Pressures Mount for Chief Of Prince William Schools

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 30, 2008

After a school year marked by academic and administrative controversy, Prince William County Superintendent Steven L. Walts retains rock-solid School Board support as he seeks to raise the reputation of Virginia's second-largest school system. But his relationships with many parents have fractured, and some local officials wonder when, if ever, test scores will rise to levels found among the county's neighbors.

Hundreds of parents protested an elementary math program Walts championed, prompting board members to reevaluate it. Two of the county's top-performing high schools and a third of its elementary schools remain overcrowded. Teachers in Prince William continue to earn less than those in neighboring counties.

Test scores from Walts's third year are not yet public. But results from the first two after his 2005 arrival were uneven: SAT and state test scores remained among Northern Virginia's lowest. The decline in the county's average SAT score -- from 1504 to 1486, by far the steepest drop among the area's major districts -- meant that Prince William continued to lose ground to Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington counties.

On state reading and math tests, Prince William's overall lead over Arlington for all students evaporated. Loudoun significantly increased its lead over Prince William in pass rates on those tests, and Fairfax's lead nudged up slightly. Additionally, the lead Prince William held over Loudoun and Arlington for black and Hispanic scores declined.

"Surely, it's troubling that you're not seeing a trend upward," said Board of Supervisors member W.S. Covington III (R-Brentsville). "The first year, you're getting your feet wet, but second and third, he ought to be planting seeds. By the fourth and fifth, we ought to see some results."

Walts, who has a $239,293 annual salary with a contract to 2011, is in contract negotiations with the School Board. He declined to be interviewed for this report.

In a written statement, he said the school system has established free online SAT reviews exams to raise scores. He said preliminary results on state Standards of Learning exams in end-of-year courses show increases in passing rates in every subject tested. He said teacher salaries are competitive, although the first-year salary of $42,354 is ahead of only Charles County among the area's major districts.

Walts's statement said that he wanted to work with parents and that he was "dedicated to continuous improvement."

School Board Chairman Milton C. Johns stands by the leader of the 73,000-student system. "I continue to be very pleased with Dr. Walts and look forward to having him on for many years," said Johns (At Large), who voted to hire him in 2005. "Superintendents are going to be under the microscope, and issues will get fanned because they draw attention and publicity."

Management problems from his prior superintendency in Upstate New York have followed Walts. In February, the School Board held an emergency session to discuss a New York comptroller's audit related to Walts's stewardship of the Greece, N.Y., school district.

The audit concluded that the Greece school system, under Walts's leadership, used unauthorized funds to finance a major capital project, and it criticized Greece for allowing Walts to accept a final payout of $25,000 for vacation days in a fiscal year during which he was employed for one week.

Greece school officials asked New York law enforcement authorities to review the audit, but prosecutors declined to investigate, according to Greece School Superintendent Steven A. Achramovitch. Walts has denied wrongdoing.

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