Education commissioner to New London schools: You can do better

New London school board member Jason Catala, left foreground, addresses Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor at a New London Board of Education meeting Thursday night. Pryor and board members discussed a recent state audit of New London schools, which has raised concerns with the State Board of Education.
Tim Cook/The Day New London school board member Jason Catala, left foreground, addresses Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor at a New London Board of Education meeting Thursday night. Pryor and board members discussed a recent state audit of New London schools, which has raised concerns with the State Board of Education.

New London — The state education commissioner told members of the Board of Education Thursday night that he knows New London can do better.

Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor spoke candidly with board members about the recent state audit, which he said has raised a "number of concerns."

"The (State Board of Education's) concerns center upon the governance of the district and the management of the district. I'm hoping to talk about the perception of them and understand the context," Pryor said. "It's never enough to just read a report and accept its findings."

Pryor said the performance of the students in the district is another large area of concern. He called the path of student achievement in the district "stagnant" and students' performance levels "unacceptable."

Lol Fearon, chief of the state education department's Bureau of Accountability and Improvement, said the commissioner's concerns were not new.

"These concerns did not happen overnight and did not happen during the tenure of this specific board, but at the same time, the solution to these issues lies within the entire New London community. The state wants to be part of the solution," Fearon said.

New London ranks among the four lowest-performing school districts in the state. During the New London school board meeting, Pryor said that the district also has the sixth-lowest graduation rate in the state.

"We know New London can do better. We know that there is good will within this board, within individuals on this board and with the hardworking individuals in this school system," Pryor said. "No one is pessimistic about the prospect for growth; on the contrary, we're optimistic that there can be true progress. But there are concerns that conditions are not yet set and that the platform has not been built for progress. We can do it. We're confident that such a platform can be built. That's why we're here today."

Pryor began the discussion by focusing on two areas in the audit.

The first describes the school board's relationship with the superintendent of schools, while the second focuses on school board meetings and their lack of "focus on critical issues."

School board members said Thursday that they do not receive information pertinent to school board meetings on time and that their questions are sometimes not answered. They said that this lack of communication creates an environment of "distrust."

Other board members said that while they may receive reports and data, they do not know how to interpret them.

"I don't think we've received any reports on student achievement or improvement, which we're supposed to get one once a month," member Margaret Curtin said. "We ask questions and we ask for reports (and) we're told we're trying to micro-manage. I can't make a decision without knowing what's happening."

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 school board, Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, the City Council and members of the community.

Since the audit's release, school board Chairman William Morse, Superintendent Nicholas A. Fischer and Finizio have met with Pryor to discuss the audit. Those discussions have been called "preliminary" by both the mayor and the commissioner.

Whether the state will intervene in the school district and to what degree has yet to be determined.

Members of the State Board of Education are slated to hear Pryor's recommendations for New London at their regular meeting June 6 in Hartford. Pryor said a recommendation for New London may come out of that meeting.

When asked what the board would like to see happen in the form of training, members said they wanted to learn more about how to use the data the board receives, and more about reading a school board budget.

Morse suggested that a "board-to-board" relationship between the Windham school district and New London would help, since the state has intervened in Windham.

The recent signing of the education reform bill by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy gives the state board broader authority in issuing recommendations and intervening in a school system.

If the state chooses to intervene by assigning a special master, replacing the superintendent or reconstituting the school board or the entire school system, the state also must require that all New London school board members attend mandatory training.

j.hanckel@theday.com

New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio addresses the audience Thursday at the New London Board of Education meeting, explaining his support of the consolidation of the school district’s and the city’s finance departments.
Tim Cook/The Day New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio addresses the audience Thursday at the New London Board of Education meeting, explaining his support of the consolidation of the school district’s and the city’s finance departments.
The New London Board of Education holds its regular meeting in the New London Science and Technology Magnet School Thursday in New London.
Tim Cook/The Day The New London Board of Education holds its regular meeting in the New London Science and Technology Magnet School Thursday in New London.
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