Superintendent tells state Board of Education that no more data is needed, it is time for action
Hartford — New London Superintendent Nicholas A. Fischer urged the state Board of Education Thursday to intervene in the operations of his school district.
Fischer's remarks, made during the public comment section of the meeting, followed a board review of a recent state audit of New London Public Schools.
The school administration is being "torn apart," Fischer said after the meeting. While the state is still gathering information and reviewing possible methods of intervention, Fischer said, the time to intervene is now.
"How long does it take? How long does it take to discover ineffectiveness? … To sit there and hear that people need to gather more data, how much more data do they need? There's ample amounts of data," Fischer said. "We've got to get off the dock and start moving. The state has an ample number of options in its toolbox."
State Department of Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor agreed the state needs to step in. New London has waited a long time for stability and effectiveness in its education system, and the state owes it to the city to do its due diligence, he said at the meeting.
"Even given the long-standing partner relationship, the district ranks among the lowest four performing districts in the state," Pryor said. "Clearly there are issues that require resolution in New London. Our hope is that we can do some more data gathering. … Our goal is to gather more information to ensure that this board is very well informed."
Pryor stopped short of issuing a set of recommendations for intervention but did say there are options for helping the struggling school district. He said he would return to the board on June 6 with an update.
The state has been watching the New London school board closely for almost a year. Since 2007, the New London school system has been working with the state on its District Improvement Plan.
State board Chairman Allan Taylor said after the meeting that the recently signed education reform bill gives the board more potential intervention scenarios.
"We didn't have standing authority to impose a special master. There's the new option of the replacement of the superintendent, there are more choices to make," Taylor said.
When the state intervenes on the operations of a local school district, it first requires the local school board's members to attend specific training. Taylor said it remains to be seen what Pryor will recommend in the form of state intervention.
"I think it's a question of deciding what would be the most effective and not doing more displacement. With the special master tool available and replacement of the superintendent, I don't know what the least intrusive option would be there," Taylor said.
The board was briefed on Thursday on the state's recent performance audit, which analyzed school system leadership; district and school organizational arrangements; and school district governance structure and functions, including the relationships among administrators, city officials and community members.
At the heart of the audit is the criticism that the school board has failed to focus on improving the schools.
In their discussion, state board members zeroed in on the recent vote by the New London Board of Education and City Council to consolidate the school district finance office with that of the city.
The consolidation was described in the audit as "a source of considerable tension" among the school board and city officials. Despite its own committee recommending against consolidation, the full school board voted 5-2 in favor of it.
Board members only began to ask questions after the vote was taken, according to James Mitchell, a former Groton superintendent who was assigned to monitor New London's board operations in October.
"The full board puts the motion on the floor, and the motion is made without any discussion," Mitchell told the state board members Thursday. "Board members threw (in) comment only after the motion had passed, to the point where some of the questions and statements were clearly showing that there was no plan."
Mitchell pointed out that the consolidation is set to occur July 1, the first day of the new fiscal year, but that the city and school board have yet to set up the infrastructure to make that change happen.
New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said Thursday that he campaigned for the gradual consolidation of the two finance departments over a two- to three-year period.
"The City Council and the (school) board moved to speed up consolidation and do it this year, and we're doing all what we can on the city's side to effectuate that transfer. It may not be the ideal model, but that's what we have been presented with," he said.
Finizio plans to meet today with his education policy advisor, Manuel Rivera, staff and elected city officials. He is scheduled to meet Monday in Hartford with Pryor and Mark Ojakian, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's chief of staff.
State board member Terry Jones said during the meeting that progress was possible with "fierce cooperation" between the city, school officials and the community.
"They should take a lesson from the Maasai tribe in Kenya, which begins every one of its meetings by asking 'How are the children?'" he said.