RSD superintendent Vallas not working full schedule because of disaster work

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Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the opening paragraph stated that a regularly employee was scheduled for 182 days during the nine months discussed. In fact, that figure should be 179 days, as reflected in the current version.

By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer

From February through October, any regular, year-round employee of the Recovery School District was  scheduled to work 179 days. But Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas is no regular employee, and his reputation as a frenetic go-getter may cause someone to think he’s worked a multiple of those days.

But it’s more like a fraction.

Because of his work rebuilding the educational systems in disaster-stricken Haiti and Chile, Vallas worked a full day only 131 of those days, or not quite three-quarters of the time. During 26 of his days out of the country, Vallas was paid by the RSD for the time he took to call into the office.

Vallas said it’s his nature and role to provide aid where needed.

“That’s what I do,” Vallas said in a phone interview with The Lens. “If something is broken, I’m usually invited in to fix it. That’s my function.”

But education officials and advocates said that while other school systems may need help, the main function of a Recovery School District superintendent is to work within the RSD.

“I think it was a misuse of his services,” Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Linda Johnson said. “We pay him to do work in New Orleans. Until New Orleans no longer needed help, he should have stayed in New Orleans.”

After Vallas used his vacation time working for the two countries’ school systems, he was not paid for times when he was not on the job for RSD, according to school system  payroll documents provided to The Lens in response to a public-records request.

His outside work does not affect his $4,000 monthly housing allowance, which is included in his biweekly paycheck, or his RSD-paid vehicle.

Vallas tracked his time meticulously, down to the fractions of an hour. His hourly rate is just over $121.

As superintendent of the Recovery School District, Vallas oversees 25 schools, and he has a hand in the general oversight of 57 charters approved by the state. He commands a budget of $176 million.

By design, Vallas’ contract offers few limitations on the outside work the superintendent can do. The two-year $238,000 contract that State Superintendent Paul Pastorek and Vallas signed in August 2007, and the amended $252,000-annual contract that was signed in 2009, states that Vallas can work outside of RSD as long as he doesn’t run afoul of ethics laws by holding another paid position with the state.

Vallas announced in February that he had signed on to do work in Haiti, working with the Inter-American Development Bank to develop a plan to rebuild Haiti’s schools. Vallas said he began traveling to Haiti in March, and that he did similar consulting work in Chile this summer. The plan for Haiti combines international donations and government money to let most Haitian students attend school for free, or for a nominal fee, according to a press release issued by the bank.

“My contract, like most city superintendents’ contracts, allows me to do consulting,” Vallas said. “This is me going out there and consulting in Haiti. This is me spending a number of months at my own expense and with my own risk going down there in-country.”

The spokesman for The Council of Great City Schools, a coalition 66 of the country’s largest school systems, agreed that such arrangements aren’t unusual.

“It’s not unusual for a big-city school superintendent to do outside work,” he said. “Some do and some don’t, often depending on the terms spelled out in their contracts.”

When The Lens asked RSD officials if Vallas was being paid for the time he spent in Haiti, a spokesman said that the state would not cover his time out of the office. When we asked for documentation that proves this, it took RSD nearly three weeks to get us the requested paystubs and timesheets, well beyond the required three-day public records request response time. RSD fulfilled our request only after we contacted state Department of Education officials for the information.

RSD Superintendent Paul Vallas prepares for his appearance before a state school board committee Wednesday. Photo by Sean David Hobbs

When the proof we requested finally did arrive, it showed that after Vallas used up his paid vacation time, he was not paid for an additional 39 days spent out of the office. In some time periods, as much as $4,000 was deducted from his usual $7,800 net bimonthly pay.

Though he was not paid, education advocates such as Research on Reforms analyst and long-time Vallas and RSD critic Karran Harper Royal nonetheless take issue with the fact that he was not in RSD offices for an extended period of time.

“That time (spent doing consulting) should be limited to whatever vacation time he has available to him only,” Royal said. “I don’t think that any other time should be spent for that because he works for us. Otherwise what are we paying him for?”

Though Royal and others do not approve of Vallas’ time away, Vallas cited several leaders and activists who support his time in Haiti, including State Superintendent Paul Pastorek and Pastor John C. Raphael of Uptown’s New Hope Baptist Church.

State Superintendent Paul Pastorek expressed a positive opinion in a statement to The Lens:

“I support Paul Vallas’ work in Haiti as a public service,” the statement read. “It was that kind of spirit that brought Paul here to New Orleans.”

Rene Greer, communications director for the state Department of Education, added this in an e-mail: “Despite being on leave, Mr. Vallas remained available to handle RSD matters as necessary while in Haiti.”

Vallas said that often during his time out of the country, he spent some of the days in teleconferences with RSD officials.

However, when The Lens spoke with Raphael, who is involved with the operation of a school in Haiti, Raphael indicated that outside of one meeting with Vallas in the country and one or two meetings in New Orleans, he didn’t know much about Vallas’ efforts in Haiti.

“I had no idea he was down there that long,” he said. “I thought it was only going to be a couple of weeks.”

Raphael said that he met with Vallas to discuss ways that the school, which sustained earthquake-related damage, could receive help.

“When I met with him there I did not get a chance to see the work he was doing, or where he was.”

As far as expressing support for Vallas’ work in Haiti, Raphael said that he couldn’t support nor condemn Vallas’ time there because before his conversation with The Lens, he didn’t know much about the work that was done, or how long Vallas stayed there.

Despite the fact that the state superintendent supports Vallas’ trips, BESE member Johnson says the fact that Vallas was out of the country instead of in the offices overseeing schools was a problem.

“Of course I want Haiti to return to a robust country with great education. However, I feel New Orleans is still in the state of recovery and needed him there,” she said. “Large companies loan their people to help when disasters occur. However, I am certain they would not loan their people if they were also in need.”

Vallas oversees schools from New Orleans to Baton Rouge to Shreveport. The RSD employs more than 1,400 people, including administrative and support staff, principals, and teachers.

The RSD was created by legislation passed in 2003 as a response to an overwhelming number of Orleans Parish School Board-run schools and schools in other districts marked academically unacceptable.

Before running the RSD, Vallas worked as a superintendent in school systems in Chicago and Philadelphia, where he was hailed for improving test scores. While some have supported Vallas and RSD, many parents and education advocates in New Orleans express that a return to local School Board control is best, as witnessed in several public hearings and forums held in the city and in Baton Rouge.

Pastorek’s school plan outlines that return of control, and the plan will be up for approval by the Board of Secondary and Elementary Education this Thursday.

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