Some members of the Board of Education are asking that their governance be given a chance after Superintendent Nicholas Fischer recommended a state intervention in the today.
Fischer made the request to the State Board of Education as well as Stefan Pryor, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Education. The board met in Hartford this morning, and its agenda included the .
The audit was critical of the Board of Education, saying the board has not placed significant focus on student achievement and that its meetings are hindered by political disagreements. The report also said there is not enough interaction between the city and school governments and that the board is sometimes hostile to Fischer and other district administrators. The audit was based on confidential interviews with 55 people as well as observances of board meetings and documents.
Mayor Daryl Finizio said he has had preliminary discussions with Pryor as well as Mark Ojakian, Gov. Dannel Malloy’s chief of staff, and Allan B. Taylor, chairman of the State Board of Education, about a possible state intervention. Finizio said no definite plan for such an intervention has been implemented, but that he plans to meet with Dr. Manuel Rivera—his education policy advisor—on Friday and Ojakian and Pryor on Monday.
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Fischer cited a new teacher evaluation system based on the Connecticut Common Core of Teaching, an , and as positive steps the district has taken. He said the district has “made significant progress in improving instruction, holding students and staff accountable, and we are starting to see substantial improvement in student achievement.”
However, Fischer said other actions have been harmful to the district. Following the release of the audit, Fischer wrote an executive summary saying governance issues are a core problem in the district. Fischer recommended that the Department of Education bring in special masters to create a district improvement plan and give training to board members. He also said the department should inform the board about the consequences of failure to implement the audit’s recommendations, including possible reconstitution of the board; work with the district to create a plan to hire more minority teachers; and issue a statement on the efficacy of the board’s decision to to the city’s budget in an effort to free money to be used elsewhere in the district.
Fischer said the business office transfer is one sign that the district’s leadership “is being disemboweled.” He described Maria Whalen, the district’s business manager and chief financial officer, as a person with “an impeccable record of financial management and balanced budgets, on whom I depend in difficult financial times.” He said Whalen is “seriously considering retirement” as a result of the funds transfer and proposed consolidation of city and school finances, and questioned whether the merger would result in significant savings.
Fischer also said that Assistant Superintendent Christine Carver out of concern that her job in New London would be eliminated. Although some board members have , the full board has to take Carver’s place. Fischer said Carver was “a key leader in improving instruction, curriculum, teacher and principal training, and human resources.”
“It is no secret that that the finances of the City of New London are in a precarious state. Due to flat funding for the fourth year proposed by the city of New London, we are on the verge of needing to reduce a staff of 420 by 60, nearly all of them instructional,” said Fischer. “The time of observation, analysis and evaluation must end. The state must intervene in New London.”
Response from board members and mayor
Finizio agreed that major changes are needed.
“The New London public school system has reached a critical point in its history and significant reforms will be needed to bring our schools to where they need to be,” he said. “The city administration will work closely with the state and will communicate closely with community partners throughout New London as we chart a new course for the New London public school system.”
Fischer informed the board by e-mail on Wednesday that the district would be included on the State Board of Education's agenda. His statement was sent by e-mail to New London Board of Education members and state representatives on this morning.
Board President Bill Morse said he was not surprised by the request, and said he would welcome state assistance in the district.
"We’ve been expecting some form of assistance in the form of mandated training for the entire board," he said. "I welcome that because I think all of us could use some additional training in terms of running more productive meetings and working better with the administration, City Council, and the mayor.”
Other board members were dismayed by the decision. Elizabeth Garcia Gonzalez, vice president of the Board of Education, said she was disappointed and surprised by Fischer’s statement. She said the board was not informed of the State Board of Education meeting until Tuesday. Gonzalez said four members, including herself, have only been on the board and that the board should have more time to work on improving student achievement.
“Really, I think we should have had a meeting all of us together…we should have a meeting between the local board, somebody from the state board, and discuss this,” she said.
Gonzalez said she disagreed with the audit’s assertion that the board has at times been hostile, saying she thinks the board has worked in a civil manner. However, she said some members feel intimidated by the state observation of the board.
