Schools Chief Has Much Work Ahead

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 17, 2008

In the past two weeks, weather delays and plans for spring break have taken a back seat to School Superintendent Steven L. Walts as the dominant subject of parent and teacher chatter.

First, he unveiled an $836.2 million budget that reduces the size of some elementary classes and gives raises to teachers so that they don't fall further behind in the region's teacher salary wars.

Next, parent backlash against the school system's elementary Math Investigations program spawned a heated movement, including a petition and a marathon school board session.

Then it was revealed that some of Walts's battles from his previous school district in Greece, N.Y., are still progressing -- two years after his departure. A New York state comptroller's preliminary audit found that Walts and his administration in Greece used unauthorized funds to pay for a major capital improvement project. And in a separate matter, a senior attorney with the New York State United Teachers Union said that Walts is expected to give a deposition in a federal lawsuit filed by a Greece teacher; Walts and his former subordinates are accused of discriminating against the teacher on the basis of age.

Even as these controversies have percolated since Walts arrived in Prince William in 2005, he has said his concentration is focused on this school system and on managing its growing but lean budget. Prince William's school system, now the second largest in the state, is growing by about 2,000 students a year.

Unveiled earlier this month, the budget gives teachers a combined 6 percent raise and continues adding the prestigious International Baccalaureate program at some elementary schools.

"The IB curriculum is exceptional, and you have to go through a rigorous process and training for the teachers in order to qualify," Walts said. "The program's in greater demand. Teachers and parents like it."

He is also still trying to complete the installation of a widespread fiber-optic network with voice and video equipment that won't be finished until the end of the 2009-10 academic year.

As for the math program, Walts said that reactions are mixed and that it is easy, based solely on the vocal opposition, to think Investigations is universally disliked. He said that parents may have some misperceptions that students are not being taught basic math facts.

"We believe that children should learn their math facts. That may be through games, activities or drills," he said. "There's rumors that you can't use flashcards anymore. That's simply not true."

Meanwhile, Walts will still have to contend with the lingering problems from Greece. Some school officials, parents and teachers say those issues could damage his reputation and goodwill in the county. Community members say Walts has helped raise the profile of the Prince William school system but say the fact that the school board and its attorney convened an emergency meeting to discuss the comptroller's audit -- and that Walts may have to travel to New York for a federal lawsuit -- are not healthy signs.

Maria Paslick, president of the Prince William County Schools Education Foundation, said Walts's troubles in Greece are unfortunate. "When you have the school board attorney having to address this issue, it costs money," Paslick said, adding that more information needs to come out before judgment is made. "When our superintendent has to leave his business here to attend to these other matters, it's a huge distraction, no matter how you look at it."

Walts has declined to comment on the Greece matters in recent days. But Keith Imon, an associate superintendent who worked with Walts in the Greece school system, has vigorously maintained that nothing with the Greece budget was done improperly.

So far, the school board has backed Walts.

"He's fully discharging his duties as far as I am concerned," school board member Don Richardson (Gainesville) said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company