In a unanimous decision the Supreme Court concluded that a court is not the proper venue to decide the qualifications of Bridgeport Schools Superintendent Paul Vallas.
But Thursday’s decision, which was hailed by education reformers who support Vallas’ approach to education, may have come too late.
Vallas announced last week that he will return to the Land of Lincoln to be Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s running mate in 2014. Vallas ran the Chicago Public Schools from 1995 until 2001. Then in 2002 he went on to lose the 2002 Democratic nomination for Illinois governor to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. After that, he headed up school districts in Philadelphia and New Orleans.
Vallas was named as interim Bridgeport Schools Superintendent in Dec. 2011. He became the acting superintendent in 2012 pending the completion of a University of Connecticut course. In the lawsuit, his critics challenged the credibility of that course, which he helped design in order to obtain his certification in Connecticut.
The Supreme Court found Thursday that Bridgeport Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis erred in siding with Vallas’ critics, who contended he wasn’t qualified for the position because the special certification waiver he received wasn’t adequate.
The justices dismissed the lawsuit, saying that Bellis lacked the jurisdiction to rule on the case because the plaintiffs, including former state Superior Court Judge Carmen Lopez, failed to exhaust their administrative options with state education officials before bringing their complaint to the court.
State Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, a Vallas friend who recruited him to come to Connecticut, approved the UConn program and the waiver for the abbreviated program. After six papers and a pair of meetings that lasted about two hours, Vallas was given an “A” grade.
Pryor was giddy about the high court’s decision Thursday even though he declined to comment on his feelings about Vallas’ departure for Illinois.
“The court’s opinion respects the right of local school boards to attract experienced and skilled leaders from across the country who can help us improve our schools and close our achievement gap,” Pryor said in a statement. “We look forward to working with Bridgeport’s teachers, parents, newly elected and returning board members, and other stakeholders to move forward in pursuit of a brighter future for our students.”
Lopez and other critics argued that Vallas received special treatment, but the justices did not weigh his qualifications for the job in their decision. They only said it was the wrong venue.
Earlier this week, according to a report in the Connecticut Post, Vallas told the Bridgeport Board of Education that the 2013 election made it clear that there is a desire “to eliminate the last vestiges of the state control” in Bridgeport, and to change the superintendent.
It’s unclear if the lawsuit or the results of the election were what prompted him to return to politics in Illinois.
Even though he wasn’t on the ballot in 2013, some felt that the municipal election was a referendum on Vallas and his style of education reform.
The 2013 election saw a slate of Democratic school board candidates supporting Vallas defeated in a September primary, despite the state Democratic Party spending nearly $20,000 on the three reform candidates. The state party also gave another $20,000 to the Bridgeport Democratic Town Committee.
The Democratic Party declined to comment on its use of campaign funds in the Bridgeport election. However, Working Families Party Executive Director Lindsay Farrell was not at a loss for words:
“On November 5th, Bridgeport voters sent a message that Paul Vallas was taking their schools in the wrong direction,” Farrell said in a statement. “Parents, teachers and communities stood up to take back their schools from the corporate reform agenda. Vallas was on his way out one way or another. But we’re pleased that it was the voters of Bridgeport that turned the tide at the polls and elected a new board majority who will fight for every student.”
Jennifer Alexander, the CEO of the Connecticut Association for Achievement Now that represents the other side of the education debate, didn’t share the same sentiment.
“I hope this ruling is a signal to leaders in Bridgeport and across Connecticut that we can attract the most talented professionals from across the country, and that justice can prevail over politically motivated attempts to thwart progress for our children,” she said in a statement.