Critical choice for NL

On Thursday, the New London Board of Education began the process of making the most important decision a school board faces - selecting a superintendent. In this case, the decision is yet more critical, because the superintendent selected will guide the city through the unprecedented process of transforming all city schools to magnet schools, with focused curriculums in each and a mix of students drawn from throughout the region

The concept is a means to an end - lifting New London's troubled schools to higher levels of academic achievement.

Board President Margaret Curtin has the right instincts in backing a search committee that reaches outside of just board members. It should include community leaders, teacher representatives and parental advocates.

The Connecticut Association of Boards of Education would appear to be an able partner in serving as a search consultant. As part of the state's intervention to help turn around city schools, state funds would cover the $30,000 search cost. The school board should, however, be open to arguments that a private search consultant would provide the better option.

The state's continued involvement adds an additional level of security. Steven J. Adamowski, appointed as the special master by the state to help guide the school board in its efforts to improve performance, can eliminate candidates for the job who, in his judgment and that of the education commissioner, lack the qualifications for such a challenging undertaking.

Mr. Adamowski also recommends that the state insist on a salary level necessary to attract quality applicants and that any contract run at least three years. In addition, the school board must tie the evaluation and potential renewal of the future superintendent's contract to student performance, according to Mr. Adamowski. In evaluating superintendents, New London boards have a history of focusing on intangibles such as personality differences and communication, rather than student achievement.

There is a degree of irony that on the same day that the superintendent search began with preliminary discussions, the release of the state's district performance report showed that student performance in New London schools, though still far below where it needs to be, continues to trend in the right direction. Standardized test results showed district schools surpassing state-established targets.

If student performance was the benchmark, arguably current Superintendent Nicholas A. Fischer should be continuing. But the prior board voted 6-1 not to renew his contract, which expires in June. At least Dr. Fischer will have the satisfaction of knowing he leaves his successor a system that is beginning the difficult turnaround.

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