In his first appearance back in the Philadelphia area since leaving as city schools CEO last June, Paul Vallas told an audience at Cabrini College in Radnor that he has a freer hand in making changes as head of the deeply impoverished New Orleans school system.

Speaking to about 70 educators, students and policy makers at an educational symposium, Vallas said that if he can't dramatically improve New Orleans' schools, "it will be because of my incompetence. There are no obstacles."

Vallas, 54, left Philadelphia last June at odds with the School Reform Commission over a budget deficit and management style. He had spent five years at the helm of the 167,000-student district.

In New Orleans, Vallas said he has employed some lessons learned from Philadelphia. He has moved more quickly to modernize classrooms, something he wished he had done in Philadelphia early on. And he has focused on quality teacher training.

Also in an interview before his appearance, he praised the selection of Arlene Ackerman as Philadelphia's new schools CEO.

"I would not hesitate to call her for advice," he said.

Vallas said he has committed to staying two years in New Orleans and then may consider another run for governor in Chicago.

"You never say never," he said.