Elmer Smith | Let's hear from the candidates on the school job

THROW OUT THE posters, rewrite the stump speeches. We have a brand-new mayoral campaign.

It all changed yesterday when schools CEO Paul Vallas made his departure official. Come September, there will be a new name on the door.

Whether that means a new direction or just a new director, is a question that every one of the men who would be mayor ought to be forced to answer. I expect them to say how much of the reform authored by Vallas and the School Reform Commission they favor. I want to know what they expect from the new CEO and I want their answers before the May primary.

I think voters have a right to know whether the next mayor intends to get his hands dirty or hide behind the SRC's skirts. If it were up to me, Vallas' replacement would not be named until the Democratic nominee and presumptive mayor has been consulted.

Any candidate who does not at least try to wedge his way into those deliberations is trying to insulate himself from any responsibility for the choice. If he won't speak out on this choice, can we expect to hear his voice on any important school issue?

There is not an issue in this campaign - not crime or economic development or anything else - that is not linked to outcomes in the public schools.

Vallas may have worn out his welcome. But by any reasonable measure, he has moved the district steadily and undeniably in the right direction.

Still, his departure comes as a shock to no one. He told me two weeks ago that this was his last school year here. I know I wasn't the only one he told.

Truth is, he couldn't get up to go to the bathroom without someone trying his chair out for size. Besides, he said, he has done as much as he could do.

There was no rancor in his voice. He didn't feel that he had been forced out by the mayor or by any of his critics on the SRC. The mayor told us yesterday that he had not lifted a finger against Vallas.

"I don't know of any effort on anyone's part to force him to leave," Mayor Street said.

"I think Paul Vallas has done a very good job for the city and the school district," he told us.

The mayor said the schools have shown "a huge amount of progress under Paul Vallas . . . he has given us a great platform."

A great platform with a trap door in it. Vallas finally fell through it.

So it goes. Big-city school district CEO's tape their names to the door and keep their resumes updated. If it hadn't been this year, it would have been next.

But he couldn't have picked a better time to leave. The next mayor needs to own this district. He will have two appointments to the SRC. He will run the city's political and governmental structure.

The governor and the Legislature wield great power. But they can't run the district alone unless the mayor allows them to make an end-run around him.

Will the new mayor be a strong advocate for increased funding? Will he create dedicated funding streams that provide predictable revenues?

Does he favor reducing class size, increased funding for pre-school and after-school programs? Does he foresee a time when the city will regain complete control of the district's governance?

"I think it opens an opportunity to have a broad discussion of where we need to go," state Rep. Dwight Evans said yesterday when I asked him how Vallas' departure will affect the mayor's race.

"The question is where do we want the district to be five years from now."

The answers should be forthcoming before May. They should reflect some vision and some ideas for how to make that vision real.

They should be your questions. You should be making your list and checking it twice.

Anyone who is not willing to step up should get checked off. *

Send e-mail to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: http:// go.philly.com/smith