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Hartford — The State Board of Education voted Wednesday to intervene in the struggling New London school district by authorizing a "Special Master" to direct the turnaround effort.
The special master, yet to be named, will have broad authority over the district's finances, the school board agenda, teacher assignments and curriculum matters.
New London schools are considered the fourth lowest-performing district in Connecticut, and the district's 64 percent graduation rate is the sixth worst.
State intervention is an advanced step to bring improvement to troubled school districts when local efforts falter. But it is different from a top-down takeover. A special master is to collaborate with local board members, the superintendent and administrators — not dictate orders.
"It's part of my nature not to meddle in local affairs, but it is our responsibility to make sure every child succeeds," state board member Terry Jones said. "If they can't succeed, Connecticut and our society is not going to succeed."
The state board initiated two interventions last year: a takeover in Bridgeport and a special master assignment in Windham. However, in February, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that Connecticut violated the law when reconstituting Bridgeport's school board without first giving training to the city's existing board members, who were reinstated by the court.
Wednesday's state board resolution requires effectiveness training for New London Board of Education members. A state audit report last month described the school board as ineffective and dysfunctional.
"New London has a rich heritage," Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor told the board. "The school system ought to be doing better. There are things that we, the State Board of Education, can do to assist in getting on the right track."
Pryor is to personally appoint New London's special master in coming weeks. He described the process as tantamount to reorganizing a school board or bringing in a new superintendent, but less intrusive.
"The idea is for the special master to inject discipline," Pryor said.
The commissioner would not reveal who he is considering for the role. The master would start work July 1 for the 2012-13 school year. State funds would pay the satrap's salary.
New London Superintendent Nicholas A. Fischer attended the board meeting in the Capitol complex and said he was pleased with the intervention decision. A state education team has been trying to help the district improve for the past five years.
"I always tried in my professional career to recognize when assistance will help, and in this case, I strongly believe it will help a great deal," Fischer said.
New London school board Chairman William Morse said he, too, welcomes the special master. "I think most of the board members are accepting of this additional form of state assistance," Morse said by phone. "There's a lot of potential for really moving the district forward academically."
In his remarks, Pryor said that New London schools face big financial, leadership and achievement challenges. The 3,000-student district is preparing to lay off some 60 of its approximately 470 employees by June 30 and will soon operate under a flat-funded city budget contribution for its fourth year in a row.
"We have a combination of problems," Pryor said. "There is governance and management dysfunction and a significant issue with student performance."
The district is to receive an additional $809,000 in state funding in the new fiscal year as one of the new "Alliance Districts."
The state audit report, released in May, offered a scathing critique of New London's school board and district. It faulted board members for micromanaging administrative functions but not devoting adequate attention to policy making and student performance.
The report also described a New London political culture in which members cycle on and off boards and cited examples of uncivil behavior at public meetings. Four of the school board's seven members were newly elected last year.
Once appointed, the special master will do an additional assessment of New London schools before deciding on a course of action, Pryor said. All districts are different, he said, and master-led efforts in Windham schools may not be right for New London.
Fischer said he would like the special master to re-examine the decision to combine the school board's finance office with the city's. He fears the merger's cost may outweigh the anticipated savings.
New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, an ex-officio and non-voting board member, said in a statement that he respects the state's decision and is looking forward "to a cooperative partnership to move New London education forward."
School board member Jason Catala said he fully supports the additional training for the school board but has mixed feelings about the intervention. He would prefer to first hold Fischer "more accountable" for the district's progress, or lack thereof, "so the superintendent won't be able to say we're dysfunctional," Catala said.
A special master's powers under state law include the authority to order a school board to reopen union contracts with an expedited arbitration process that must consider the "financial capability" of a city to pay workers' wages and benefits.