Controversies Threaten to Erode Trust in Schools Chief

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 12, 2008

In public, Prince William County School Superintendent Steven L. Walts has enjoyed unanimous support from the School Board since he arrived in 2005 to lead one of the Washington area's fastest-growing systems.

But surprisingly persistent controversies from Walts's previous job in Upstate New York could erode his standing among his elected bosses and the wider school community, according to interviews with several parents, community leaders and school officials.

Last night, the county School Board met with its attorney and Walts to discuss a recent preliminary audit by the New York comptroller that found that the Greece, N.Y., school district was rife with financial "waste and abuse" during Walts's tenure. The report also says the Greece system's "acquiescence to a powerful superintendent" led to unauthorized spending on capital improvements.

In a statement, School Board Chairman Milton C. Johns said: "The School Board is satisfied with this information and will continue to monitor any ongoing developments. Dr. Walts continues to have the confidence of the Prince William County School Board. The Prince William County community can rest assured that the School Board has long-standing and transparent policies and audit procedures, assuring integrity and effectiveness of all division operations."

Walts has declined to comment in recent days on the Greece controversies.

"When leaving Greece, the capital project was within budget," said Keith Imon, a Prince William associate superintendent.

Aside from the audit, Walts is also contending with a federal lawsuit in New York filed by Greece teacher Mary T. Donlon, 57, who accuses him of age discrimination. Walts and other former Greece school officials are expected to travel to New York for depositions as soon as this month. Donlon is one of five Greece teachers who served under Walts and filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and lawsuits.

"What I've heard from parents is that everyone's very concerned," said Martina Boone, a parent and vice chairman of a Prince William safe schools advisory council. "I think there's a concern that these types of things have happened up there and are going to spill down here."

Some school officials also are apprehensive about the emergence of leadership questions during a difficult budget cycle and a barrage of parent criticism over a new elementary math program.

"We're trying show people how hard-working we are and how we need higher teacher salaries," said a principal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation. "To look at the county board of supervisors and say we need more money when you have all this baggage going on is not good."

Some teachers said they were unsure whether the New York controversies are a serious matter or a vendetta by old foes.

"Everybody's kind of speechless. They're like, 'Have you seen the paper?' " said Meg Gruber, an earth science teacher at Forest Park High School, who serves on the board of directors of the Prince William Education Association. "Mostly, people are like, 'Do you think it's true, or do you think there is a faction in New York that still doesn't like him?' "

The Greece audit could lead the Prince William School Board to review a contracting policy adopted after Walts arrived. That policy allows contracts for construction, goods and services that cost $500,000 or less to be awarded without board approval. Previously, the board had approved contracts for construction costing more than $200,000 and those for goods and services costing more than $100,000.

"I suspect that topic is going to come up," said a school official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation. "In light of the concerns raised in Greece, I think it's something the board should look at."

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