New London school chief asks for state help

New London’s troubled public school system — struggling under what a scathing new state report describes as a hostile, dysfunctional political climate — should be next in line for state intervention, the system’s top official says.

“The state must intervene in New London,” Superintendent of Schools Nicholas A. Fischer told the State Board of Education Thursday, warning that the district “is in serious danger of moving backward.”

The 3,000-student system is among the state’s lowest-performing districts, said state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, who pledged to meet with New London officials to discuss possible action by the state.

State intervention can take various forms, from retraining of board members to complete state takeovers. State officials have taken major interventions in two low-performing districts in the past year, appointing a special master to oversee schools in Windham and disbanding the Board of Education in Bridgeport. The state Supreme Court, however, rejected the Bridgeport takeover, saying the state improperly replaced the board without first offering training to board members.


State school board members, at right, and Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, at left, hear a state auditor explain the review of New London

After Thursday’s state board meeting, Pryor said he wants to gather more data and proceed carefully before making any decision about New London. “No one aims for a rush to judgment,” he said. “However, it’s clear New London has waited a long time for a stable and effective school system.”

Too long, according to Fischer. Although the state board is expected to take up the matter again in June, Fischer was visibly upset that no action was taken Thursday.

“This [state] department has been studying the district for a year,” he said. “How long does it take to discover it’s dysfunctional? To sit there and hear people say they need to gather more data — how much more? How long?”

Fischer told the state board that the district has lost key officials such as an assistant superintendent who took another job out of concern that her job would be eliminated. The district’s business manager and chief financial officer is considering retirement because officials have decided to consolidate school district financial operations with the city’s financial department, Fischer said.

Despite rising costs, the school budget has remained flat for four years, and the district expects to reduce its 420-person staff by 60 this year, Fischer said. The impact, he said, “is huge. Class sizes are going to go up. We will not have support for literacy [instruction]. We would have to reduce art and music instruction. Afterschool program supplements — we’ll have to reduce a lot of those.”

Although the district has started a new, more rigorous teacher evaluation system and has seen some improvement in student achievement, New London students have posted discouraging scores on annual statewide tests. Only 9 percent of New London’s 10th graders, for example, met the state goal in reading last year, and about 16 percent met goals in math and science. Most students are members of minority groups, and nearly all — about 95 percent — come from low-income families.

In a state report requested by Pryor and issued earlier this month, officials said many of the problems stem from economic decline and poverty, much like issues associated with larger cities such as Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven.

Nevertheless, the report criticized the city’s political leaders and said strained relationships, poor communication and even hostility among officials have hindered progress in the school system.


“There is no coordinated leadership in the city, and small fiefdoms and various pockets of influence dominate the decision-making processes,” the report said. “It appears that a large part of the community has no connection or interest in the school system … A complete change of direction, attitude and behavior by all elected officials and members of the community is required to overcome the current pattern of decline and loss of confidence in the school system.”

The report sharply criticized the New London Board of Education as ineffective. “Board meetings do not appear to focus on substantive issues. Instead they often deal with procedure, political posturing, theatre and questioning actions taken by the administration. Board member behavior is occasionally uncivil to each other and the Superintendent and embarrassing to public observers.”

Fischer said he would support an aggressive state intervention, such as an appointment of a special master to oversee the system. “It’s no secret I’ve said to the commissioner I think that’s a good idea,” he said.

However, Delanna Muse, a newly elected member of the New London board, said she does not favor a complete takeover. “I’m aware there are problems in New London, but I feel they should allow this board to work on policy … We’ve made some progress,” she said, adding that the board expects to evaluate its work and consider the recommendations made by the state.

Bill Morse, chairman of the New London board, said he does not think a complete takeover is needed but that it is more likely the state will require training for board members. “I think all the board members have the best intentions,” he said. “It’s just that they’re not all on the same page, following the same rules. I think advice from the state would be helpful.”

New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said he has had preliminary discussions with Pryor, State Board of Education Chairman Allan Taylor and Gov. Dannel Malloy’s chief of staff, Mark Ojakian about possible state intervention. Finizio plans to be in Hartford next week for further discussions.

“The New London Public School system has reached a critical point in its history and significant reforms will be needed to bring our schools to where they need to be,” he said.