Pr. William Schools Chief Faces Doubts on Leadership

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 16, 2006

Jean Smith desperately urged Prince William County's new superintendent to speak to the PTA at her children's Woodbridge elementary school in the spring. He declined to respond, so she became curious. Who exactly is Steven L. Walts? She came across a Web site devoted to the detail-obsessed community from his previous school district in Greece, N.Y.

"WE Need HELP in PWC!" she posted in early April on . "Before marching into battle, are there any effective strategies for dealing with this man?"

As Walts marks his first year as Prince William County school superintendent this month -- the first new chief in nearly two decades -- he is stoking a mix of concerns among parents and school officials over his leadership.

Although many in the community admire his efforts to make the school system more competitive with its Northern Virginia counterparts, some are growing nervous that he is not as accessible as his folksy predecessor, the late Edward L. Kelly, who held the job for 18 years. They also worry that Walts may be importing a management style that has created several costly legal problems in Greece.

"As soon as we got him as a superintendent, I started getting e-mails from Greece saying, 'I'm glad it's you and not us anymore,' " said Christy Sullivan, a director with the Prince William Education Association who meets with Walts regularly during the academic year. "He's an elusive superintendent. If someone has a grievance, he doesn't hear it. He gives it to someone else."

In an interview, Walts said that he is intimately involved with the system's affairs large and small and points out that he has visited each of the county's schools -- many of them more than once.

But some Prince William school principals report that they do not have much access to the superintendent. He's eliminated the monthly meetings they had with his predecessor. Parents at some schools say that Walts does not personally engage them when controversial and often emotional issues hit their schools.

At the same time, however, Walts has generated support for several of his academic initiatives that are being implemented this fall and in coming years: expanding all-day kindergarten, launching the prestigious International Baccalaureate curriculum at several elementary schools, offering PSAT tests at no cost for sophomores.

But recently, Walts's leadership has suffered vocal criticism stemming from his decision to demote a popular high school principal in Woodbridge before she said she had been fully evaluated.

After the School Board agreed to the demotion, Prince William residents became wary when the principal brought forward an age discrimination complaint. Numerous teachers in Greece, a small community near Rochester, N.Y., had filed similar complaints. The Woodbridge principal, Dorothy McCabe, 60, and her attorney, Steven D. Stone, are preparing an age discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Stone said.

During Walts's last years in Greece, more than a dozen school district employees filed such complaints with the EEOC, alleging that Walts's administration -- which included a human resources director he brought with him to Prince William -- discriminated against them based on age or disability. The EEOC ruled in favor of the employees in five of the cases.

The Greece school system and its insurance agency are being forced to pay about $449,000 in legal fees and out-of-court settlements to three teachers in connection to the EEOC complaints, according to Ken Walsh, president of the Greece Board of Education.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company