Audit calls New London school board leadership 'incoherent'

New London - A state audit of the New London school board and district says their "incoherent" governance fails to focus on the well being of students as the major goal and will ultimately make it impossible to improve the schools' performance.

The observation of the board and interviews with 55 people whose names are being kept confidential were done by two consultants for the state Department of Education between March 19 and April 19.

The audit warns that New London's already low test scores - known as the "achievement gap" when compared to state averages - will widen unless the board gains a better understanding of its responsibilities and begins to focus on progress rather than low-profile issues.

Incremental changes in New London will "not make a significant difference in the quality of education provided," the audit states. Rather, only "powerful, transformational and systemic interventions have a chance of changing the achievement gap in New London." That could mean anything up to and including a takeover by the state.

The audit was submitted Monday to the Department of Education's Bureau of Accountability and Improvement. The Day obtained a copy of the audit.

The purpose of the audit was to analyze school system leadership; district and school organizational arrangements; and school district governance structure and functions, including the relationships among administrators, the Board of Education, Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, the City Council and members of the community.

Researchers Robert Villanova and Mark Shibles reported they found a large disparity between how school board members described their effectiveness in carrying out the board's responsibilities and "how almost every other person interviewed described the board's effectiveness."

The researchers urge board members to stop micro-managing administrative functions and turn their attention to key functions of policy making. They note that the city's political culture is full of members who cycle on and off boards and cite instances of political posturing and uncivil, embarrassing behavior.

The study points out that the school district has no racial minority hiring policy or any apparent strategy to hire minorities, despite 75 percent of its student population being black or Hispanic. Recently the mayor's office and the city's fire department have also been criticized for failure to recruit minorities in that department.

A review of the audit by Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor is scheduled to take place today or Wednesday.

Pryor could order mandatory state training for all school board members, a reconstitution of the school board or in the worst case scenario, a reconstitution of the entire school system.

The audit urges that community members rally around a comprehensive pre-kindergarten to grade 12 district improvement plan; regular written and verbal communication between city officials and the media; better community support; a recruitment of minority teachers; and the potential regionalization of the schools.

The audit does not examine school district finances but does briefly mention that the school budget needs greater clarity and that members of the city government chose to focus intensely on the combining of the school board and city finance departments instead of supporting a responsible school budget.

"My overall impression (of the audit) is that it's balanced. There are things in there that are definitely food for thought and worth us considering," Superintendent of Schools Nicholas A. Fischer said Monday.

The state has had an observer at Board of Education meetings since last year, when former Chairman Alvin Kinsall requested it. Retired Groton Superintendent James Mitchell was assigned that role and has attended school board meetings since last October. In March, Lol Fearon, chief of the state's Bureau of Accountability and Improvement and representatives from the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education started to attend the school board meetings.

j.hanckel@theday.com

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