Pr. William Schools Chief Had a Tense Tenure in N.Y.

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 12, 2005

Prince William County's new schools chief left behind a series of problems in his previous job in Upstate New York that the county School Board never discovered during its search for a superintendent, records and interviews show.

Steven L. Walts began work in Prince William this summer after seven years in Greece, N.Y., outside Rochester. Since he left Greece, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said his administration there discriminated against five teachers on the basis of age or disability, and it referred one case to the Justice Department for review, records and interviews show. The rulings open the Greece school system to potentially damaging lawsuits.

The city's police department also investigated eavesdropping allegations after listening devices were placed in a school board meeting room by Walts's administration. No charges were filed.

The EEOC rulings were issued after the Prince William School Board chose Walts for its new superintendent, but the agency's investigations began many months before he was hired. Board members said that they were unaware of the EEOC complaints but that they still support Walts.

Walts said he has done nothing wrong and did not discriminate against the teachers. Prince William School Board Chairman Lucy S. Beauchamp (At Large) defended the search process.

"We went through an extensive search looking at his record, and what we found was that he was a gifted leader who achieved many things for the Greece school district," she said. "Steve Walts has my full confidence."

But some Prince William officials, parents and teachers wondered whether the secrecy around the search and vetting process -- a method used by school systems across the country -- allowed for an adequate review of Walts's candidacy.

"If you're hiring someone who's going to oversee [thousands of] employees, you would hope that the School Board and the entity they hired would be doing a thorough check from all sources," said Meg Gruber, a science teacher at Forest Park Senior High School in Woodbridge who is on the board of directors of the National Education Association. "The buck always stops with the superintendent. He's the ultimate man in charge."

County Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries) said School Board members should have visited New York, just as she visited Arkansas in 1987, when she was on the School Board vetting Edward L. Kelly, the previous superintendent. "It would have been wise for them to go up there, but I think they have found the right man," she said.

In her visit to Arkansas, "I went to the library, went through newspapers, talked to people on the street and got a real feel for it," she said. "We didn't want to make a mistake."

But now, concern for keeping a candidate's name private can limit the scope of a school board's background check. That can mean that the public -- and often the hiring school boards -- might never become aware of all the controversies that surrounded a superintendent's tenure before they make a decision.

School systems keep candidates' names private because the number of qualified applicants is shrinking and those in the pool don't want their names revealed, fearing publicity would hurt their relationships with the school boards that currently employ them.

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