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The decision by the New London Board of Education Thursday not to renew the contract of Superintendent Nicholas A. Fischer, an action taken without reasonable explanation, is evidence that it is time for decisive state intervention to address the structural problems holding back school reform in the city.
It is hard to think of a worse time to make your superintendent a lame duck, undermine his authority and, in his words, "put the district on hold for two years."
As an alliance district school system - meaning an academically troubled system - New London is under the supervision of state-appointed Special Master Steven Adamowski. The school board is undergoing state-ordered training to try to help it understand and undertake its role - setting policy and a budget, then giving the superintendent the leeway to implement them.
But Thursday's action suggests nothing has changed. The board appears more fixated on its relationship with Dr. Fischer than on the students.
The superintendent, in his fourth year as school superintendent, made his case. While still unacceptably low, New London High School standardized schools have improved significantly. And performance has generally improved across the system during his time at the helm. The administration has overseen the implementation of a teacher evaluation system. During his tenure, New London has instituted a literacy standard for graduation and minimum academic standards for participating in sports and other extracurricular activities.
Dr. Fischer is working with Dr. Adamowski and the state to implement what we consider the exciting opportunity to make New London the state's first all-magnet school district. This would bring increased state aid for the revenue-strapped city and diversity to the student population by attracting children from other communities to its topic-themed schools. The administration has worked to attract a Renzulli Academy program for gifted and talented students and a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation grant to help pay for it.
Asked Friday about his relationship with Dr. Fischer, Dr. Adamowski called it "very good" and said he had "tremendous respect" for the superintendent.
Refusing to extend the superintendent's contract puts at grave risk the momentum for change. Dr. Fischer said he will work through the 2013-2014 school year, the final year of his contract. But a year of uncertainty as the search begins for a new superintendent, under trying circumstances, will stall progress.
This is not to say a school system should never change superintendents in such a situation, but there had better be good reasons. The school board is offering none. The board planned to deal with the matter in closed session, but Dr. Fischer opted for an open discussion, his right under the Freedom of Information law. Forced to make their case publicly, board members said nothing, moving quickly to the 6-1 vote not to renew the contract.
After the meeting Chairman Margaret Curtin pointed to "a lack of communication," offering no specifics.
Dr. Adamowski does not have the authority to intervene in the selection of a superintendent or dissolve the Board of Education and replace it with an appointed board. He should, however, seriously consider such a recommendation when he submits his status report to the State Board of Education and Commissioner Stefan Pryor in July. They do have that authority.
New London is a rarity in that it elects an entire seven-member school board every two years. "It is tough to have any stability when the board that hires (the superintendent) can be gone in two years … and it is very hard for continuity," said Dr. Adamowski.
That reality has been on display. Dr. Fischer largely had the support of the prior school board and pursued policies it began. But the November 2011 election saw a major turnover and the new relationship has never been good.
The vast majority of towns in Connecticut elect their school board members to staggered terms, so that no more than three or four seats are contested each election. Suspending the school board and appointing a temporary one would give New London time to change and modernize its charter on this issue, without a major interruption in the effort to revitalize the education system.
By refusing to use a performance-based model to evaluate the superintendent, and instead opting for emotion and abstract concerns about communication, the school board shows it is not learning the lessons state intervention was supposed to teach it.
New London schools are poised for dramatic improvement, but it may take dramatic changes - and intervention - to achieve it.