super’s qualifications. And anyway, Baker said, he’s got a general election to win in November.
“My main focus right now is to get on the board. It’s not so much to deal with Paul Vallas. I think it goes beyond that. Whether you’re Paul Vallas or somebody else, unless the board is able to come together and be able to work together, it doesn’t matter who’s superintendent, you’re never going to get anywhere.”
But Baker finally conceded that he was open to trying to work with Vallas.
“I’ll put it to you like this – I can try to work with anybody,” Baker said.
Maria Pereira, a Democrat on the Board of Education who is not seeking re-election to run Bridgeport’s Working Families party, said she has not had any conversations about what happens to Vallas.
“You have to understand. We’re not taking this (November general election) for granted … We’re not going to take the voter for granted. We’re going to work really hard for November,” Pereira said. Although both sides have denied it, she still suspects the Democratic Town Committee will broker a deal with the Republicans to help the latter’s candidates try to beat Working Families’.
“But I will tell you this. Me, personally, I think whatever the ruling is from the Supreme Court, that Vallas will in all likelihood either leave on his own or he will be terminated. That is my guess, although I’ve never had a formal conversation with any of the candidates,” Pereira said.