State links loan to Bridgeport to more state oversight

The state is offering Bridgeport a $3.5 million loan to cover the school district’s budget gap, but in exchange, the city must agree that state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor will choose the pool of up to three superintendent candidates. The board will select a candidate from the pool, who could serve in the post for three years.

The city now has an interim school superintendent.

This is the crux of a bill that cleared the Democratic-controlled Senate and House in party-line votes Tuesday evening.

And at least one former state education commissioner expressed surprise at the arrangement.

“The money is necessary because they have a [financial] problem. In turn, the commissioner will help select their superintendent,” said Sen. Andrea Stillman, the co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Education Committee. “This is appropriate.”

Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court overturned the state’s earlier efforts to intervene in the district by taking over Bridgeport’s Board of Education.

The state has also intervened in Windham and New London schools in the past year.

Ted Sergi, former longtime state education commissioner, said this move is without precedent.

“I don’t recall anything like this in the past… It’s worth trying. [Pryor] can’t have enough tools for turning around these urban schools,” he said.

The state’s move comes as Bridgeport’s state-appointed board considers extending the contract for the interim superintendent it tapped.

A special election is scheduled this fall to replace Bridgeport’s state-appointed board in the wake of the State Supreme Court’s ruling.

Paul Vallas, Bridgeport’s interim superintendent, said he is considering the board’s offer to stay in Bridgeport, but would not remain if the new elected board wants a new leader.

“I wouldn’t stay unless I have the support of the current board,” said Vallas during an interview.

The bill slated for a vote does not specify which board — the elected or state-appointed — will make the decision on whether to accept the state’s $3.5 million loan. Vallas said the current board does intend to use the funding to close the current year’s budget deficit.

“We have taken steps assuming we would secure this loan,” he said.

The bill states that the loan could be forgiven if the district complies with the conditions of the loan. Vallas said the district does not yet know those conditions, but added he has worked very closely with the state department on the reform efforts he has implemented so far in the city.

Sen. Edwin Gomes, D-Bridgeport, said he doesn’t look at the $3.5 million as a tradeoff for local autonomy.

“I do have reservations, but I am in favor of this bill since it will help the board of education and their budget,” he said.

Also included in the omnibus budget bill before the General Assembly is a requirement that school districts spend more on education to follow suit with the state’s fiscal infusion.

State legislators appropriated almost $100 million in new money for state public schools. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in February proposed that for districts to be eligible for more state money, their leaders would also need to spend more.

In Bridgeport, for example, city leaders would be required to boost the portion of their education budget they are covering to 20 percent for the 2012-13 school year. In four years, they would have to cover 24 percent of their school budget. Bridgeport’s education budget currently receives 19 percent from the city and most of the remainder from the state.

These minimum contribution requirements will impact only Bridgeport. The original proposal would have required local spending to reach 30 percent, a move that would also have required Hartford, New Britain and Windham, the lowest-performing districts in the state, to spend more on education.