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New London - A day after a scathing state education department report on the performance of the local school board, board members said they were "cringing," "surprised" and "disappointed."
A governance and management audit of the New London Board of Education was conducted from March 19 to April 19 and included interviews with 55 community members, city and school officials, teachers, parents and business leaders.
The audit analyzed school system leadership; district and school organizational arrangements; and the relationships between administrators, the school board, Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, the City Council and community members.
The future of the board and the school system is uncertain. The state commissioner of education has the authority to deliver sweeping recommendations that could mean anything - up to and including a state takeover.
Among a series of observances and recommendations, auditors noted that communication among city and school officials "appears to range from non-existent to unproductive."
"There are always things that we, as an administration, can improve on," Superintendent Nicholas A. Fischer said Tuesday. "But there has to be a willingness on the part of other folks in the community to respond."
School board Chairman William Morse said discussions among the board, superintendent, council president and mayor have to begin now.
"There has been very little effective communication over issues of substance between this group of people," Morse said. "It took an outside professional agency to point out that everybody has a role to play in improving this situation. The fingers were pointed everywhere. There isn't one side more responsible than the other."
He vowed to be the person to initiate the conversations, but said it's a "four-way street."
Morse said of the 22-page audit that he was most disappointed with the notion that teachers have faith in their students but are not optimistic about the district.
"I don't see from these findings any confidence in the district improvement plan, which is supposed to be our road map to success, and that's deeply troubling," he said.
School board members Barbara Major, Margaret Curtin, Jason Catala and Delanna Muse defended the relationship among board members, saying the board works well together, cares about the district's kids and is not about rubber-stamping.
They did not agree with the auditors' views on the political culture in New London and notions of political posturing.
"This board wants the public to know that we're really not that volatile. We all pretty much vote on conscience. We're trying to do the right thing," Major said.
City Council President Michael Passero said Tuesday that the auditors' evaluation of city politics was "superficial" and "condescending."
"There are a lot of good people wrestling with difficult issues," he said. "I think they did a disservice to the army of volunteers in the community who devote a good bit of time on boards, agencies and in elected offices."
The audit urged the community to rally around the school system. Finizio acknowledged that there needs to be a better community effort.
"We need accountability from top to bottom in our district, a concerted community-wide effort to concentrate on education and breathe new life into education, and we've been taking steps to do that," Finizio said. "We cannot accept the system we have now. It's inadequate and the time has come to face this reality, to work together to create changes."
A spokesman for the state education department said the commissioner has not yet reviewed the report.