GREECE, N.Y. -- Steven L. Walts arrived here in 1998 and was dismayed by the school system. Diminished by job cuts by major employers Xerox and Kodak, this town near Lake Ontario was struggling to educate its children: About half its seniors were graduating with the highest diploma, enrollment was so big that all but one school needed a trailer annex and few local professional development courses existed for teachers.
"I remember thinking, 'Why are the string players practicing in janitors' rooms with mops and chemical products?' " recalled Walts, 50, superintendent of Greece's 14,000-student school system and soon to become superintendent in Prince William County.
"Children have always been my passion," Steven L. Walts says.
In the next seven years, Walts persuaded school board members -- who in New York set the property tax rate -- to increase taxes and modernize as they stared down the barrel of new federal testing requirements. "We had to have a laserlike focus on student achievement," he recalled.
When he steps into his new job July 1, with a mandate to focus on the same thing, Walts will be leading a much larger and much more diverse school system -- one where the School Board doesn't control the tax rate or the purse strings. And he will be doing it in a community that has not had change at the top of the school system in nearly two decades.
"Steve, like all of us, knows that he has to work within certain parameters. He'll test the parameters in Prince William," said Stephen C. Jones, outgoing superintendent of the Syracuse, N.Y., schools who in July will become the schools chief in Norfolk. "He'll have to adjust and adapt to the culture, to the mores and values."
Walts, appointed unanimously Wednesday night, is suddenly the face of change in a county that has had the same commonwealth's attorney for more than 30 years, the same police chief for 17 years and the same superintendent for 18: Edward L. Kelly was hired in 1987 from Little Rock when the Prince William school system, now 66,000 students in 80 schools, was a little more than half its current size.
Kelly, 62, a popular leader credited with giving principals a large measure of autonomy, wanted to stay two more years, but his health became a concern as he was treated for a brain tumor. School Board members told him last year that it was time for a change as the county continues to grow in size, affluence and academic expectations. One board member also said others wanted to make the change now rather than in 2007, when their seats will be up for election.
Prince William parents and educators are studying Walts's résumé, and some said last week that they were impressed by what they have seen -- a young, dynamic leader who dealt successfully with issues they want tackled in Prince William, including expanding all-day kindergarten and International Baccalaureate programs and reducing class sizes.
"From what I've read, he sounds like a very, very good choice," said Steven Wolf, president of the Prince William County Parent Teacher Coalition. "New York has very progressive school systems. I'd expect he'd take that experience and build on it here."
Marcela Terrell, president of the J.W. Alvey Elementary School PTA, used to live in Syracuse and said she became enthusiastic about Walts when she heard where he was from. Parents moving into Prince William's new developments, she said, are eager for leadership that will make an already good school system competitive with the best in the country, including neighboring Fairfax County.
"The housing market has moved out here, the growth has moved out here," she said. "Many people here are from Loudoun and Fairfax and expect the same quality of education here."
In Greece, the abrupt announcement of Walts's departure was emotional. At a packed news conference Thursday morning, reporters, parents and principals gave him a standing ovation when he took the podium and stood with his wife, Kathleen, and held his daughter, Delaney, 2.
At the end of a list of his accomplishments -- increasing the percentage of students graduating with prestigious Regents diplomas from 59 percent in 1999 to 74 percent last year, implementing the International Baccalaureate program of college-level courses, renovating all 21 school campuses, eliminating trailer annexes and instituting a comprehensive teacher development program -- Walts's voice broke as he said, "Children have always been my passion and will continue to be so as I move to my job in Northern Virginia."
In New York, where voters must approve school budgets, he and school board members persuaded residents to spend more money on educational initiatives -- such as full-day kindergarten at all elementary schools and a suburban Head Start program -- even as enrollment in the school system declined slightly. During his tenure, the tax rate rose from $1.78 per $100 valuation to $2.33 -- more than twice Prince William's $1.07 per $100 -- triggering criticism from a relatively small but ardent group of anti-tax citizens.
Walts, born in Great Bend, Kan., has had experience in a larger district, serving as an associate superintendent and then director of human resources for Baltimore County schools.
Michael A. Mulgrew, principal of Brentsville District High School in Nokesville, put the size question slightly differently. "Leadership is leadership," he said. "I'm the principal of a small school. It doesn't make my job any easier."
Shapira reported from New York, and Helderman reported from Virginia.