Walts with stuffed goad

Prince William County schools Superintendent Steven Walts poses with a stuffed goat someone gave him during the June 19 school board meeting. The gift is a nod to one of the nicknames students call him on Twitter: "GOAT" for "greatest of all time." During the meeting, the board declined to extend his contract to 2023. Walts' current contract expires in 2021.

Prince William County Superintendent Steven Walts, better known to his Twitter fans as @SuperPWCS, decided to go public last week with a request to extend his contract to 2023.

It didn’t go as planned. The School Board split 4 to 4 on their vote, leaving Walts with his existing contract, which expires in 2021. Those voting against the extension included School Board members Willie Deutsch (Coles), Alyson Satterwhite (Gainesville) and Gill Trenum (Brentsville) – all Republicans – and Lillie Jessie (Occoquan), a Democrat.

But as of Sunday night, Walts’ Twitter post about the meeting had garnered 36 retweets, 64 comments and 391 likes. Walts also received a stuffed goat from one of his admirers during the meeting, a reference to the nickname students call him on Twitter: GOAT for the “greatest of all time.”

Now in his 15th year at the helm of the school division, Walts only recently became a local social media sensation, a feat he achieved mostly by using Twitter to announce snow days and weather delays. He now has 18,500 followers, which is more than most local politicians with the exception of Del. Danica Roem, D-13th, who has 82,000, and Del. Lee Carter, D-50th, who has 40,000. 

Walts’ Twitter presence has nonetheless made him a celebrity of sorts among Prince William students, who call him “Steve,” “GOAT” and “the king” and swarm him during school visits for selfies.

So it perhaps wasn’t surprising that Walts asked the school board to vote on his contract during the June 19 public meeting, which drew about 200 people, most of whom came to watch the board vote on boundaries for the 13th high school.

Any change to Walts’ contract must be approved by the school board in a public vote. But during the past several years, the school board has taken such votes immediately after closed-session reviews of Walts’ performance, meaning only the school board members and a few staff were in attendance. 

Walts declined an interview for this article, but School Board Chairman Dr. Babur Lateef (at large) said the vote was taken in public at Walts’ request. 

The superintendent also encouraged school division administrators and principals to attend the meeting, according to other school board members. 

Walts’ wife, Kathleen Walts, was there along with their teenage daughter. Walts’ said they came to offer him moral support.

But the unconventional public nature of the proceedings was not well received by the school board and may have contributed to the negative outcome of the vote.

Satterwhite requested that the board retreat to closed session before taking the vote, saying she was uncomfortable discussing Walts’ contract in public. That suggestion, however, also died in a vote that split the board 4 to 4, with the same board members who voted against extending Walts’ contract voting to go into closed session while the others voted against it.

Jessie: Public vote ‘inappropriate’

After the meeting, Jessie posted a long explanation about her decision on Facebook. In a subsequent interview, she said Walts’ decision to take the matter public and encourage his staff to attend the meeting was “inappropriate” and showed “poor judgment.”

School Board member Lillie Jessie

School Board member Lillie Jessie (Occoquan) broke with her fellow Democrats on the board and voted against a motion to extend Superintendent Steve Walts' contract to 2023. The failed vote means Walts' existing contract, which expires in 2021, will stand.

“When I saw the principals and all the other people who were called into that room, I just felt pressured,” Jessie said, adding: “I think he forgot that the public doesn’t hire the superintendent. The school board does.”

Jessie noted that neither principals nor teachers are allowed to involve their colleagues in their own reviews or even discuss them publicly. “I feel like [Walts] violated his own rule,” she said.

But Jessie said she also declined to extend Walts’ contract over issues of school division management and student achievement.

Among other things, Jessie said she regrets she was not made aware of serious deficiencies at Woodbridge Senior High School until parents and some staff members there brought them to her attention. Then, when she sought funding to address the problems, which included fixing an athletic field in such poor condition that it caused athlete injuries, she faced an uphill battle with Walts and his staff. 

Jessie said she also had to fight to have school nurses shifted to the professional pay scale and is still unsatisfied with the school division’s efforts to address lingering achievement gaps among minority students.

Jessie said she continues to be frustrated by school division officials’ tendency to paint a too rosy a picture of student achievement. As an example, Jessie noted that Walts continually touts the school division’s graduation rate of 92.1 percent even though it’s only slightly better than the statewide graduation rate of 91.6 percent.

“So it’s not a big deal, but we say it’s a big deal,” Jessie said of the graduation rate. 

“In a professional learning community, you deal with the current reality. … All we hear is the good stuff,” Jessie said. “Tell us the truth. Be transparent. You can’t get better when you only say we’re already great.”

Other board members split on Walts’ contract

Other board members who voted against the contract extension gave other reasons. Trenum acknowledged the “school division has had a very good year” but said the decision to extend Walts’ contract beyond 2021 should be made by the school board that takes office in 2020. Trenum is not seeking re-election.

Deutsch noted there was “an incredible oddity” to the vote and said he would feel more comfortable reviewing Walts’ contract closer to its expiration date. Satterwhite did not publicly explain why she voted against the extension.

School Board members who voted in favor of the contract extension included Lateef, Diane Raulston (Neabsco), Justin Wilk (Potomac) and Loree Williams (Woodbridge). 

Wilk noted Walts is nationally recognized by his peers and has made several positive changes in the past few years, including expanding pre-K and career and technical education programs, expediting security enhancements at older schools, ensuring teachers received back-to-back step raises and “overhauling” the school division’s special education program as a result of a critical audit. 

Lateef said the school division would be hard pressed to find another leader as qualified as Walts. After the vote, Lateef said the result came down to board members having different positions on contract extensions.

“I want to keep him here. I think he’s the best,” Lateef said of Walts. In the Nov. 5 election, Lateef will again face Satterwhite in the election for school board chair. 

Walts, for his part, said after the vote that while he is disappointed with the board’s decision, he “love[s] Prince William County schools.”

“I just want to say that whatever happens in the future, I have two years left on the contract and my intention is to provide the same quality leadership and service to the school division and to the students of the school division,” Walts said.

Walts also mentioned his newfound entrance into “the Twitter world” and said doing so has “engaged me in a much more expansive way” with both students and parents. Walts said he believes he’s been able to address problems by hearing directly from the community through the social media platform.

“Despite the decision tonight, there’s a lot of excitement,” he added. “I will continue with just as much enthusiasm as I have today.”

Reach Jill Palermo at jpalermo@fauquier.com

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