Bridgeport school reformer brought ‘dramatic transformation’

Even though a court ruled it illegal, the state’s ouster of the Bridgeport Board of Education last year has produced encouraging results, according to some members of the State Board of Education.

The replacement of the former Bridgeport board with new appointees led to the hiring of noted school reformer Paul Vallas, whose work as Bridgeport’s superintendent drew praise Thursday from the state board following a report on his first six months on the job.

In those six months, the troubled Bridgeport system wiped out a gaping budget deficit and laid the groundwork for a long-term strategy to improve student performance, Vallas and Bridgeport Board of Education Chairman Robert Trefry told the board.

“I applaud you. Keep up the good work,” state board member Charles Jaskiewicz told Vallas and Trefry as they appeared before the state board in Hartford.

The state board replaced the Bridgeport board a year ago, but the state Supreme Court ruled in February that the state overstepped its authority. The court ordered the reinstatement of ousted board members and called for special elections for members whose terms have expired.

Nevertheless, Jaskiewicz said he had no regrets about the state board’s decision. “What we did is we created action. I’d still vote yes to do it.”

A key accomplishment was the elimination of a budget gap that Vallas estimated at $12 million to $15 million, largely through sharp cutbacks in administrative costs. Vallas said the system reduced the staffing of the central office by about one-third and limited teacher layoffs to nine people in the 20,000-student district.

“We didn’t increase class size,” said Vallas, who projected that the budget would remain balanced over the next five years. Over that period, “schools and classrooms will never be without the support they need,” he said.

Vallas also cited other changes such as a new high school reorganization plan, a plan to bolster preschool education, an expanded summer school program, an intervention system to help struggling students and support struggling teachers, and progress on construction plans for three new buildings to replace aging schools.

Vallas began the Bridgeport job in January after gaining national attention for leading school reform efforts in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans.

In both Chicago and Philadelphia, he raised test scores, closed budget deficits and renovated hundreds of schools. Later, he headed the Recovery School District of Louisiana, a statewide district that reformed public schools in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Before his arrival in Bridgeport, the schools were under severe financial stress. Trefry, the board chairman, described classrooms where students sometimes had to read out loud because there were not enough books to go around. Now, the system has regained stability, he said.

“It’s been a dramatic transformation,” he said.

Trefry said he is hopeful that progress will continue when new board members are selected in elections in September. He said he is optimistic that some of the members who were appointed to the current board will win seats and continue the reforms.

He said the biggest challenge will be to avoid returning to the kind of board that will “try to micromanage the system to the point that nothing gets done. There were a number of things the board was doing in the past…that sapped some energy for progress.”

State Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said he is pleased that Vallas, who was named as an interim superintendent, has agreed to remain on the job for another year. “I truly congratulate you on the progress you’ve made,” Pryor said.