Members of the City Council discussed the goals of a state intervention in New London Public Schools and an all magnet school district proposal on Monday in a roundtable discussion with the state-appointed special master.
Dr. Steven Adamowski said the factors leading the State Board of Education to approve an intervention were an achievement gap and lack of improvement in the district and dysfunctional governance outlined by a Connecticut Department of Education audit. Adamowski also said the financial management of the schools needs improvement.
“I think you’re aware that the district has not had a budget increase in five consecutive years,” said Adamowski. “Meanwhile, costs have gone up two to three percent each year.”
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Adamowski also said New London faces a unique challenge since it is an urban center with several needs, including a police department and professional fire department, concentrated in a small area. He said the district needs to make sure that areas of need are met and that these initiatives are adequately funded.
“I’m not sure in my own mind that it’s possible to do this with six square miles,” he said. “The other factor is that about 50 percent of your city is untaxable. So that leaves three square miles of residential and commercial taxation. I’m not sure all those needs can be supported by three square miles of residential and commercial taxation.”
The Board of Education is currently working to develop a strategic operating plan for the future of the district. Adamowski said the plan seems to be moving toward an idea of an all magnet school district, since New London has the legislative authority to put this model in place and must meet a threshold of only 15 percent suburban and 15 percent white students as opposed to the state level of 25 percent in each. He said this model would also allow New London to collect an additional $3,000 per New London student per year.
“It seems to be the one idea we can latch onto right now to close the achievement gap and stabilize the schools financially,” said Adamowski. “We cannot cut any more positions.”
The January session of the Connecticut General Assembly is also considering an additional $1 million for New London Public Schools to carry out the strategic operating plan. Adamowski said this would put New London on the level of the Windham public schools, which are also under state intervention and have already received these additional funds.
Councilor Donald Macrino said he was supportive of the magnet school idea.
“Just the possibility of this places us in a position where there is hope, and I think that’s a wonderful thing,” he said.
Councilor Adam Sprecace said he has heard some concerns over whether a magnet district would result in a lack of choice for students or lead to difficulties if a student wishes to change from one focus to another. Dr. Nicholas Fischer, superintendent of the New London Public Schools, said the district is considering a magnet New London High School with a choice of three specialized areas instead of one focus. He said the district is also working with New London’s colleges to coordinate coursework with the schools.
“Potentially a student could come out of the magnet program with 20 college credits,” he said.
Councilor Jon Maynard questioned whether a conversion to a magnet district would result in some teachers getting laid off in order to hire more specialized faculty. Adamowski said there might be cases of teachers lacking the skills to operate in a magnet school but that they would likely be rare. He said the strategic operating plan will allow teachers to analyze their own plans for their future at the district and adjust if necessary. Fischer said one of the most important teaching skills for success in the district will be faculty who set high expectations for classes.
Council President Michael Passero said one of the main challenges will be keeping the district adequately funded given other budget difficulties in New London.
“The taxpayers in this city just can’t afford any more,” he said. “They’ve let us know that loud and clear.”
Adamowski said there should be more collaboration between the City Council and Board of Education on this issue and said one opportunity for cost savings would be the consolidation of the city and school information technology departments. He said the state funds that will go toward a school if the suburban student threshold is met will also provide major assistance to funding the district.
“Once you get that, you get a school that can essentially operate outside the district’s position,” he said.