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.
"When your name comes out, all your enemies come out of the woodwork, but a board has to weigh all that," said Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "In the last several years, I've seen districts just coming out and announcing who the superintendent is without announcing any [other] names."
Prince William School Board member Grant Lattin (Occoquan) said that Walts had mentioned during the search process that he had strained relations with the teachers union and a community activist group but that the board didn't know about the EEOC complaints and never discussed them. Two other board members, Milton C. Johns (Brentsville) and Betty D. Covington (Dumfries), also said they were not aware that Greece teachers had filed EEOC complaints. The board members continue to be staunch supporters of Walts.
This summer, the EEOC determined that Walts's administration in New York tried to force out five veteran teachers by subjecting them to unusually rigorous evaluations based on their age or disability. Such determinations are rare -- the EEOC finds "reasonable cause" that a violation occurred against an employee just 5 percent of the time.
Of the five teachers, one had such a compelling case against the Greece school system that the EEOC referred it in October to the U.S. Department of Justice, which can bring a lawsuit, according to the teacher's attorney, Nelson Thomas.
"There were problems in Greece for a number of years under Walts's leadership that people were well aware of," Thomas said. "Walts was very fortunate to leave when he did because the problems that have come to light would have promptly hurt his job chances had he been looking after that."
In an interview, Walts, 51, denied that discrimination took place. He said that during his tenure in Greece, he introduced several initiatives supporting veteran teachers, including adding a step at the top of the salary scale for the most experienced teachers.
Walts said he was not directly involved in the teacher evaluations. Many of the teachers filed complaints, he said, because they had been coerced by another teacher.
"I know that some of these complaints exist, but in my opinion they were never founded. I would never discriminate, and I would never accept anyone on my staff discriminating," he said.
The EEOC authorized four of the teachers to file lawsuits against the school system that could net plaintiff's awards in the millions.
The agency's decision forced the school system to place Walts's successor, Margaret Keller-Cogan -- who served as his deputy -- on paid administrative leave while an independent consultant investigated the allegations. The consultant, Allan R. Berry, is expected to present his findings to Greece school board members this week.
Other troubles have surfaced in Greece stemming from Walts's leadership: Residents discovered this summer, after Walts left, that tiny microphones had been installed in the ceiling of a school board room, without signs letting people know they were there. The equipment was immediately removed after residents complained that they were being spied on.
The police in Greece launched an investigation into whether anyone in Walts's administration violated a state eavesdropping law. Police interviewed Keith Imon, Walts's assistant superintendent for communications and technology in Greece, who was hired by Prince William to perform a similar job. Walts and Imon said the equipment was installed to have a record of any misconduct; earlier in the year, a resident was arrested after allegedly causing what school officials believed was a disturbance during a meeting. Imon said he had cleared the installation with a school system lawyer.
No charges were filed in the eavesdropping investigation because there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in a school board room, said Thomas Brilbeck, an assistant district attorney in the town's surrounding jurisdiction, Monroe County.
Community resentment over Walts reached its peak last month when complaints were raised in an open school board session that Walts's employment contract -- amended about 45 days before a recruiter contacted him about leaving for Prince William -- gave him full lifetime medical benefits.
According to a confidential memo from Greece's acting school superintendent, Josephine Kehoe, to the local school board, Walts called her last month and threatened "to sue the Board as a body and individual members personally" if they continued discussing his benefits in open session and tried to break his existing contract. He claimed the discussions violated his privacy and reiterated that in an interview.
Walts said he does not feel bad that he accepted the Prince William job so soon after his contract was amended with longevity bonuses and is pleased that the search process was kept private. "You're under public scrutiny, and there is an unrelenting nature of the press to report things in a way that often has a negative spin," he said.
Houston, the executive director of the school administrators group and a former superintendent, said it's in taxpayers' interest to have a public search process -- and, although they may not realize it at the time, it's also in the candidates' interest.
"When you're down to the end, at some point, you've got to have the guts and say: 'I am a candidate for this job. Go ahead and check me out,' " Houston said. "If you can't stand up to that scrutiny, then you won't be able to stand up to it when you get the job."
In April, at a news conference in Greece announcing that Walts was leaving for Virginia, a packed room of parents, teachers and administrators gave him a standing ovation. Some even cried.
But others were glad to see him go. Anne Miller, co-president of a nonprofit accountability group in Greece and a former school board member, said Prince William officials "could have talked to people in the teachers union or talked to us. But that would have been a double-edged sword because on the one hand, you want to tell them what's going on, but the situation was so bad here we just wanted him gone."