New London - How a state-appointed "special master" could help turn around the city's school system has yet to be determined, but school board members in Windham, where a special master has been in place for nearly a year, say the process appears to be helping there.
"My advice would be to work with an open mind,'' said John Adamo, a 15-year member of the Windham Board of Education. "And board members need to speak their mind. It's important to have good dialogue."
But Adamo admitted "the jury is still out" on whether or not the school system's 3,000 students will benefit from the state intervention.
Last July, Steven Adamowski, former superintendent of the Hartford public schools, was appointed by the state to supervise the Windham school system.
Windham is similar in make-up to New London, with a high proportion of low-income families and a large number of students who are not fluent in English. Like New London, Windham has had failing standardized test scores.
On Wednesday, the State Board of Education announced it was sending a special master to New London to help find ways to raise the district's failing test scores, which are the fourth-lowest in the state.
The special master will work for one year in New London, state school board spokesman Jim Polites said Thursday. The state will pay the special master's salary. Polites could not say whether the New London program would be similar to Windham's.
"In the coming weeks, we will make the appointment,'' Polites said. "All the details have to be worked out." The appointment is expected to be made by July 1.
The state has had an observer at New London's school board meetings since last year, when former Chairman Alvin Kinsall requested it. Retired Groton Superintendent James Mitchell has filled that role and attended school board meetings since October.
In March, Lol Fearon, chief of the state's Bureau of Accountability and Improvement, and representatives from the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education started to attend the meetings.
In the wake of a state audit that found the New London schools and school board needed "powerful" intervention, Superintendent Nicholas Fischer also told members of the State Board of Education during a meeting that more help was needed.
In Windham, the nine-member school board had asked the state for help. Last August, Adamowski, who served as the superintendent in Norwich from 1983 to 1987, arrived with about $1 million in state funding, which includes the cost of his $225,000 annual salary. He is assigned to the district for three years.
Under Adamowski's leadership, the school system has reorganized its central office to direct more resources to students; reassigned some staff; reorganized the middle school, sending fifth-graders back to the elementary schools; and rearranged the board's agendas to allow more public participation and clear explanations of proposed actions.
The board is also looking at a new busing plan that will save the district thousands of dollars annually, and the town is building a science, technology and engineering magnet school as part of its high school. That school is expected to open in September 2013.
The board is also working with the Windham Town Council on extra funding to help improve reading in the district. The council is scheduled to vote later this month on a one-time $750,000 expenditure from its fund balance to purchase a new reading program.
"A few years ago, I would have been hanged in effigy if I had proposed that,'' said Councilor Mark Doyle, who was on the school board for 20 years and is now serving his second year on the council.
He said there was a lot of board bickering and mistrust between the council and the school board before Adamowski arrived.
"There's certain advantages to having Steve come in. He brings his years of experience and a certain confidence in his decisions,'' Doyle said. "I think when he was brought in, there was a sigh of relief.''
Although the special master has the legal authority to order the school board to reopen union contracts with an expedited arbitration process that must consider the "financial capability'' of a city, that has not happened in Windham.
"The teachers' union is well aware he has that power and can use it,'' Doyle said, adding that the unions are working with the administration to implement changes.
The school board appears to be working well with the superintendent and Adamowski. Murphy Sewall, chairman of the school board, said they have a "nice collaborative relationship.''
"I think it's going terrifically, but the proof will be in the pudding when we start getting test scores back,'' Sewall said.
"The main thing is that it's incorrect to regard the special master as taking over the school board. Members should not view it that they are irrelevant. ... I don't believe my school board members think they are obsolete,'' he said.
Longtime Windham school board member Susan J. Collins said some people in her community, including board members, were apprehensive about the state coming in to assist.
"People were very, very scared and concerned about what was happening,'' she said. "But I never felt that way. I felt we needed all the help we could get."
Collins, who has served on the school board for about 27 years and whose eight children attended Windham public schools, said she has disagreed with some of Adamowski's decisions but has always felt comfortable voicing her concerns.
"It's not bad to have a fresh set of eyes walk into a school to see things that people who have been there for a long time don't see,'' said Collins. "The bottom line is, whatever we can do to help these kids, we have to do it. It's not about egos. We can't keep losing kids."