A governance and management audit by the Connecticut Department of Education has criticized the Board of Education’s conduct, saying it fails to place significant focus on student achievement and is hindered by political disagreements.
Mark Shibles and Robert M. Villanova submitted the report to the department’s Bureau of Accountability and Improvement after conducting the audit between March 19 and April 19. The men’s activities included visiting schools, reviewing documents about the district, and attending meetings of the Board of Education and City Council’s Finance Committee. A total of 55 people spoke with Shibles and Villanova in confidential interviews.
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The audit determined that the meetings of the Board of Education and its committees do not place adequate focus on student achievement.
“Instead they often deal with procedure, political posturing, theatre and questioning actions taken by the administration,” the report says. “Board member behavior is occasionally uncivil to each other and the superintendent and embarrassing to public observers.”
The report says several people interviewed said they felt the board was pursuing personal agendas and that there is distrust between the board and Dr. Nicholas Fischer, superintendent of , as well as other administrators. It says the board is sometimes “hostile” to Fischer and “unprofessional” to administrators speaking to the board.
“There is a significant discrepancy between how board members describe their effectiveness in carrying out the board’s responsibilities and how almost every other person interviewed described the board’s effectiveness,” the report says. “Organizational and procedural problems permeate all aspects of the board’s ability to provide coherent governance.”
The report says board members should take steps to better understand their role in the district’s operations. It also says that every meeting should address student achievement in some way and that the committees should also make this their primary focus.
Other issues and recommendations
Shibles and Villanova were also critical of the relationship between the city and the district, saying school issues are tied with city matters and that more discussion needs to take place between the two governments. It recommended the formation of a City Governance Council—consisting of the superintendent, board president, mayor, and president of the City Council—to meet monthly, with agenda topics alternately set by the mayor and superintendent.
The report says major reforms rather than incremental changes are needed, suggesting that New London is a small enough district that this could effectively be accomplished across all schools. It says the board also needs to develop innovative strategies to motivate the community to get involved in school issues.
“The school district needs to establish a clear, understandable set of goals and objectives to communicate better not only to the public but within the governance structure,” the report says. “It also is important to develop and communicate a vision about where the district is going in the next five years.”
Citing the high population of minorities in New London, the report also recommended efforts to increase the number of minority teachers in the district.
In an executive summary of the report, Fischer said the audit highlights governance issues as a core problem in improving education in the district. He recommended that the Department of Education should appoint special masters to implement training for board members and a district improvement plan. He said the department should also inform the board about consequences of failure to implement the audit’s recommendations, including possible reconstitution of the board; cooperate with the district to form a plan to increase the number of minority teachers in the district; and issue a statement on the efficacy of the board’s decision to for the 2013 fiscal year.
Board President Bill Morse said he agrees that a City Governance Council would be valuable, and hoped that the audit recommendations would spur action on the issues raised in the report. He also agreed that student performance needs to take precedence at meetings.
“That’s a very important point, to have an agenda that’s driven by academic achievement issues rather than smaller issues that eat up a lot of time and energy,” he said.
Board member Barbara Major said she thinks the board functions effectively, and noted that the audit took place at a time when four board members have been in place only since December. However, she did agree with some issues raised in the report.
“I think there’s some positives to it,” she said. “I do think we need to work closer with the city. I do think there needs to be a lot more communication. We need to have input on what we feel should go on the agenda, which we don’t as a board.”