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Vallas on deck in New Orleans

His hiring as schools chief could come this week.

Paul Vallas is ending his five-year term atop Philadelphia's district.
Paul Vallas is ending his five-year term atop Philadelphia's district.Read more

Paul Vallas is set to be named superintendent of yet another struggling urban school district - hurricane-ravaged New Orleans - probably by the end of the week, sources say.

The Louisiana Department of Education yesterday announced that Robin Jarvis will resign as the district's superintendent at the end of May.

Officials at the department, which oversees the district, were mum on Jarvis' replacement, but sources said the job was expected to go to Vallas, who is leaving as Philadelphia's schools chief and is in New Orleans for two weeks doing consulting work for that district. Final details are being worked out, and an announcement is expected Friday, according to district sources and sources close to the selection.

Vallas, a former Chicago schools chief who has led the Philadelphia School District since July 2002, already has commanded a team of former Chicago administrators - many of whom also worked in Philadelphia but have moved on - to help in New Orleans. He also is rumored to be taking a few Philadelphia administrators with him.

How the new opportunity will affect the length of his stay in Philadelphia was uncertain. Vallas most recently said he would remain only until the end of the school year, even after Gov. Rendell stated that Vallas would ensure a smooth opening of schools in September.

When Vallas' name first surfaced last month in connection with the possible opening of the New Orleans job, he declined to comment. He could not be reached yesterday.

While New Orleans is much smaller than Philadelphia, taking it on is in character for Vallas, who embraced the challenge of running the 173,000-student Philadelphia district just after a state takeover and under a national spotlight as it launched the largest experiment in the privatization of public schools.

The district's energetic, 53-year-old chief executive officer offered this foreshadowing last week when asked about his future: "You know I like challenges."

And in New Orleans, he'd get one.

Jarvis, appointed by the state a year ago, has been under pressure to hire teachers and open safe schools in the recovering district. She said several months ago that she was considering resigning because of a lack of support and the strain on her family.

Jarvis' departure comes as the state turns to the National Guard for help renovating hurricane-damaged schools it will need to accommodate students returning to the district. In March and April alone, about 900 new students registered for classes, the district said.

The district is plagued by busing problems, facility woes and fluctuating enrollment.

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

At 27,000 students in 58 public schools, New Orleans' district is less than a sixth the size of Philadelphia's. It is expected to grow to about 40,000 students next school year.

The contract in New Orleans could be shorter than Vallas' initial five-year pact in Philadelphia - possibly only two years - and the salary is likely to be significantly below the $250,000 he drew here.

Vallas has said he intends to move his family back to Chicago no matter what job he takes next.

Vallas' role in Philadelphia already appears to be diminishing. He is not expected to be in town for the School Reform Commission meeting next week, when major decisions could be made on contract renewals for the for-profit Edison Schools Inc. and other outside managers of 41 public schools.

The commission is discussing candidates for an interim CEO and preparing to launch a national search for a permanent replacement. One prominent candidate, chief academic officer Greg Thornton, has removed himself from consideration for the interim post and may take a superintendent's job elsewhere, sources said. Another possible candidate is Thomas Brady, who was hired in March as the district's chief operating officer.

As calls came in from New Orleans and Philadelphia reporters yesterday, district employees and parents wondered what they could expect next. The district faces cutting nearly $100 million from its proposed $2.18 billion budget for next year, and possibly a lot more if it doesn't get additional city and state funding.

"We've got to move on," said Helen Gym, a parent and an education advocate. "There is a lot of work that needs to be done. We can't look back, and we're not going to. Parents have to stay really focused on getting money from the city and state this year."