Not long before the resignation this morning of Chicago Public Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett, I sat down for a talk with one of her predecessors, Paul Vallas. If that name sounds familiar it’s because Vallas’s latest public gig was as Pat Quinn’s running mate. As the federal criminal investigation into a $20.5 million no-bid contract has continued, Vallas’s name has popped up as a possible replacement.

Home again in south suburban Palos Heights, Vallas, who has also run school systems in Philadelphia, New Orleans, Bridgeport, and Haiti, is currently working for Development Specialists, Inc., a turnaround firm that focuses on helping distressed units of government. It is headed by Democratic heavyweight fundraiser Bill Brandt, Jr. As co-chair of DSI Civic’s education division, Vallas spoke enthusiastically of his recent work helping the Bureau of Indian Education “to develop a plan aimed at improving the schools that they run as well as the independent schools that are operated by individual tribes.”

Vallas, 62, insists he’s not interested in getting back his old job at CPS. “I’m not looking for another job,” he told me as we talked in a pastry shop in Old Town. After Gov. Jim Edgar handed Rich Daley control of CPS in 1995, Vallas became Daley’s first schools chief, from 1995 to 2001. Before that he had been Daley’s revenue director.

Despite his insistence, I left our meeting with the impression that Vallas was up for the challenge of running or at the least consulting on possible fixes for a system that Governor Bruce Rauner has suggested might be best off declaring bankruptcy—a possibility that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has not dismissed out of hand.

A Tribune editorial last weekend beseeched Rahm to make his next CPS chief “a financial turnaround expert” who could confront the system’s $1.1 billion budget deficit. Vallas’s boss, Bill Brandt, was quoted as seconding that recommendation. Did Brandt have Vallas in mind?

Over the Memorial Day weekend, I emailed Vallas that question and more that had occurred to me since our meeting. After a couple of days of promised answers not arriving, Vallas called me and said he wouldn’t answer them because they were “too political” and he wanted to talk policy. (My interviews with public figures are typically a mix of personal, political, and policy.)

He complained most about my asking him about any business ties he might have had to SUPES owner Gary Solomon, whose unsavory past includes losing his administrative job at Niles West High School after being accused of, but never charged with, sending “sexually explicit emails to students.” Vallas insisted that he had no business ties at all, “none, period,” to Solomon’s companies—SUPES, Synesi, or PROACT. “I never heard of SUPES, not while I was superintendent…I never participated in any programs. I’ve never been a speaker,” he told me.

I had to ask because Vallas’s name appeared in recent news stories in both the Sun-Times and the Tribune. The latter reported that when Vallas left Philadelphia in 2007—where he knew Solomon, the VP of sales for the test prep firm Princeton Review, because the Philadelphia system was a Solomon client—to become superintendent of the New Orleans Recovery School District, he “took Solomon [by then launching his own consulting/training companies]–with him as a consultant.”

Other questions Vallas wouldn’t answer:

  • His relationship with Rahm Emanuel. The Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman  had asked Emanuel if it’s time CPS turned to a business CEO (such as Vallas) rather than an educator, given that Rahm’s last two educator picks, Jean-Claude Brizard and BBB, had troubled tenures. Rahm replied that Vallas wouldn’t be his “model” because Vallas was there when they made no pension contributions.”
  • His opinion of the current members of the CPS board, and, if he were in charge, whose resignation would he request? And who would he recommend the Mayor appoint?
  • Why he wanted the second spot on Quinn’s ticket—a job notorious as being empty of responsibility– and what went what wrong in that losing campaign?
  • Who would he recommend as the best person for the CPS CEO job?
  • Does he see a looming CPS strike, and what would he do to avoid one?

He told me he spent much time answering my questions before deciding not to share those answers with me. He promised to save them for a time in the future when we’d talk again. Any time, Mr. Vallas.

Below is an edited, condensed transcript of our conversation. (Some answers are augmented by additional thoughts and analysis that Vallas emailed to me after our meeting.)

Does what happened to Barbara Byrd-Bennett surprise you? 

