Philadelphia School District chief executive officer Paul Vallas, who brought hope and a whirlwind of change to the 174,000-student system, says he will leave soon and take his family home to Chicago.

"I'm done," Vallas said in a telephone interview last night. "I made a commitment to stay here five years. I think five years is enough."

He said he would at least finish the school year but would not be specific about a departure date.

The news came as no surprise to district insiders, who have heard the rumors for weeks that Vallas would be exiting.

Tensions among Vallas and the School Reform Commission and Mayor Street have flared in recent months, after his disclosure in October that the district's $2.04 billion budget had a $73.3 million deficit and faced large cuts for next year to balance the spending plan. As a result, the commission took some spending authority away from Vallas and put it in the hands of its own fiscal monitors.

Despite the fiscal troubles, Vallas' administration has presided over a substantial rise in standardized test scores, a proliferation of smaller, theme-based high schools, and a more cohesive, standardized curriculum. But a majority of students fail to meet proficiency levels in reading and math, students fail or drop out in alarming numbers, an ambitious capital building program has hit snags, and a rise in teacher assaults this year has exasperated educators.

Vallas, 53, was noncommittal about his future plans, though he told SRC chairman James Nevels that he was exploring several possibilities in the public and private sectors, Nevels said. Among those, according to Nevels, is rebuilding the school district in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans - although Louisiana officials say that job is not currently open.

"That's way premature," Vallas said. "I'm just not going to talk about what I'm doing next."

The hard-charging schools CEO spent four days last week touring the New Orleans schools and advising, free of charge, the Louisiana Department of Education, which oversees the district. He was one of several national school leaders whom Louisiana has called upon for guidance as it tries to rebuild New Orleans' school system, plagued by busing problems, facility woes and fluctuating enrollment.

Pul Pastorek, Louisiana's superintendent of education, said yesterday that he had not made an offer to Vallas, nor had he discussed the possibility of Vallas running the 27,000-student district - a much smaller system than Philadelphia's. Because New Orleans is a state-run district - one that is projected to grow to 40,000 students next year - Pastorek would be instrumental in hiring a new schools superintendent.

"Robin Jarvis is our superintendent. She's on vacation this week, raring to come back next week, but she is our lady, and we're riding with her," he said.

Jarvis has talked publicly about her possible departure after less than a year in the job, citing family issues and lack of public support, according to published reports.

If the job were open, Pastorek said, he would be interested in "a high-quality superintendent who has experience. He [Vallas] strikes me as that kind of person."

But, Pastorek said, for now, he has called on Vallas, New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, Miami schools chief Rudy Crew, and others for guidance.

Taking on New Orleans would be in character for Vallas, who embraced the challenge of running the Philadelphia district just after a state takeover and under a national spotlight as it launched the largest experiment in the privatization of public schools. He previously ran the Chicago Public Schools under similar scrutiny.

A Feb. 9 article in the Times-Picayune, New Orleans' newspaper, called the school district "one of the nation's most dysfunctional school systems in the wake of one of the worst disasters in the nation's history."

Nevels said in a telephone interview yesterday that Vallas told him this week "in passing conversation" that "he has several opportunities that he's currently pursuing." But, Nevels said, Vallas didn't specify which option he would take.

"New Orleans was among them, but there were other opportunities in both the public and private sectors," Nevels said.

If Vallas leaves at the end of the school year, his departure will come two years before the end of a contract extension just awarded him last summer. His base salary is $275,000.

And his exit could create a leadership vacuum. Chief Academic Officer Gregory Thornton, the district's second-in-charge, is one of two finalists for the Seattle superintendent's job.

"I think it's a major blow to the city of Philadelphia and the school district," Greg Wade, president of the Home and School Council, the district's parents' group, said of Vallas' departure. "Say what you want about the man, he had our best interests at heart. I truly believe that."

The SRC will launch a national search to replace Vallas, Nevels said.

"There's no question Paul was an agent for change at a time when the SRC was generating some of the most ambitious reforms in urban education that this country has ever seen," Nevels said. "One of the things that becomes important is . . . how do we implement and institutionalize these reforms after five years? If in fact Paul is going to leave, we're ready to look to someone who is going to institutionalize those reforms."

Nevels said he was prepared to take steps to provide the district with leadership in the short term.

Ted Kirsch, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said he hoped any new leader would determine what was working in the district before making changes.

"We have to evaluate what works, stick with what works, and when we find out certain things don't work, we have to go forward and find another way to make progress," he said.

Kirsch credited Vallas with moving the district forward, but took him to task for failing to lower class sizes as he had promised for years to do.

"We've had higher [class sizes] now than we've ever had," he said.

Vallas announced his departure at a news conference late yesterday afternoon after discussing the district's proposed 2007-08 budget, which could bring a round of hefty cuts and hinder reforms in the schools.

"I was dealing with the rumor of the day, and it's distracting," Vallas said, explaining his timing. "Plus, if you're going to make a move, you need to let staff know what the score is."

He said the new mayor in Philadelphia should have a hand in deciding on the next CEO. Philadelphia will choose its Democratic candidate for mayor on May 15; one Republican candidate is on the ballot.

Jacqueline Barnett, Street's education secretary, said last night that a smooth transition to a new schools leader would be key.

"We will have to begin the next steps and figure out how we get through this transition period and be very deliberate about the type of leadership that is necessary to build on the academic momentum that was gained under Vallas' leadership," she said.

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or
Inquirer staff writer Dan Hardy contributed to this article.