“We don’t mind them telling us, ‘This is how you’re really supposed to be working as a board,’ but at the same time we’re reminded that there could be a state takeover,” she said.
Secretary Jason Catala said he was offended by the superintendent’s remarks and will seek a special board meeting on Wednesday to demand Fischer’s resignation.
“I’m think he’s bad for New London and bad for our kids, and today he finalized any opinion I had of him,” he said.
Catala said he thinks the current board has made improving student achievement one of its top objectives. He said he believes the members have the students’ best interests at heart, but felt differently about others in the district.
“I just don’t know if our top administrators really care about our kids, and that’s what really bothers me,” he said.
Delanna Muse, who was also elected in November, attended the Hartford meeting. She said she agreed with some recommendations of the state audit, including state training, but also felt the board needs more time to work toward improving the district.
“I don’t understand his reasoning behind making that request,” said Muse. “I know there’s a problem as far as student achievement in New London, but I think they should allow this current board to come together and work on policies and strategies to continue the progress we’ve made so far. And I feel that’s not being done.”
Board member Barbara Major said she will continue to make decisions based on what she thinks are the best interests of the students and community.
“I think Dr. Fischer jumped the gun," she said. "I think this is a new board. You’ve got new members who have only been on since January, and I think it’s unfair that they’re being blamed for the last board’s mistakes.”
One of the most pressing issues facing the district is the proposed funding level for the 2013 fiscal year. The board to $42,999,270, saying it was necessary to preserve the current level of services in the schools. Finizio , while the City Council ultimately .
This figure includes $809,001 in additional Education Cost Sharing funds expected from the state as part of Gov. Dannel Malloy’s education reform. The council’s Finance Committee also , which the board approved over the . Several parents and school employees for the schools at a recent public hearing.
The city is also considering how to proceed with upgrading , which in . The options for the school include fixing the ADA issues, renovating as new, or constructing a new building.
Last month, the board renewing Fischer’s three-year employment contract through 2015. Fischer's contract is currently set to expire in 2014.
New London schools have also been following poor and results last year. Dr. James Mitchell has been attending the Board of Education meetings as an observer since last year.
Other state takeovers
According to the Connecticut Mirror, state interventions occurred in 2011 in the Bridgeport and Windham districts. Both interventions occurred due to circumstances similar to those existing in New London.
According to the Norwich Bulletin, the Windham intervention occurred as a result of slipping student performance. The state’s actions included the appointment of a special master to oversee the budget, professional development, and student achievement.
Bridgeport requested a state intervention and reconstitution of the board as a result of lagging student performance as well as the concern that continued flat-funding of the budget would result in hundreds of layoffs and the closing of a school, according to the Hartford Courant. Critics of the request said they felt it was politically motivated.
Morse said a state intervention would not involve an immediate reconstitution of the board or other takeover, but would rather involve steps such as board training and more active oversight of board meetings by representatives from the state.
“The state is not interested in taking over any school board unless it’s a last result and all other options have failed," said Morse. "Intervention does not mean takeover. Intervention means help, guidance. It doesn’t mean replacement.”
Original breaking news:
Dr. Nicholas Fischer, superintendent of the , has asked the state to intervene in the district.
The Connecticut Mirror reports that Fischer made the request today to the State Board of Education and Stefan Pryor, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Education. The board, which met in Hartford this morning, was scheduled to discuss a recent status report on the district.
completed by the Department of Education was critical of the New London Board of Education, saying members have not made taken sufficient steps to improve student achievement and that progress has been inhibited by political disagreements. Fischer's recommendations after the report's release included having the Department of Education appoint special masters to implement training for board members and create a district improvement plan.
Other challenges facing the district in recent years have included poor scores on state and tests and an . The City Council's includes additional state funding expected under Gov. Dannel Malloy's budget and money freed up by a decision to transfer business office funds to the city budget, but some parents and school employees have .
More information on this story will be posted this afternoon.