After Four Years, Chicago Ponders Vallas' Future

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Paul G. Vallas, who has emerged in the past four years as one of the most high-profile schools chiefs in the country, has always had a ready remark to deflect questions about his plans after leaving the Chicago schools.

"I'm going to Tahiti like Marlon Brando to walk barefoot on the beach, eat grapefruit, and weigh 400 pounds," he once said. "Or maybe somebody will just cut me a big check and say, 'Good job. Signed, Anonymous.' Or maybe I'll go into the restaurant business like the rest of us Greeks."

Lately, however, the answers have become less glib. As the end of his current four-year mission to turn around the city schools draws near, growing signs of infighting within the district's administration are raising serious questions about his future.

Paul G. Vallas

Mr. Vallas says he strongly hopes to remain on the job for at least another year or two. But when pressed, he admits to some uncertainty about his future and to occasionally pondering other prospects, ranging from another large urban district to the Illinois governor's mansion.

"I've always thought that if I dedicate myself to the job at hand, things will fall into place," he said in a recent interview. "But if I can get two more healthy years out of this, I truly think I can finish the job the mayor asked me to take."

At a time when the city's school reform efforts are being praised and imitated by politicians from President Clinton on down, many observers doubt that the lanky, 45-year-old chief executive officer will depart the nation's third-largest school system anytime soon.

Nonetheless, a number of factors are fueling speculation about a transition: Democratic Mayor Richard M. Daley's recent re-election to his third full term, an imminent shift in the school system's innovative governance structure, and mounting tension between the popular schools chief and his long-time colleague, school board President Gery J. Chico.

With this talk, naturally, has come speculation about what might be in store for Mr. Vallas, who spent much of his previous career working in policy and finance posts, first for Democratic state lawmakers and then for Mayor Daley.

After all, he has become a star among urban school leaders despite--or because of--his status as an education outsider. And locally, he is widely known and admired despite persistent criticism from groups associated with an earlier wave of school reforms.

"We tend to look for Merlin and the magic bullet," observed Thomas H. Reece, the president of both the Chicago and Illinois affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers. "And he's been identified."

Governance Shift Looms

July will mark the fourth anniversary of Mayor Daley's takeover of the 430,000-student district, sometimes described as the most troubled in the nation.

Empowered by a 1995 state law, Mr. Daley appointed Mr. Chico, then his chief of staff at City Hall, to head a five-member "reform board of trustees" whose terms expire this June. And he chose Mr. Vallas, then the city budget director, to serve without a contract as the system's chief executive.

But now, state law calls for the mayor to appoint a more traditional school board, expanded from five to seven members, with staggered terms, before July 1. The board will be authorized to reorganize the central office, now headed by Mr. Vallas as CEO, and appoint a general superintendent.

The mayor has not announced his intentions, either about the board or the superintendent's slot. Yet with a growing number of urban systems looking to Chicago as a model of what some scholars call "integrated governance"--in which the school system is under the same leadership as City Hall--many question why the mayor would mess with success.

In addition to cleaning up the district's tattered finances, the current administration has brought years of labor peace to a district often fractured by teachers' strikes; launched a massive effort to upgrade long-neglected facilities; and presided over a steady rise in test scores. These and other accomplishments have given rise to a perception that the schools are turning the corner. Still, a continuation of the status quo no longer seems a sure thing.

"Mayor Daley has a tradition of changing the top leadership in his staff," noted one local scholar who requested anonymity. "He's done that after each of his elections. So there's natural speculation that Paul and Gery would be potentially removed."

Under the governance shifts set to occur this summer, the newly expanded school board will elect its own president. Mr. Chico, a lawyer who has remained close to the mayor since leaving City Hall for private practice four years ago, said he hopes to continue as board president, a post to which the mayor directly appointed him in 1995.

Mr. Chico also said he fully expects Mr. Vallas to remain in the district's top spot, though the two men have not discussed a contract for Mr. Vallas, who has been working without one for the same $150,000 salary for the past four years.

"I think he will stay, and I think he'll enjoy the full support of the board," Mr. Chico said last week.

Time for a Change?

