Connecticut Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor visited the Board of Education on Thursday, asking board members to discuss concerns they have with the operations of .
The visit came one week after Superintendent Nicholas Fischer visited the State Board of Education to . Fischer cited a by the Department of Education, saying he feels the district’s leadership is eroding and that continued flat-funding by the city is crippling the schools.
Pryor said New London’s recent academic performance has been “stagnant,” and that the audit highlights problems with both the governance and management of the district’s affairs as well as the communication between these areas. He said scores on state standardized tests saw a modest increase in the 2009-2010 school year before in the 2010-2011 year. He said the district is also the sixth lowest in the state for graduation within four years, with 64 percent of students meeting this threshold in 2010.
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“We know New London can do better,” said Pryor. “We know there is goodwill within this board, among the individuals on this board, and in the employees in this school district.”
When asked about their concerns in oversight of the district, several board members said they do not receive adequate information when requested. Board member Margaret Curtin said she thinks this is a critical issue between the board and superintendent, as she feels it breeds distrust.
“I think we forget that we’re here to work for the kids,” said Curtin. “We’re here to work for the children, so they can be better citizens when they grow up.”
Vice President Elizabeth Garcia-Gonzalez said she receives information by e-mail, but it often arrives within hours of a meeting and she is unable to check it because she is busy with other matters. Board member Delanna Muse also spoke to this issue, and said the report on the proposed budget lacked details.
“I feel like that’s a problem, and that’s why the frustrations sometimes do come up,” she said.
Board member Barbara Major said the trust between the board and administrators needs to be improved. President Bill Morse suggested that the board might also establish a relationship with its counterpart in Windham, saying that district has similar demographics and issues.
Mayor Daryl Finizio, an ex-officio member of the Board of Education, said he thinks a lack of parental involvement in district affairs and poor communication between the board and the city have contributed to problems. He said the current board has improved the latter issue, and cited the high turnout at a as a potential sign of greater parental involvement.
However, Finizio said the district is also facing more challenging issues. He said New London is a “fundamentally racially segregated school district,” with a mostly poor, minority population. He said the city also has limited resources to draw upon to fund the schools.
Fischer responded by saying several school districts with similar demographics have performed well and that there should not be a notion that such a population is more likely to fail. He said the district’s students will also succeed to the level of expectations.
“If we don’t believe in the kids in this district, they will not succeed. It’s that simple,” said Fischer.
Finizio said that while he feels individual students may succeed no matter what their race or class is, he said there is a longstanding tenet that “separate but equal” schools do not provide the best academic environment.
“If we are not even prepared to discuss race and class in our district, we are ignoring one of the unique challenges facing our district,” he said.
Pryor said that while he considers the city and district to be working to address academic performance, he said the current levels are “unacceptable.” He said the options from the state include offering or requiring training for the Board of Education or assigning a special master from the Department of Education.
Dr. James Mitchell, a representative from the Department of Education who has attended board meetings for several months, thanked board members for their input.
“We are at an important point in this district and this community, and I think a difference can be made,” said Mitchell.
Pryor said the State Department of Education will next meet on June 6 and he will report on the results of his meeting with the board.