A press conference denouncing Chicago mayoral candidate Paul Vallas’ record running public schools devolved into a shouting match as his supporters interrupted an event for his opponent at Rainbow PUSH Coalition Thursday morning in Kenwood.
Supporters of Chicago Teachers Union organizer and county commissioner Brandon Johnson gathered ahead of the city’s April 4 runoff election to warn voters of what they called a “trail of destruction” Vallas left in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans — a narrative Vallas’ supporters said was “totally untrue.”
The dust-up underscored the stark differences between Vallas and Johnson — and highlighted a divided electorate. Both candidates are working to shore up support in majority-Black communities on the city’s South and West sides, where current Mayor Lori Lightfoot performed well in the Feb. 28 election.
Parent and activist Melissa Francis traveled to Chicago from New Orleans to share her experience navigating her hometown’s post-Katrina school system, which Vallas led from 2007 to 2011.
“Paul Vallas has never had families in his best interest,” Francis told the crowd of Johnson supporters. “Many citizens of New Orleans recognize Paul Vallas as a scammer.”
Others called Vallas “a thief and a liar” who left “a trail of destruction” in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans.
“He comes into our communities and pillages them and leaves,” said Gema Gaete, an activist who was part of a 19-day hunger strike in Little Village when Vallas ran Chicago Public Schools from 1995 to 2001. “We’re here to remind everybody that we don’t forget and he will be held accountable.”
As they began chanting “Vallas, Vallas, Vallas,” Johnson supporters bellowed, “We want Brandon,” in repetition.
Some Johnson supporters called Vallas backers “sellouts” and a few people got into one another’s faces. But the clash quickly ended and the Vallas supporters left the building.
On the sidewalk across the street, Vallas supporters held their own press conference to defend his education record and countered with their own experiences working with him in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans.
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“Folks who are trying to paint him as a GOP, trying to paint him as a racist, it’s just totally untrue,” said Michael Johnson, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County in Madison, Wisconsin.
“We weren’t being antagonists or anything like that,” said Caliph Muab-El, an organizer with the Midwest Coalition for Stopping Violence, the group that held the counter press conference in support of Vallas. “We just want to get the message across that there is a different side to this whole story that they’re painting.”
Vallas’ legacy in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans has been the longtime subject of scrutiny. Johnson and other candidates have criticized his record in Chicago for putting schools on academic probation and not paying into the teachers’ pension fund. State law at the time allowed Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration to use money earmarked for pensions to cover operating costs, as long as the fund remained healthy.
When Vallas left Chicago, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission hired him to run schools there after the state took over the public school system. He made dramatic changes, but left the system with a deficit.
Philadelphia City Councilwoman Kendra Brooks said school closures and destabilization of that city’s schools pushed her into politics.
“It was triggered by having someone as CEO come into our city, sell off properties, sell off buildings, steal money that is still unaccounted for, and walk away,” Brooks said.
Creg Williams, a former Chicago principal who was Chief of High Schools in Philadelphia under Vallas and also worked with Vallas in New Orleans, countered Brooks’ take on what happened in both cities.
“Paul did not devastate the community. The community was devastated when we arrived,” Williams said. He noted that in both Philadelphia and New Orleans, state lawmakers dictated some of the policies Vallas and other district officials put in place.
“There are stipulations in the law that you have to follow,” Williams said. “No matter what the people say, or no matter what you feel, or what you may want to do, you still have to follow those stipulations.”
In New Orleans, Vallas faced criticism over “lack of transparency, inattention to the most disadvantaged students,” according to the Times-Picayune. Ultimately, student test scores improved at schools converted into charter schools, but at district-run schools, progress was uneven, according to New Orleans magazine.
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If elected mayor, Vallas said he wants to keep school buildings open on nights and weekends, push more funding down to individual schools, and support a system of choice for families. Johnson’s platform emphasizes staffing all schools with enough teachers, counselors, social workers, nurses, and librarians and bolstering youth jobs programs.
Mauricio Peña contributed to this story.
Becky Vevea is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Becky at email@example.com.