Published May 09. 2012 4:00AM
It's the school board, not the students, stupid.
That seems to be the simple conclusion you can take away from a new 22-page report on New London's failing schools from consultants hired by the state Department of Education's Bureau of Accountability and Improvement.
The devastating report lays a lot of the blame for the poor performance of city schools on the city school board and some of it on city officials.
Teachers, administrators and students themselves are portrayed more as victims than as a source of the problem.
And make no mistake, the report suggests, the problems are deep and systemic and will be hard to fix. The auditors, who interviewed 55 people, visited schools and attended Board of Education and City Council meetings between March 19 and April 19 said the problems are of "extreme urgency."
Wake up New London, the report seems to say. The school system is sinking and there's not much time to save it. No simple or easy fixes will keep the decline from worsening fast.
Curiously, the auditors said the school board and city officials should do a better job of explaining school spending. But they didn't blame the problems with the schools directly on a lack of sufficient funding.
The report became public Tuesday when it appeared on theday.com.
Hours later, Mayor Daryl Finizio, in a chat on the news website, seemed to brush off the conclusions of the auditors, suggesting that the "new school board has taken significant steps to improve academic standards and to consolidate city and school services … I am hopeful that as the new members and new leadership has more time to adjust to their positions that these reform efforts will continue and that board governance will improve."
This kind of head-in-the-sand attitude seems to be exactly what the auditors were addressing when talking about the school board's delusional impression of their own performance. The mayor, an ex-officio member, occasionally attends school board meetings.
"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.
"Organizational and procedural problems permeate all aspects of the board's ability to provide coherent governance."
In fact, the report is chock full of contradictions of the mayor's cheery salute Tuesday to the board. You actually have to wonder how he could have read it.
Board members spend meetings micro-managing the school administration and engaging in petty disputes and grandstanding, the report says. Little attention is focused on helping students learn more, it concludes.
"Instead, they often deal with procedure, political posturing, theatre and questioning actions taken by the administration," the auditors wrote. "Board member behavior is occasionally uncivil to each other and the superintendent and embarrassing to public observers."
This is the point in the report where they say many of the people they interviewed called the board "dysfunctional."
These are outside consultants, with doctorates in education, giving an unbiased, unvarnished look at city schools.
The report goes on to cite all kinds of failings in the governance of the schools.
One interesting issue they raise is that there are few minority teachers in the system and no apparent strategy to recruit more, even though 75 percent of the students are black or Hispanic. It sounds like the city's almost all-white fire department.
And just this week the mayor signed his newest unnecessary executive order on official city stationery that includes on the bottom of the page the following phrase "Affirmative Action - Equal Opportunity Employer."
There's irony for you.
The auditors suggested that something big and bold and new would have to happen soon to halt the decline. The report seems to stop just shy of recommending a state takeover.
"There is no coordinated leadership in the city, and small fiefdoms and various pockets of influence dominate the decision-making process," the report says. "A complete change of direction, attitude and behavior by all elected officials and members of the community is required to overcome the current pattern of decline...
"Community building in support of improving the education of all of New London's children while improving the living conditions for all of New London's citizens should be the focus of any future district improvement plans and any form of state intervention."
This is the opinion of David Collins