I don’t want to comment. [Later in the interview he said: “She always had a good reputation. People who worked with her liked her. She did a good job in stemming high school dropout rate and in supporting IBs.”]

What’s your opinion of that $20.5 million no-bid CPS SUPES contract?

The size of the award is ridiculous even when you’re not making the no-bid award while simultaneously closing schools. Also, while there are certain things like the selection of reading, math, science curriculums or interventions that you don't need to bid [assuming] you’re a veteran, seasoned superintendent who knows your stuff, professional development is not one of them.

Many universities have quality training programs. The University of Chicago is the epicenter of two major school reform initiatives. In 1996, we created the leadership camp in partnership with Northwestern. This area has many very good leadership training programs.

On April 20th, your brother, Dean, emailed me describing your years heading CPS and Gery Chico’s years heading the CPS board as a golden time of “balanced budgets, labor peace… 13 bond rating increases… [a] $400 million surplus left in the bank. Someone should ask Emanuel to put aside his ego [the brothers supported Chico for mayor in 2011] and restore the faith in CPS that parents and the markets had when they were at the helm. Gery and Paul both live here, and I’m sure would love the challenge.”

So, would you?

I’m not looking for another job.

When you left CPS, did Rich Daley ask you to advise on a successor?

He did. He asked me specifically for the names of three non-educators and I suggested Forrest Claypool, Mary Dempsey, who turned him down, and Arne Duncan, who took the job. He was not inclined to give it to an educator. He went with the CEO model.

Did Daley fire you? When he announced your exit he called you “quite simply the best chief executive in the history of the CPS.” One reporter described you as “a wildly popular headline machine. He frequently alienated Daley by violating the cardinal rule of Chicago politics: claiming a spotlight normally reserved for the mayor.”

Daley wanted change and I told him I was ready to move on. Gery had moved on. I felt that six years was long enough.

You describe CPS circa 2001 in terms even more golden than your brother’s: “over $1 billion in cash reserves … largest early childhood and mandatory after school and summer school programs in the country, the largest school construction program in the country ($3 billion) … six years of improved test scores, increased graduation rates, a 20-fold increase in students in the high school IB program … and a tripling of students in AP and magnate high schools.” What happened between then and now?

  • CPS abandoned long-term financial planning.
  • CPS created and expanded charter schools without any real consideration of demographics or how the creation of new schools would financially impact a district experiencing declining enrollment. It is the height of financial irresponsibility that while you’re moving to close schools for financial reasons you are simultaneously opening new charter schools.
  • CPS negotiated contracts that they could not pay for and expanded programs that they did not have the funding to sustain.
  • CPS balanced budgets by drawing down on their cash reserves and by borrowing which ensured that the budget problems would be compounded.
  • CPS continued the pension holiday even when it became apparent that he unfunded liability was causing it to free-fall.

Any ideas on how to fix things?

  • Activate the School Finance Authority to provide financial oversight to the district and to help develop and enforce a long-term financial plan.
  • Separate the CPS debt from the CPS operating budget. That means creating a new entity to take on and manage the debt.
  • Place a moratorium on all new charter schools except replacement school proposals.
  • Create a schools facility authority to manage school facilities. It would serve traditional and public charter schools alike.

What do you say about the issue of testing?

Too much time in testing. High-stakes testing, with results delayed for months, as well as overtesting, is an impediment to students’ educational experience and school improvement.

CTU leaders like Karen Lewis and Jesse Sharkey hate Teach for America. What do you think of it? I’ve read that you told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that “experience can be overrated” when it comes to teaching. 

TFA does some of the best development training. It gives us people from the top one percent. It brings people into education that might not otherwise be drawn to teaching. I think that’s been a good thing. What’s important is to put them in the right instructional environment, … to provide appropriate support. TFA  is not a substitute for trained teachers.

A big issue in Chicago is the elected vs. appointed school board. What’s your opinion?

It should be a hybrid. If there are seven members, three should be elected. Elected members should run citywide. The mayor has to have a horse in the race. That’s why we need to have appointed members too.

