Paul Vallas, the hard-charging former CEO of the Philadelphia School District, is a front-runner for Chicago mayor, a poll released this week found.

Vallas got the top spot for his "grasp of a mayor’s essential duties” and his performance at debates, according to the Chicago Magazine report.

Vallas was excited about the poll — and glad to know that the people back in Philly are still watching.

“At 65, I’m still a problem-solver,” Vallas said from Chicago. “I’m still taking on those jobs that people have been reluctant to take on. I’m still taking on those challenges that the faint of heart have been unwilling to take on.”

Vallas ran Philadelphia’s public schools from 2002 to 2007, after the district was taken over by the state and several private companies were brought in to help improve academics. During his tenure, the district saw substantial increases in elementary test scores, a proliferation of smaller theme-based high schools, a standardized curriculum, more certified teachers, and more programs for the youngest students and those most disruptive.

But he left Philadelphia in June 2007 at odds with the School Reform Commission, the district’s then-governing body, and with more than a year still remaining on a contract extension he had received the previous year. Tensions between Vallas and commission members grew over his management style and after a “surprise” $73 million budget deficit had surfaced the previous fall. Through cuts, the deficit was reduced, but Vallas, who had already accepted a job to run the storm-ravaged New Orleans School District, even refused to show up at a board meeting where he was to be feted before his departure.

After his work in New Orleans, Vallas went on to run the Bridgeport, Conn., schools and worked on education reform in Haiti following a devastating earthquake.

But he maintained ties to Chicago, where he was born and where he served as both city budget director and school district CEO before coming to Philadelphia. In 2002, just before taking the Philadelphia job, he ran for governor of Illinois and lost in the Democratic primary to Rod Blagojevich, who was later impeached, removed from office, and jailed.

Now, Vallas is back in politics, aiming for mayor of Chicago, but one thing that could hurt him, Chicago Magazine said, is a lack of money.

“He’s number one this time because he’s been so impressive in debates,” the magazine said, “but he won’t stay on top unless he raises money.”

Vallas said he’s proud he’s not a part of the “pay-to-play” culture in Chicago and thinks he has a good chance of being the city’s next leader, despite perhaps not having the financial backing of some of the other candidates.

With the same energy and intensity he exhibited when he first came to Philadelphia, he rattled off a long list of challenges that Chicago faces, from crime to a loss of property values to lead in the water.

“The city’s in big trouble,” Vallas said. “The city needs somebody who understands how the city works and knows how to run the city. That’s why I’m running.”