To help ease transition, Vallas will delay his exit

Philadelphia School District chief Paul Vallas will stay on the job a little longer than expected: He not only will close out the current school year, but also will ensure that schools are ready to reopen in September, Gov. Rendell announced last night.

In an unusual move, Rendell, Mayor Street and James Nevels, chairman of the School Reform Commission, huddled in private at City Hall last night to present a unified front while the district deals with another tumultuous period.

The three said they had discussed the district's continuing money woes and how to replace Vallas, who said last week he would leave after the end of the school year.

While Street and Rendell pledged financial support, neither committed to securing more funding for the district, which faces a $37 million deficit this year and the prospect of larger shortfalls in subsequent years.

Rendell said he could not guarantee more money from Harrisburg, noting that the district had received a substantial increase in state funding from the legislature since its 2001 state takeover. "If there is certainly an opportunity, I'll see that that happens, but there have to be cuts."

Street called for a closer look at district finances and reforms, saying that the city has its own fiscal problems.

"We will make the commitment to the school district that is necessary. . . . We will do the things that are important," Street said.

The district estimates that it needs to make hefty cuts and secure tens of millions of dollars more in city and state funding to balance its proposed 2007-08 budget.

Nevels, who has pledged to seek additional funding from the city and state, said last night that he remained "optimistic" new money would be given.

"You'll note the governor mentioned the word cuts. We're going to do a combination of things, and we're going to do those together," Nevels said. "I'm optimistic that we're going to get more funds."

The meeting was set up at the request of Jacqueline Barnett, Street's education secretary, and occurred late in the evening because it was the only time this week the three leaders will be in the city at the same time, Barnett said.

"The mayor didn't want to put this off until next week," Barnett said. "He wanted to sit down and get the leadership together and grapple with this."

After meeting, Rendell, Street and Nevels held a half-hour news conference, which ended shortly after 10 p.m.

The three - even Street, who has sparred with Vallas over the deficit in recent months - took time to praise Vallas' nearly five-year tenure with the 174,000-student district.

"He raised our scores. He raised our standards, and, most importantly, he raised our expectations," Rendell said.

Street clarified that Vallas' agreement to ensure a good school opening doesn't mean that he will stay in Philadelphia until September, but that he will complete the preparations needed for a good start.

Rendell, however, said he thought Vallas would stay or be available for a good part of the summer.

Vallas could not be reached for comment last night, said his spokesman, Fernando Gallard. Vallas, 53, who collects an annual salary of $250,000, has led the district since July 2002.

Rendell also said an interim chief executive officer could be appointed to serve for as long as through June 2008. He said he wanted the district to take as much time as it needed to find the best candidate for the permanent post.

"This school district is not going to go back. It's going to go forward," Street pledged.

The School Reform Commission - the governing body appointed to oversee the district after its 2001 state takeover - met last weekend to discuss the search process for a new leader. Questions have arisen over whether the city's next mayor should have a say in the selection. The commission had promised to seek broad input.

In a joint statement last night, the three leaders said that input from the mayoral candidates was welcome, but that the commission would make the final decision on the next CEO.


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