What’s your reaction to the governor’s mention of CPS going into bankruptcy?

I think that’s going too far. While that may work in private business, that’s a nuclear option, a neutron bomb. There would be real collateral damage. That doesn’t mean you don’t sit down and negotiate a better payment schedule. It’s too radical a solution. Maybe he’s throwing it out to scare some sense into people. Bankruptcy would impede the ability to market and borrow at a reasonable rate.

Closing 50 schools?

You need to have a plan. You never close a school that’s performing. If schools don’t have enough kids, find ways to get more there. If you have a school that’s not performing but is at capacity, you find a better model. If you have a school that is not at capacity and is struggling, give that school a window to show progress.

So how’d you do post-Katrina in New Orleans?

The State of Louisiana plan in New Orleans after Katrina was to use the state-run Recovery School District (RSD), which I was superintendent of, to build a system of independent schools free of the old system that had 80 percent of its schools failing and was riddled with corruption resulting in many indictments and the school board president going to jail for bribery.  Governor Blanco and former Senator Mary Landrieu invited me to New Orleans and are responsible for the RSD creation and success.

You got some really bad press in for your work in Bridgeport. What happened there?

There was a state takeover. The city [was] financially distressed, massive layoffs. The governor asked me to come in.  I did an assessment and from my vantage, they were not as bad as they thought. I balanced the budget and didn’t lay off a single teacher. I lost control of the school board, the Working Families Party took control of the school board.  I had the option of staying two more years. I felt I had gone as far as I could from a policy standpoint. Today the system is financially stable, there’s a new high school, graduation rates have improved.

Have you ever run into Bill Clinton in Haiti?

I participated in briefings with Clinton and the Haitian President on two occasions as part of a larger group that included the World Bank, UNESCO, UNICEF, and other international NGO's to talk about a plan I helped develop to build the country’s first publicly funded school system. In Haiti, 80-90 percent of the schools are private, one room, two rooms; teachers reading on the 9th grade level.

Opinion of his work there?

President Clinton clearly went down there to help and he stayed.  Clinton is always well intentioned. He’s been trying to play a leadership role.

Are you still involved in Haiti?

I serve as a non-paid board member of JPHRO. [J/P Haitian Relief Organization]. This is an NGO that housed, fed, and provided medical care for over 50,000 Haitians for over four years displaced by the earthquake. The NGO's hospital delivered almost 2,000 babies with no fatalities. All displaced have returned to their communities in rebuilt or new homes. Sean Penn founded and nurtured and fund-raised and led the organization. For more than four years he spent 80 percent of his time living in the camp and working in Haiti.

When news broke that Gov. Quinn had asked you to run with him for lieutenant governor and that you said yes, more than one pundit suggested that the ticket ought to be flipped. You ran for governor in ’02 and considered running for county board president (as a Republican) in ’10. Do you have any plans to run for governor or mayor or county board president.

I am not planning to run for elected office nor auditioning for another job. I'm just looking to contribute to developing real solutions to deal with the serious problems we face. Not running for public office is liberating.

Why did you say yes to Pat Quinn? Did you have it mind that he wouldn’t run in 2018 and you could then have a clear shot to become governor?

When people ask for my help, I help. Pat Quinn always tries to do the right thing. I like him. I thought he had an excellent record. He called me in Haiti. I was in a village in Northern Haiti, two roads, no lights, bad cell phone connection.

Have you overcome your fear of flying? It’s often said that in 2002 when you ran in the gubernatorial primary against Rod Blagojevich you might have won had you not been handicapped in campaigning up and down the state.

I fly all the time now. Remember I worked in Haiti. I few to the Sudan, to Chile. I just finally got used to it. And my flying fear made no difference in 2002. My problem was I was outspent and I couldn’t get on TV downstate. That’s why I lost. I raised $2.5 million; Blago raised $12-14 million. Where I was known, I won. Where I wasn’t known (i.e. downstate) I lost.