The School Reform Board has two lobbyists on staff and contracts with several free-lancers to get its message across to legislators in Springfield and Washington. But the board’s clean-up hitter has been Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas.
“This year in particular, you had Vallas down [in Springfield] at least once a week,” says David Peterson, the staff lobbyist for the Chicago Teachers Union. “There were some weeks he’d spend a few days; toward the end, he was there pretty much every day they were in session.”
And every night. Some Springfield veterans recall watching Vallas work the room at legislative sessions that stretched past 2 a.m. “Well, one thing I’ve found is, you never leave that place when they’re doing something,” says Richard Guidice, the board’s head lobbyist. “I have to admit, Paul really hung in there with us.”
Vallas brings both endurance and experience to the task; he spent 10 years in Springfield as a legislative staffer. “He’s a big asset in situations like that,” says Steve Brown, spokesperson for House Speaker Michael Madigan. “There are a lot of members who remember Paul from his days down there, so I think he comes with an extra measure of credibility, if you will. … Here was somebody who dealt with the nuts and bolts operations of the Legislature, and he’s back.”
With Vallas at bat, the board “has been able to accomplish more than I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been down there since ’74,” says Peterson of the teachers union. “Quite often, before, they were their own worst enemy. … That has diminished.” He sees two specific differences in the current board’s style.
One is honesty. Before Vallas, “The policy of the board was to paint a [fiscal] picture that was much worse than reality,” Peterson says. “They thought that the only way the Legislature would give them anything was if they painted this terrible picture [of their finances] … and then, miraculously, [money] would show up in budgets. … Legislators were like, ‘Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.’ The one thing you don’t do is lie to ’em.”
The other is a willingness to “play the ombudsman”—to help legislators solve problems with schools in their districts. Previous administrations were so unresponsive, says Peterson, that “there were legislators who would come to me, if they had a problem with a school. … That was lunacy. I didn’t mind it, but I’m sure Vallas makes sure he’s Johnny-on-the-spot now, helping whoever he can.”
Vallas’s teammates in Springfield include Guidice, a former state senator who has worked for the School Board since 1984, and Greg Richmond, a former legislative staffer. The board also has a $45,000 annual contract with Rick Larison, a former staffer for House Minority Leader Lee Daniels, a Republican; the board is Larison’s sole lobbying client. It has a $36,000 annual contract with Paul Williams, a former Democratic House member from Chicago’s West Side who is now a lobbyist for firms including the Arlington Racetrack and Commonwealth Edison.