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Vallas: key questions before extending his contract

by Jon Pelto from Wait, What

Just before the Christmas holiday, the Only in Bridgeport blog reported that Paul Vallas has changed his mind and that although he is scheduled to leave his post as Bridgeport’s Superintendent of Schools in June, “he’d be open to an extended contract offer from the Board of Education beyond the end of the school year in June.”

Vallas told OIB, “I would be open to discussing staying beyond June should the current Board decide that this would be in the best interest of Bridgeport’s students and community at large.”

OIB observed that, “The larger questions center on his education interests around the country through his consulting practice as well his tolerance for the dissent on the current elected school board. Majority school board members want Vallas to stay.”

I don’t know exactly what OIB means about Vallas’ “tolerance for dissent,” although Vallas did storm out of a recent Board of Education meeting when he was asked a rather simple question, but it certainly wouldn’t come as a surprise if Mayor Bill Finch and the Democratic majority on the Bridgeport Board of Education were involved in an effort to persuade education reformer extraordinaire Paul Vallas to stick around.

That said, considering Connecticut taxpayers pick up about $187 million of Bridgeport’s $225 million school budget, one would hope that someone in authority would make an attempt, even a feeble one, to force Vallas to address some key questions before they flirt with the notion of extending his contract, yet again.

Since arriving in Bridgeport, Vallas’ private consulting company signed a one million-dollar contract for work in Illinois and Vallas’ new corporate partnership signed an $18 million deal with the Indianapolis School System. In addition, Vallas apparently continues to do work in Haiti and has been actively pursuing work in other locations as well. While rumors abound that his relationship with VOYAGER Learning, (a subsidiary of Cambium Education, Inc.) has soured, certainly no other community in Connecticut would allow its superintendent to accept multi-million-dollar consulting contracts outside of his regular job.

An initial question certainly relates to his time on task. Back in June 2012, Vallas made his January – June work schedule public, by posting it on the Bridgeport Board of Education website. By claiming to work most weekends and spending no less than ten hours a day at work, Vallas’ office argued that while he wasn’t compensated for his time out-of-state, or off the job, he still managed to log enough hours to collect his full proportional share of his salary.

However, interestingly, after signing the multi-million dollar contacts in Illinois and Indianapolis, his schedule has never been made public again.

Another unanswered question is why neither the Board of Education, the City of Bridgeport or the State Board of Education investigated the fact that during his first few months in Bridgeport, Vallas signed more than a dozen no-bid contracts costing Bridgeport and the State of Connecticut more than $12 million. A number of the no-bid contracts were personal service agreements with people who worked for his private consulting company, The Vallas Group. In one case, Vallas claimed that he had received permission from the City for a sole source contract, but the vast majority of the contract appeared to be in direct violation of city and state bidding laws and requirements.

Travel to any one of Connecticut’s other 169 towns and no town manager or superintendent of schools would last a week if they spent even 10 percent of that amount in violation of the city and state’s basic bidding requirements. But in this case, no investigation or action of any kind was taken.

Another question begging for some type of answer is by what authority Vallas is even spending state and local funds? While Vallas made numerous changes to last year’s Bridgeport school budget, at their February 13, 2012 Board of Education meeting, the previous, illegally appointed board recorded in their minutes that, “Further discussion revealed that a 2011-12 budget has never been approved by the Board.” Even after that extraordinary announcement, it appears neither Vallas nor the Board took timely action to ensure Bridgeport’s schools had a budget as required under state law.

Furthermore, while Vallas said at that meeting and others that “a formal budget will be presented for approval,” there is no evidence that the previous or present Board of Education formally adopted or modified a budget for this year, as required under Connecticut State Statutes 12-220 and 12-222. At last count, there have been no fewer than five different versions of a Bridgeport school budget posted on the City of Bridgeport or the Bridgeport Board of Education websites and none of them were developed using the laws that apply to every school district in Connecticut.

Considering Connecticut state law absolutely requires budgets to be duly approved and contracts legally in place before any public funds can be expended, Vallas’ apparent failure to follow the most elemental provisions of the law raise serious questions about who is minding the shop. Failure to follow the law could have devastating financial consequences for the City of Bridgeport, the Bridgeport Board of Education, the taxpayers of Bridgeport and Connecticut and vendors doing business with the Bridgeport Schools.

While it is truly inconceivable that the State Department of Education, the City of Bridgeport or the Bridgeport Board of Education has allowed these developments to go unaddressed, in fact, these problems are simply the tip of an even bigger mountain of problems.

For example, despite signing a no-bid contract with a new out-of-state vendor to track special education services last April, Bridgeport continues to use the old special education software.

Vallas’ claim was that the company, which had worked with him in Philadelphia, Chicago and New Orleans, was so unique that he didn’t even have to go out to bid to know that their EasyIEP software should be used instead of the Clarity software the Bridgeport Schools had been using.

A contract was signed; purchase orders approved and payments made to the new company, but although the switchover was scheduled to take place on July 1st, delay after delay pushed off the implementation schedule.

On Monday of this week, teachers received a memo stating, “This email is being sent to bring district staff the latest information with regard to the implementation of our new IEP writing software, EasyIEP. Based on staff input, technical issues, and additional caveats, Clarity will continue to be our IEP writing software for the next few weeks – please continue to use Clarity until further notice. As always, thank you for your continued hard work and dedication to the children of Bridgeport.”

And when it comes to the question of taking responsibility for his decisions, one need only look at how he recently treated teachers and his fellow school administrators over the issue of school supplies.

Last month, after being confronted by teachers and staff who didn’t have sufficient supplies to perform their jobs, Vallas wrote a scathing email which read, in part, “Dear Teachers and Staff Members…In prior years, the Central Office was responsible for handling the approval and processing of all school supply requests. This had the benefit of taking something off of your principals’ plates, but also some drawbacks as principals were unable to fully prioritize what to purchase and when to best serve the teachers and students in their building. In an effort to make sure all money is following the students, and that principals are given autonomy over their buildings, we moved this year to allowing principals to assume full responsibility over purchasing supplies for their faculty and students…If you feel like you are being undersupplied, I urge you to please communicate your needs with your principal. I am writing to them as well to ask that they please make sure they are continuing to monitor the needs of their teachers…”

There appears to be one not-so-small problem with this argument; while it may not be clear whether the Bridgeport Board of Education actually approved this year’s school budget or not, what is clear is that the budget for school supplies was slashed by 50 percent before it was “transferred” to the principals to oversee.

So even now, instead of admitting that the lack of supplies was, in fact, at least partially a product of his actions, his modus operandi was to simply throw his own administrators under the bus, while leaving the teachers and children without the supplies they need

While it may be unclear what is going on behind the scenes in Bridgeport, one thing is clear: at a time when the state is cutting essential human services, Paul Vallas has a lot of explaining to do about how he and his operation are handling taxpayer funds.

Recently, Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch began a listening tour to collect input on Bridgeport’s schools. If the Mayor was serious about getting things on track in Bridgeport, he’d start by ensuring that his Administration, the Democratic Party controlled Board of Education and their superintendent of schools were fulfilling their legal, ethical and moral duties to the children, parents and residents of Bridgeport and Connecticut.