Baltimore City Public Schools CFO Victor De La Paz on why he left corporate America to pursue a career in public service.
By Stephanie Harris
A few years back, Victor De La Paz, Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS), asked himself a question: “Do I think I can do the work I’m doing for the next 30 to 40 years?”
“That is the first question anybody should ask themselves about their career,” he said. “If you think you can do the work for 30 to 40 years, the next question you have to ask yourself is how many people do you think you can help in that amount of time?”
Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in a single-parent household, De La Paz received his MBA from the University of Virginia. He began his career in a corporate setting, working at The Hartford, where he was responsible for mergers and acquisitions. De La Paz continued in this line of business for the next five years, but found something about it unsatisfying.
“What was missing for me was the feeling that I was helping people who went through similar experiences as I did. I felt the clients I was serving were already wealthy and established; they didn’t need my help. I wanted to work for clients who really needed me—clients that I understood, and clients that trusted me to have their best interests in mind.”
So he decided to make a change. De La Paz applied for a program called the Broad Residency in Urban Education, a leadership development program that places qualified participants into full-time, high-level managerial positions in school districts, charter management organizations and federal or state departments of education.
He was accepted in 2008, and through the program, worked for two years at Hartford Public Schools in Connecticut. There he was promoted to Special Assistant to the Superintendent, Deputy CFO and finally Chief Operating Officer. De La Paz left Hartford about a year ago to assume BCPS’ CFO role.
“I was very active in the community in college, and I co-led the community service organization at Darden, so I always had that inclination,” he said. “But when I was on the job, working from 8 am to 9 pm trying to get a financial transaction done, I felt like I wasn’t giving anything back to Hartford. I would look out my window of a very nice office and see a community that could use my perspective—someone who came from poverty, very humble beginnings, that could help the school system, students and families with that upward mobility everyone’s looking for.”
Taking the Leap
When De La Paz made the jump from the private to public sector, he found that his private-sector background helped considerably in terms of his degree and understanding of technical skills when applied to public education.
“What’s insightful about programs like the Broad Residency or Teach for America is that they are trying to get people who otherwise would not have come into education to take on this challenge,” he explained.
The value in De La Paz’s career path is that he brings to the public schools a particular set of skills, including financial modeling and project management, not typically taught in a K through 12 setting.
“What’s helped me tremendously is having little concern that the job is technically too difficult for me,” he said. “Oftentimes in corporate, I felt as if I didn’t know what I needed to in terms of accounting or a particular business type we were looking to acquire. Here, I understand the business really well and the challenge is not technical, it’s more about getting adults to do what’s right for students or getting adults to agree on what’s right for students.”
As the CFO for BCPS, De La Paz is responsible for ensuring funds are spent in the best interest of the students, and that equity and transparency of funding exists for each. Personally, however, he holds himself responsible for making a positive impact in the lives of as many students as possible.
“I understand our students,” De La Paz said. “Experientially, I know what it’s like to have not enough food at home, not enough people you can talk to about the career you want to have because you don’t know anyone who’s a lawyer or you don’t know anyone who’s a banker.”
Through his personal background, De La Paz understands the challenges several students’ today face on a daily basis. Now he is in the position to help make improvements.
“If you don’t understand the problems students are bringing into the classroom, it’s difficult to advocate for them,” he said. “It’s important for people involved with kids to really understand personally what students are having to go through because when it comes to having that debate in an office where you can impact a number of schools and students, you are going to need to summon that in order to fight for them.”
De La Paz dedicates each day to fighting for what is right for the students and ensuring funds are spent in their best interest. And he constantly reflects on how much of an impact he can make and on how many students, which is what drew him to Baltimore in the first place.
“I wanted to impact as many kids as possible with the amount of time that I have,” De La Paz said. “Being at Hartford with 25,000 students was a wonderful challenge in a community I was very comfortable in. Coming to Baltimore City, where we are entrusted with 85,000 students, was a challenge for me both from a scale point of view but also culturally. They are very different places, and it was important for me to know that I could be effective in both places.”
But De La Paz has found that many of the issues that face public schools today—such as poverty and disenfranchised students and parents—are the same, regardless of the location. Each is a worthwhile challenge to take on in De La Paz’s eyes, and he feels he has found his home in this line of work. Because the public education system touches so many people nationwide, De La Paz affirms that making sure it is working for every child is the most important work of this generation.
“I know I’m in the right work because I love my job with a different love than I felt before,” he said. “I truly believe I’m helping my clients, who are the students first and foremost and then parents and the community, the city I live in. I really believe I’m adding value, and at some point I stopped feeling that in corporate. The bottom line is you have to care about what you’re doing—feel responsible for it at a personal level. If you don’t have that, then you should seriously consider finding another role because it’s highly unlikely that you’ll find success where you are.”
Stephanie Harris is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Illinois.
Victor's Key Partners:M&T Bank (Commercial Lending Advisory) | PRAG (Financial Advisory) | Vantage Point Associates (Financial Advisory)
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