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Rockford superintendent search recap: Mayor was there

Wednesday, February 25, 2009  
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By Jeff Kolkey
RRSTAR.COM
Posted Feb 28, 2009 @ 09:50 PM

ROCKFORD — Mayor Larry Morrissey, a frequent critic of the Rockford School District, met with School Board leaders at least two times during their search for a new superintendent. Developer Sunil Puri also conferred with board members.

While board members insist neither the mayor nor Puri had any influence on the search, for weeks they refused to acknowledge that Morrissey had been directly involved. The mayor also downplayed his role and evaded questions about his participation.

Last week three board members confirmed to the Rockford Register Star that Morrissey met with them and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas at least twice — once in December and again Feb. 1.

The two key meetings involving board members, Vallas and Morrissey ultimately changed the direction of the search and led to interviews with one of two finalists for the job.

Puri participated in the first meeting with Vallas in late December, but board member Bob Evans said Puri departed shortly after opening his office for what turned out to be a pivotal second meeting Super Bowl Sunday. Vallas recommended candidates at that meeting.

School Board leaders said neither Morrissey nor Puri offered direction to board members or played a role in deciding on the two women who ultimately were chosen as the finalists.

“Other than being there ... I don’t think I can say what (Morrissey’s) involvement was,” School Board Vice President Mike Williams said Wednesday. “I don’t see the mayor trying to influence the outcome. I don’t see Sunil Puri or anyone in Rockford trying to influence an outcome aside from the e-mails I’m getting from the public.”

It was only after repeated questioning from the Register Star that School Board members revealed the participation of Vallas, Morrissey and Puri.

Morrissey was reluctant to talk about his connections with the search.

“There really wasn’t a whole lot to the story, in my view,” Morrissey said Thursday. “I was not at all involved in who the recruits would be, in identifying recruits, in selecting recruits, in prioritizing recruits, and the last thing I wanted to do was give the impression I was sticking my nose in it. I wasn’t.”

Kalchbrenner said that once discussions got to a point where Vallas was submitting names of potential candidates, the School Board took control.

“From that point on, it was my view that’s fine, we will bring any potential candidates to our search firm and go through the appropriate process,” Kalchbrenner said. “Then we will have to judge each candidate based on his or her merits.”

A seat at the table
Board members initially were evasive when asked about what roles Morrissey and Vallas played in the search. The mayor also would not divulge the extent of his involvement.

When first asked about his role by a reporter Feb. 9, Morrissey said he had met with School District consultants as a search firm built its criteria for the next superintendent. Morrissey said he had a chance “to talk with (Vallas) a few times in the past” and that “I think he has some contacts here.”

It was only after Vallas confirmed that Morrissey had a seat at the table that the mayor acknowledged his participation.

Morrissey said he feared anything he said could hurt the school system’s chances of landing a superintendent who could move the district toward sustained improvement. He said he had the opportunity to “briefly chat” with Vallas during his visits to Rockford.

“They already have enough voices that put at jeopardy a tough search process, and I don’t want to comment in a way that could jeopardize it further,” Morrissey said. “I had some knowledge it was going on and limited interaction, but as far as who was recommended and how ... I didn’t have substantial involvement in that stuff.”

Kalchbrenner and Williams at first also refused to give specifics on how Morrissey was involved. They responded vaguely to questions about Morrissey during interviews Feb. 12.

“My understanding is that the mayor has been peripherally involved in discussions,” Kalchbrenner said then.

Vallas advises district
Rockford School Board members had intermittent contact with Vallas for months before the big-city school system reformer submitted candidates’ names at a meeting Feb. 1 inside the First Rockford Group offices on Spring Creek Road.

Evans, a Rockford College professor who sits on the board of trustees, organized the February meeting. He coordinated with Puri — a fellow Rockford College board member — for the use of his offices.

