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Bridgeport school takeover lessons

Published March 07. 2012 4:00AM

The state taking control of a school system, no matter how dysfunctional the system has become, is a very serious matter, in that it usurps a community's right to educate its children.

That's why it's hard to argue with the state Supreme Court's 6-1 decision to overturn the takeover of the Bridgeport schools because the state failed to first retrain the school board, as required by law. Before taking control of a school system, the Department of Education must retrain the failing board to see if it can function more efficiently. In Bridgeport, there was no retraining.

This is not to say there wasn't cause for the state's action. The state intervened at the request of six members of the nine-member school board and the mayor. The board, split between Democratic and Working Party combatants, couldn't come up with a budget after the mayor and council had reduced the superintendent's spending proposal by $8 million. As a result, the system faced the loss of as many as 400 employees and the closing of a K-8 school. Nor had the board seemed inclined to deal with the failure of 46 percent of the city's students to graduate from high school or the failure of a daunting 98 percent of its 10th graders to reach acceptable performance levels on state tests.

Bridgeport is one of 18 Connecticut school systems, including New London's, that have been under sanction for persistently poor student performance and under the threat of a state takeover. For the welfare of the students in these struggling school systems the state needs to retain the authority to intervene and take control when local leadership fails. But the lesson of Bridgeport is that the legislation allowing such takeovers must be carefully worded, free of overly technical and burdensome requirements, and provide a clear path for return of local control.

We should note the takeover in Bridgeport appears to be going well. The reconstituted school board hired a nationally respected school reformer, Paul Vallas, who turned around school systems in Chicago, Philadelphia and Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, where "even his critics acknowledge that Mr. Vallas, 57, has accomplished what he set out to do," The New Orleans Times Picayune reported. Most of the schools have become independently run charters, test scores improved rapidly and "Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other national figures have praised New Orleans as a model for school reform."

Mr. Vallas appears unconcerned about the Supreme Court ruling. He told The Connecticut Post he expected it and his mission hasn't changed. He intends to balance the budget and present the community with a five-year plan that makes wholesale changes in financial planning, teacher training and curriculum.

Hired for a year, Mr. Vallas said he intends to complete his assignment with the existing board or a new board. It will be several months before a board, replacing the one appointed by the state, is elected and seated. It would be hard to imagine a new board removing Mr. Vallas in mid-reform.

If the court decision leaves time for Mr. Vallas to finish his work, it shouldn't be necessary for the legislature to provide a quick fix by removing the trai•ing requirement retroactively through so-called "emergency certification." The legislature does this from time to time to make improperly filed land records and marriage licenses legal.

But we're not dealing with improperly filed land records or marriage licenses here. Bridgeport is the state's second largest school system with more than 21,000 students and a $216 million budget. Rather than rushing a quick-fix measure into law, the state should await passage of a carefully considered education reform bill. It already has language allowing replacement of a school board that chronically fails to improve student achievement - without requiring retraining.

On Monday, a majority of Bridgeport's legislators, prompted by the local teachers' union, said they wouldn't support legislation to quickly and retroactively undo the court decision. So for now, it looks as if legislators will not try to circumvent the ruling.

The Bridgeport problems can be fixed and future takeover problems avoided if the drafters of the governor's reform legislation come up with clear and specific guidelines for taking control of a community's schools.

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