Search is on for a CEO of schools

A top district official now is a candidate for interim chief. Mayoral candidates weighed in on the search.

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission will move quickly to find a replacement for resigning chief Paul Vallas, and the district's second-in-charge is now a candidate for the interim post.

Chief Academic Officer Gregory Thornton withdrew yesterday from his bid to become Seattle's public schools superintendent and will become a candidate for interim chief executive officer in Philadelphia.

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Paul Vallas , seen in 2003, said he would weigh other job opportunities.

Thornton had been one of two finalists for the Seattle job - news that surfaced last week before Vallas announced plans to leave the district after the school year. Thornton did not return calls for comment, but a district spokeswoman said he withdrew for family reasons.

Members of the School Reform Commission said yesterday that they were planning to meet, possibly over the weekend, to map out a search. State law gives them the power to name Vallas' successor.

"What I'll recommend is that we immediately appoint an interim and immediately launch a national search for a replacement," said James Gallagher, the commissioner who led the last CEO search, which brought Vallas to Philadelphia.

He wants to aim to have a new CEO on the job in July, in plenty of time for the start of the new school year.

One name already has been informally floated by Mayor Street as a possible Vallas replacement: state Budget Secretary Michael Masch, a former Philadelphia school board member and reform commissioner, sources say.

At a news conference yesterday, Street said he wanted to play a role in the selection of a new CEO and had two candidates, one local, but declined to name them.

But two sources close to Street said yesterday that Masch was one of the mayor's picks. Efforts to reach Masch for comment were unsuccessful.

Just how much weight Street's recommendation would have remains uncertain. Gov. Rendell declined to comment on Vallas' departure, Gary Miller, a spokesman, said yesterday.

Vallas, who was in Washington yesterday for a meeting with a small group of educators, businesspeople and President Bush about the federal No Child Left Behind law, declined to comment further on his departure.

Vallas, who became CEO in July 2002, said he would move his family back to Chicago and weigh other job opportunities. Among the prospects is running the recovering New Orleans School District, although that job is not open.

Vallas, in announcing his departure on Wednesday, said the new mayor should have a say in naming the new CEO. (The job pays $275,000; Vallas has been drawing $250,000 because of the district's deficit.)

State Rep. Dwight Evans, a mayoral candidate, agreed and called for creating a blue-ribbon task force after the May 15 primary, "comprised of the leading voices for school improvement in Philadelphia to come together and define what we are looking for in a new CEO."

Evans (D., Phila.), one of the architects of the legislation that allowed the state to take over the school district in 2001, said seeking a replacement for Vallas should not be left to the five-member commission and needed to include a discussion of increasing state funding.

While the commission has the authority to pick the district's chief executive, Evans said, it has no power over how the schools are funded.

Among the other Democratic mayoral candidates, Michael Nutter said the commission needed to include parents and others in the decision.

"An open process must be established," he said. "The people of Philadelphia help pay for this system, and their voices need to be heard."

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) issued a statement calling for a national search for a new chief executive who shared "the same passion for educating our students as Vallas, along with a clear vision for addressing the district's finances and the pressing safety concerns in our schools."

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) said he wanted to highlight Vallas' accomplishments and hadn't decided what the district's next move should be.

"This is a critical decision about the future of the city," said Fattah, a staunch Vallas supporter. "We cannot afford an awkward step here."

And businessman Tom Knox - who is a front-runner in polls - said Street should invite the winner of the primary to help choose Vallas' successor.

"The next mayor should have a seat at the table," Knox said last night at a candidates' forum on school issues. "I think John will do the fair thing. He's a man of integrity."

Meanwhile, reaction to Vallas' departure varied.

"It's just in everybody's best interest that Paul leave," said Gallagher, who has been critical of Vallas' management and the budget deficit, "and we find a new leader."

But Mark Schweiker, head of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, blamed missteps by the SRC. "From my standpoint, Paul Vallas was the best urban education chief in the country. How can you handicap it any other way than a profound loss?" he said.

Schweiker, who was the Republican governor when the state took over the district and chose three of the five original members of the School Reform Commission, said that he was surprised when commissioners reined in Vallas after a $73 million deficit emerged in the district's $2.04 billion budget. They made him get their OK for all expenditures over $35,000.

"That was the final straw," Schweiker said. "A full-fledged CEO like Paul Vallas is not going to put up with strings and shackles as far as the execution of programs and good policy."

Street was less enamored. Asked to grade Vallas, he gave the CEO a B and said the grade would have been higher if it hadn't been for the deficit.

"But for the fact of the recent revelation of a significant deficit at the school district, I think probably people in this city would uniformly be talking about what an absolute slam dunk this has been," said Street. "But the deficit really kind of leaves a little bit of a cloud over his tenure."

Shelly Yanoff, executive director of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, called Vallas' departure "a loss."

"I hope in the heat of this that we are clear about what has been accomplished and the need to stabilize and not start all over again," she said. "Progress is building on the shoulders of what happened before."

Rendell will play a key role in naming Vallas' successor. The SRC is operating with four members, with a fifth Rendell appointee pending in the state Senate. The governor names three and the mayor two.

Rendell's nomination of Denise McGregor Armbrister to succeed Daniel Whelan on the commission has been awaiting approval since Jan. 19.

Eric Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Chester), yesterday said there were no problems with Rendell's candidate.

"No member of the Senate or the governor made it a priority," he said. "Had they been pushing for it, maybe we would have done something."

If the Senate does not act within two weeks, Arneson said, the appointment will automatically take effect April 25.

 


Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writers Amy Worden and Andrew Maykuth contributed to this article.