State opts to continue probation for ISAAC in New London
New London — The state Board of Education has extended the term of probation for the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication, known as ISAAC, for at least seven months, citing the need for ongoing oversight of the way the school bills for special education.
ISAAC, which is a independent public charter middle school and not part of the New London school system, was placed on probation on May 24, 2021, in part for a large and sudden special education rate hike billed to districts that send their students to ISAAC. The rate hike, in some cases from $45 per hour to $90 per hours, would have raised special education fees in New London alone from $480,000 to $850,000.
In addition to special education billing, the state determined the school did not have proper board governance, disposed of computer equipment improperly and needed school policy and procedural updates.
Unrelated to the probation, the state also has received complaints against ISAAC Executive Director Nicholas Spera, who was hired in 2020 and the target of allegations by former staff that he fostered a hostile work environment.
The state placed the school, which serves up to 176 students in sixth through eighth grades, on probation for one year. Following a visit to the school on May 18, 2022 the state opted to extend that probation until at least December.
“While the results of the visit revealed that ISAAC has been responsive to the terms of their probation and has complied with the conditions thus far, given the magnitude of the issues that resulted in probation, there is a need for continued monitoring of the newly established special education billing methodology under the (corrective action plan) for the remainder of the 2021-2022 fiscal year and into the 2022-2023 fiscal year,” Commissioner of Education Charlene M. Russell-Tucker wrote in the May 26 letter to Spera.
ISAAC’s probation will extend until the school develops special education billing policies and procedures, updates its accounting manual and shares with the state its billing methodology for the 2023-24 school year.
Termination of the probation will be considered in December or January, when the state plans a mid-year review of implementation of the corrective action plan.
For former ISAAC teacher Nancy Rodgers and former ISAAC board member Tunisia Melendez, the climate at the school has suffered under Spera.
Melendez, whose son used to attend ISAAC, said her concerns raised to the board were sidelined when Spera took control and silenced those who raised questions. As a result of her speaking up, she alleges there was retaliation. She said her son was “denied an equal and fair education” and locked out of online assignments and his work suffered as a result. She eventually resigned from the board and took her son out of the school.
She said she now has a pending complaint with the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.
Rodgers, who taught at the school for seven years, said she left in 2021 after experiencing a toxic work environment under Spera, who made clear he had favorites among staff.
In her exit letter to the board of directors she shared with The Day, Rodgers reiterated her concerns about the changes at the school.
“Great leaders find no need for absolute control, but rather delegate to the professionals they surround themselves with. Great leaders exchange ideas and value input, expertise, and inquiry,” Rodgers wrote. “Unfortunately for ISAAC we do not have that. What we do have is a culture of divide and conquer. We have a culture of suspicion and disregard. We have nepotism, cronyism and favoritism. We have a lack of appreciation and we have isolation and a tenaciously controlled flow of communication.”
Her complaints are similar to an outpouring of criticism by staff and some parents of students from the Marine Magnet Science High School in Groton, where Spera was principal until taking the job at ISAAC in 2020.
Rodgers, who recently criticized Spera in a report by Connecticut Public Radio, has received a letter from attorney David A. Ryan Jr., representing ISAAC in a “request to investigate potential defamation and false statements.”
“The letter from his lawyer was another attempt to silence me,” Rodgers said. “He has done it to other people, too.”
ISAAC board Chairman Richard Muckle, in a statement to The Day, said, “The ISAAC Board of Directors is wholly and fully satisfied with Dr. Spera’s performance and has been since his arrival here in Jan 2020.”
“His initiatives have resulted in an overwhelming positive difference in our school. I would also like to note that over the past 11+ months we have been working in collaboration with the CSDE and have expeditiously resolved the concerns identified by that entity in May of 2021. We will continue to work with the CSDE on the two items identified in the probation letter,” Muckle said.
Some complaints about the climate at ISAAC have reached the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the organization that accredited ISAAC.
“We are conducting an investigation of those complaints and are currently gathering additional information,” NEASC President Cameron Staples said in an email.
Once the review is concluded, Staples said NEASC would notify the school of its findings and conclusions.
Spera said he could not comment on personnel matters but said, “the administration is proud of the positive culture and climate that exists at ISAAC thanks to our amazing staff and students.”
“In addition, I am very proud of the academic and social-emotional improvements that have been created for all who work, learn, and grow at ISAAC. We will continue to work hard to be the best school possible for the betterment of our students and families,” Spera said in a statement.