But some close observers of the system say that privately both Mr. Chico and the mayor have some interest in seeing Mr. Vallas move on.

"I think that Daley is kind of saying, 'What's next for Paul?' " said one local education activist who describes himself as an admirer of the schools chief but who still thinks it's time for him to go.

"He's brilliant, and he's one of the most successful urban superintendents of the century," the activist said. "I just think that like Michael Jordan he should leave while he's in control and he's on top."

Just where Mr. Vallas might go is an open question. Within the past year, he has been approached for jobs including the state superintendency of Illinois and the top spot in New Orleans, but declined even to apply.

Mr. Vallas, whose lack of a doctorate in education would make him a nontraditional candidate for a superintendency elsewhere, said he finds it hard to contemplate transferring the loyalty he now feels to the Chicago schools.

"You don't want to become an education mercenary," he said. "If it were my choice, I'd stay here indefinitely."

Still, he said the prospect of tackling another large urban district could have appeal. "The only thing I would ever contemplate taking on in education is a system with even greater challenges, where people think the challenges are insurmountable."

Among the few districts that might qualify is the 1.1 million-student New York City system, where the Republican mayor and Democratic City Council president have just unveiled a controversial proposal to adopt a Chicago-style school governance structure.

Rumors about Mr. Vallas as a potential contender for a high government post in Washington have made the rounds in Chicago education circles--a prospect some consider remote, in part because of his strong dislike of air travel.

Others have suggested he would be attractive to any number of large corporations, given his track record in a system with more than 43,000 employees and an annual budget of nearly $4 billion.

Speculation has also focused on Mr. Vallas' possible political ambitions--perhaps as a candidate for governor or the U.S. Senate--even though he has never run for elected office.

Mr. Vallas said one of the only spots he might be interested in running for would be that of governor, but that he would never consider taking on the recently elected incumbent, Republican George Ryan, should he stand for re-election in 2002.

Still, Mr. Vallas stressed that he remains intensely focused on his current job. "Where do you have a bigger opportunity to make a difference than in public education?" he said. "I'm having more of an impact on state and national education policy right now than I could as a senator or even a governor."

Strains Behind the Scenes

Mr. Chico, meanwhile, is said to be frustrated by some aspects of Mr. Vallas' strongly independent, break-the-china style.

"Chico is finding that [Vallas] is so damn popular that he can't be managed," one analyst said.

In general, Mr. Chico and Mr. Vallas are perceived as mutually loyal and complementary players on Mayor Daley's "integrated governance" team. But it is no secret to insiders here that their relationship is marked by friction and rivalry as well as friendship and collegiality.

For example, Mr. Chico is known to be bothered by Mr. Vallas' high level of media exposure. "There's a lot of other people in the mix here," Mr. Chico observed in a recent interview.

Mr. Vallas said he fully agrees, and notes that he is quick to point to Mayor Daley as deserving "the ultimate credit." Most of the attention in the national media has focused on the mayor and Mr. Vallas.

In what may have been a pointed snub, Mr. Vallas was relegated to a minor role last week at an education conference designed to spotlight the city's education success.

"As my profile has grown, that has not set well with a lot of people, and now I'm suffering the consequences," Mr. Vallas said. "I'm just going to have to put up with those critics out there who think I'm getting too much credit."

Whether such issues will end up splintering the team remains to be seen. Mr. Chico, for one, suggests that they will not.

"In any close partnership, you always have disagreements," he said. "We have our share. But on the big-ticket items, we're in sync."

Among those items are the major academic initiatives already under way--including a widely publicized end to social promotion, a curriculum overhaul, an array of student-support programs, and an ambitious high-school-restructuring effort.

And while some influential members of the Chicago education community are quietly calling for a career educator to take the helm, others hope Mr. Vallas will stay to see those initiatives through.

"Many of the close observers of the school system hope that Vallas will have at least another two or three years," said G. Alfred Hess, the director of the Center for Urban School Policy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "There's more work to be done."

Vol. 18, Issue 34, Pages 1, 8-9

Published in Print: May 5, 1999, as After Four Years, Chicago Ponders Vallas' Future
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