Group of superintendents says CT school department in ‘disarray’

A memo from a group of school superintendents recommends that the state association that represents them publicly lambaste Connecticut’s education commissioner.

But Elizabeth Feser, president of the board of directors of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS) and the leader of Milford Public Schools, said the full board Thursday rejected that request.

“It does not represent the universal views of” the association, Feser said during an interview.

The memo compiled by the organization’s Legislative Committee for consideration highlights several areas of concern in Connecticut Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor’s management.

“If the following items are not addressed aggressively and in the immediate future, THE ENTIRE REFORM AGENDA THAT WAS ENACTED IN 2012 WILL COLLAPSE,” reads the seven-page document. Part of the statement is capitalized and underlined for emphasis.

The department “is still largely in disarray. The [Connecticut State Department of Education], consequently, does not have the capacity both in terms of numbers and talent to effectively lead the reform effort.”

Connecticut is rolling out several new education initiatives, including implementing new curricula, intervening in the state’s lowest-performing districts and launching a new teacher evaluation process that links their ratings to how well their students perform.

Concerns listed in the memo, first reported by blogger and former Democratic state legislator Jonathan Pelto, include “procedures that are insulting to local district staff”; revisions having to be made after initial implementation because of changes by the state department; and the department failing to communicate in a timely fashion.

The memo says that Pryor has “too great a willingness to accommodate the governor’s political agenda,” rather than listening to the concerns of local school district leaders.

Two of the 25 superintendents on CAPSS’s legislative committee told The Mirror that the seven-page document was approved with little or no dissent, but that there was never the intention for the document to be made public.

Those superintendents declined to speak publicly about their concerns for fear of backlash from the department.

Feser said she is “disappointed that the internal document was leaked.”

She said several times during an interview that the association -– which represents 99 percent of the state’s superintendents –- still has every confidence in the commissioner and the education department.

Mark Benigni, the superintendent of Meriden, said he also is disappointed in how this was handled. The Meriden school district, as have some others, has received millions of dollars in additional state funding in recent years as a result of the new reforms for changes such as full-day kindergarten and extended school days.

“That’s not how I would want to be treated,” he said of the long list of complaints aimed at Pryor and the education department.

Asked about the merits of the concerns raised, Benigni said, “change is always difficult,” and the transition has not been perfect.

“We need to respect one another and work together,” he said, noting that collaboration is a more effective approach.

Garth Harries, the superintendent of New Haven Public Schools, disagrees with the merits of the complaints from the committee.

“There is no question the department is pushing districts outside of their comfort zone… I think that is appropriate,” he said during an interview. “A lot is happening, that is a challenge [to implement] in New Haven and in districts across the sate.”

However, he said that’s no reason not to move forward with changes and the department has done a good job doing so.

One of the recommendations in the memo is to slow down the rollout of the reforms to ensure they are appropriately implemented, and also to stop relying so heavily on contractors for implementing central reforms.

Regardless of the pushback from some superintendents, Pryor said in a statement Thursday that the reforms will move ahead, and that he is eager to continue working with superintendents throughout the state.

“We are highly grateful for the CAPSS Board’s unanimous statement of support. CAPSS and Connecticut’s superintendents are pivotal partners and we very much appreciate this affirming vote. The process of strengthening public education can, at times, be complex and challenging, but this work is vital for the success of our students and our state,” he said. “We will continue to collaborate closely with superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and other stakeholders in order to review, revise, enhance, and advance our collective efforts.”

Legislative Committee memo forwarded to the full board for consideration.

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