Malloy turnaround plan for lowest-performing schools could hinge on union approval

Unfazed by a looming state Supreme Court decision that could say the state overstepped when replacing Bridgeport's school board, the governor wants the state to intervene in up to 25 of the state's lowest-performing schools to turn them around.

"We will not tolerate year after year the same schools being on the bottom of the pile," Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Monday during his visit to a local Hartford school.

But for those lower-rung schools, which have yet to be identified, the success of this initiative largely depends on getting the buy-in from the local teachers' union.

"I am asking the legislature to give us the tools necessary to reorganize schools, pursuant to agreement that will be reached with those systems," Malloy said. "We are going to put a model in place to turn around our lowest-performing schools."

Malloy is proposing that the state ante up $24.8 million to pay for things like longer school days, increased pay to attract high-quality teachers and paying for the health or nutritional needs many students aren't getting at these schools. Teacher pay varies significantly by a town's wealth, according to the state Department of Education, and few schools have embraced longer school days largely because of the costs.

"We are stretched thin," said Christina Kishimoto, Hartford's superintendent, adding it's difficult to keep her best teachers. "Our neighbors are recruiting our teachers from under us."

One major disincentive for local approval is the threat that teachers risk losing their jobs in these schools, a move that caused a huge uproar in Rhode Island.

"Teachers who are currently employed at these schools may reapply for their position in the school," Malloy's proposal reads.

A spokesman for the State Department of Education said the state may seek authority to make changes without traditional or formal local approval, but will work in consultation with the state's teachers' unions. Also, teachers who leave these schools may be eligible for open positions at other schools.

"Discussions are ongoing regarding ways, when possible, to accommodate scenarios where no openings exist," Spokesman Mark Linabury wrote in an email.

These schools will also pilot a new teacher tenure system, or "career ladder," linked to the new evaluation system set to be approved Friday by the State Board of Education.

Current career ladders are often based on how long a teacher has worked for a district. Under the new system, students' performance would largely be the yardstick.

Mary Loftus Levine, the leader of the state's largest teachers union, said she's not sure how easily local schools will sign on to this agreement and overrule their local collectively bargained contract.

"It's premature to say now," she said, noting that having local autonomy on reforms will be key. "There's a lot of details that have to be worked out."

Malloy said the answer should be simple for those responsible these low-performing schools, and has a very straightforward question for them.

"Are you going to tolerate failing schools because of some prior agreement, or because of the way things were done in the past because it's easy not to take on the challenge of reform?" he asked.

Linabury said the SDE is working with the unions and district leadership on the specifics so these interventions can take place.

Looming decision

The State Supreme Court heard arguments months ago on a case dealing with the State Board of Education's decision to take over the notoriously struggling Bridgeport school district.

During that hearing, Justice Peter T. Zarella asked the fundamental question: when can the state legally intervene?

"Is it just everybody's at risk and it's an arbitrary decision?" he asked.

The justices were essentially told that there is no standard, but federal testing benchmarks were considered. Those against the takeover also say the state cannot interfere in matters that the state Constitution delegates to a local elected board.

Because Malloy said he will work with all parties to reach agreement on reforms, Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said he "doesn't see how that [pending decision] could impact this."

But the plan lays out a much harsher scenario; either work with the State Department of Education in partnership to make the reforms, or the state "may exercise authority" to can take over governance temporarily.

Kishimoto said that while she thinks two of her schools could likely be named as among the worst in the state, getting the approval from the teacher union will be essential.

"We either get buy in and we work in partnership or we'll figure out how to move ahead another way," she said.