Vallas, accustomed to large cities where the mayor often has authority over the school system, wanted the mayor to be there, Evans said. Vallas also wanted perspective on the economic and political forces at play surrounding the school system.

Board members conducted five interviews Jan. 30 and 31 with candidates brought forward by the district’s search firm of Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates. The firm was hired for $28,000 plus expenses in July.

Williams was not impressed with the results after the first round of interviews. He said the only reason he did not suggest restarting the search was because the board agreed Jan. 31 to extend the interview timeline for another candidate and the next day Vallas recommended candidates.

Williams said the district has two excellent finalists who he thinks can improve graduation rates and academic achievement districtwide.

“I was a little disappointed with Hazard, but then I can’t be totally disappointed because two candidates are being considered,” Williams said. “I wish we had identified more (high-quality candidates).”

Vallas’ recommendations led the district to interview LaVonne Sheffield of the Louisiana Recovery School District on Feb. 15.

Vallas worked with Sheffield in Philadelphia and Louisiana. Vallas said he considers Sheffield among the top educators in the country. He describes her as a tireless, hard-charging school reformer who demands accountability.

Board members also extended their interview timeline to accommodate Theresa Saunders of the East St. Louis School District on Feb. 6. She also turned out to be a finalist.

Vallas said he has heard good things about Saunders as well.

Quiet on this one
Morrissey has viewed the Rockford public schools as a hindrance to economic development and the future of Rockford. He rarely misses an opportunity to point out the district’s shortcomings.

As city and community leaders increasingly recognize the link between education and the city’s ability to attract new businesses and industry, Morrissey has pushed for school reform.

“As go our schools, so goes the entire city of Rockford,” Morrissey said. “That’s why I’ve pushed for an appointed School Board shooting for greater alignment of the schools and the city. That’s why I’ve pushed on things like charter schools and truancy. Our city can’t afford to lose out on opportunities because we’re not giving our young people the basics.”

When discussing the superintendent search, Morrissey said he wanted to steer clear of the public spotlight despite having participated in the local meeting with Vallas.

School Board member David Kelley said it was a prudent measure politically to involve the mayor.

“I don’t think it’s really a big deal,” Kelley said. “Ultimately whoever we hire is going to be a vote of the Board of Education. That’s one way to go about diffusing (the) anti-board rhetoric (Morrissey) has had over the last six to nine months.”

How Vallas got involved
Rockford dentist Cyrus Oates introduced Vallas to the superintendent search in December. Oates said he met Vallas’ wife, Sharon, while on a private jet in November en route to a Dollars For Scholars board meeting near St. Louis.

That meeting led to an offer from Vallas to consult with Rockford officials.

Kalchbrenner, Williams, Oates, Morrissey and Puri met with Vallas at Puri’s office to discuss the Rockford School District and its search for a new superintendent in December. Puri did not return phone calls and e-mail messages seeking comment.

For Kalchbrenner and Williams, it was a chance to feel out Vallas to see whether he himself would be interested in becoming Rockford’s next superintendent. It turned out that Vallas, now the superintendent of the Louisiana Recovery School District in New Orleans, was committed there for at least another year.

“It would have been great if we had Paul Vallas to consider as a superintendent candidate, but unfortunately that was not the case,” Williams said. “We aren’t paying him a penny and never talked about a contract. I don’t understand this speculation or fear we are going to have one of the most renowned individuals in the country for school reform come into Rockford and help us. Quite frankly, it’s an asinine position for anyone to take.”

The next level
School officials think the right superintendent could bring about drastic change, taking the Rockford school system to another level of achievement.

That makes the next superintendent vital to the city’s future, Evans said.

Evans said the School District is “poised to make real progress.” He points to its strong financial position, curriculum monitoring programs, high school reform efforts and increased community involvement.

“Education seems to have everybody’s attention, and that is crucial,” Evans said. “This is a moment we can’t squander because you don’t know how often they come. We need to seize the moment. Things are in order to help us to move forward. ... We have to get it right.”
 

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