Education chief says he will not handpick Bridgeport’s next superintendent

Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said Wednesday he has no interest in handpicking Bridgeport’s next superintendent. Rather, he said, he intends to use a provision approved by the General Assembly Tuesday night to veto any finalists the local school board selects for the top spot if they are not of high enough caliber.

Lawmakers Tuesday approved an omnibus budget bill that provides Bridgeport with a $3.5 million loan to cover its school district’s budget gap, but in exchange, the city would have to select its superintendent — or possibly its budget chief — from a pool of candidates chosen by the commissioner. The bill requires the local school board to then choose a candidate, who could serve in that post for three years, from that pool.

“I want to be very clear about this, and this is our intent,” Pryor said Wednesday during an interview at his office. “The local board will conduct the search… My intent is for the local board to present finalists for us to perhaps interview in some form, assess the candidates, and sign off… The local board will select its superintendent.”

The bill did not specify who would create the pool of candidates, just that the commissioner will have to “approve” the three finalists.

“People try their best to write things up and that’s how it works,” Pryor said of the uncertainty in the bill that led some to fear the state was overstepping.

In fact, Pryor said this provision in the bill, spearheaded by his department and officials in Bridgeport, was done in an effort to keep local autonomy while also ensuring some state oversight in the fiscally troubled district.

“We need to ensure the problem does not occur again,” Pryor said of the district’s massive budget deficit that needed to be closed for the fiscal year that ends the last day of June.

The education reform bill signed into law last month, gives Pryor and the State Board of Education the power to intervene and name a superintendent without local input, a route that Pryor said was too extreme.

“It is not our objective to make the final decision as to the superintendent. That’s what the education reform bill authorizes. Instead the state education department will be playing a role, not the ultimate role,” he said.

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.

New London’s superintendent Nicholas Fischer sought the state’s intervention. Bridgeport’s Mayor Bill Finch and a majority of the outsted school board asked the state to take over the school district, the state’s largest school district.

The state’s move comes as Bridgeport’s state-appointed board considers extending the contract for its interim superintendent. A special election is scheduled for the fall to replace the city’s state-appointed board in the wake of the State Supreme Court’s ruling.

Pryor said he hopes that a list of candidates will be provided for him to choose from after the election.

“I can’t imagine this will take place before then… My expectation is that it would be the new board. That’s a matter for Bridgeport,” he said.

However, the Connecticut Post has reported that the state-appointed board wants to extend the contract for the interim superintendent it tapped. During an interview Tuesday, Paul Vallas verified that the city’s board is interested in him staying in the job, but he said he has not yet decided what to do. Vallas, a nationally known educator who has led reform efforts in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans, said he was recruited for the job by Pryor.

The new board will likely take office in September; Vallas’ contract is up at the end of 2012.

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

Pryor said the $3.5 million being provided to Bridgeport should be a signal to other districts that this money comes at a cost.

“These measures will enable us to ensure that the district leadership team has the capacity to prevent this problem from occurring again, while preserving local decision-making. This is an extraordinary set of circumstances -– millions of dollars requested to fill a major gap in the current year’s operating budget. The signal to other districts is that this solution is not easily available,” he said.