Diplomatic approach to dysfunctional board

Steven J. Adamowski, the special master appointed by the state to help direct improvements in the New London school system, recognizes that the city's Board of Education acted inappropriately in failing to renew the contract of the current superintendent and cannot be trusted to adequately do its job of replacing him. Given that, one has to wonder why he wants to leave the board in place.

In April, the city's Board of Education voted 6-1 not to renew the contract of Superintendent Nicholas A. Fischer. It expires at the end of this school year, adding needless uncertainty at a time when consistency is critical. Board members offered as justification only opaque references to poor communication. What board members had been told in state-mandated training is that a superintendent should be judged on the performance of the students.

"Had a performance-based evaluation system been used the current superintendent probably would have had his contract renewed," said Mr. Adamowski on Wednesday during an update presented to the State Board of Education.

Despite several years without increased spending on city education that has left the administration with a "skeleton staff," standardized test scores, while still poor, have trended up, noted the special master. The district was one of only a few in the state to develop a standards-based evaluation system for teachers before the state mandated it.

"For the most part, the district is currently well led and managed at all levels," wrote Mr. Adamowski in his progress report to the state board.

Tellingly, Mr. Adamowski recommends that the seven-person school board, which is likely to have several new members after the November election, not be allowed to carry out an unfettered search for the next superintendent.

He recommends that the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education partner with the New London board to conduct the search; that Mr. Adamowski set the salary to make it competitive with other districts; that the state commissioner of education approve the applicant list from which the New London board can choose; that the next superintendent receive the stability of a three-year contract; and that any decisions on contract renewal be based on student achievement.

Given the lack of trust in the board to carry out this most important function, Mr. Adamowski had ample grounds to do what this newspaper earlier suggested - recommend that the state board use its statutory authority to replace the current New London board with a state-appointed panel, let it decide what to do about the superintendent, and provide stability as the school system goes through a challenging transition.

But that's not what he did. His calculation, we suspect, was that the turmoil and controversy that would have been created by using this nuclear option would have caused more problems, in the short term at least, than it would have solved. The state board should question that calculation before it simply adopts the recommendation. While Mr. Adamowski has offered a diplomatic solution, the evidence he presented suggests the more dramatic option - replacing the board - deserves consideration.

Mr. Adamowski would like to see board terms staggered - with no more than a slim majority up for re-election in any one year - which is the case for most school districts. Instead New London puts all board seats up for election every two years, a system that makes continuity difficult and politics more prevalent in board affairs, said Adamowski. It creates a "political environment" that generates "bad board-superintendent relationships for every reason other than student achievement," he said.

But with the city only recently having amended the charter to create a strong-mayor form of government, there is little interest in again reopening it, and with good reason. The city should get a second mayoral election behind it, at least, before entertaining thoughts of another charter revision commission. The only way to assure the desired continuity, it appears, would be to appoint a state panel to run the schools during the recovery effort.

As for some positives, it appears Mr. Adamow-ski will continue as special master for another year and state intervention for at least a couple of years. The city needs this "disciplined environment imposed by state supervision" as the school system transitions to an all-magnet-schools district, attracting students from throughout the region and increasing state aid.

Also, the school board has adopted a strategic plan.

Then there is this. "Board meetings have improved significantly in terms of order, professionalism and civility. Negative exchanges between board members and the administration have been reduced," reported Mr. Adamowski.

More civility, fewer negative exchanges - that's progress, at least.

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