State board votes to intervene in 3rd school district in a year

The State Board of Education unanimously voted Wednesday to intervene in New London Public Schools, marking the third time the state has stepped in in the lowest-performing districts in the last year.

The board decided to have Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor appoint a “special master” to a one-year term to manage a turnaround plan for the 3,000-student district. The board also voted to require the New London board undergo training and submit an action plan. Before a local school board can be replaced they must first undergo training.

“We are not waving a magic wand, but it is a reason for optimism,” Pryor said of his recommendation.

He noted that this school district faces significant challenges, as it has some of lowest overall test scores and graduation rates in the state. The district hasn’t received an increase in local contributions in four school years and the absence of millions in federal stimulus money has created a hole in the district’s budget.

“We have a combination of problems. There is governance and management dysfunction. There is also a significant issue of student performance… There are significant fiscal issues in the district,” Pryor said.

The special master, which will be paid for by the state and which Pryor said he will name in the next few weeks, will have a range of authority to make government and management decisions in the district.

A small amount of new state funding may be available to make certain reforms, Pryor said this will not be bailing the district out.

“The special master cannot wave a wand and correct the fiscal problems of the district,” he said. The district has sent layoff notices to 68 of the 427-person staff.

New London Superintendent Nicholas Fischer came before the State Board of Education last month and this week to ask them to intervene his district.

“I am very pleased,” he said after the vote. “This is going to be a great assistance.”

adamowski and fisscher

Windham Special Master Steven Adamowski and New London Superintendent Nicholas Fischer await the education board’s vote

The state board ordered other interventions in Windham and Bridgeport last summer. In Windham, a special master, former Hartford Superintendent Steven Adamowki, was appointed last year. In Bridgeport, the school board was replaced with a state-appointed board, a move that was later reversed by the state Supreme Court because the previous board did not first receive training.

Adamowki was at the Capitol Wednesday to share with the state board the success he feels he’s achieved so far in Windham.

He specifically points out that this district, where one out of every four students speaks limited English, did not provide English-learning programs as required by state and federal law.

That’s changed, he said.

He’s also noted that the district’s budget was not transparent and did not appropriately direct money where needed.

“We are on the road to recovery,” he said.

Pryor was noncommittal when asked how many districts he sees the state intervening in, though he said he does have an idea in his head of how many would be too many.

But it might not get to a wave of districts seeking help, Adamowski said.

Bridgeport, New London and Windham’s intervention “sends a message to other districts… These issues issues cannot be ignored.”

Last month, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed into law a massive education reform bill that not only gives the state more authority to intervene in the state’s worst districts, but also the worst 25 schools. The State Department approved guidelines for those school-level state takeovers and the commissioner will select a small number of schools to intervene in for the upcoming school year in two weeks.