Since the state named a “special master” in New London and Windham, there has been unrest among teachers as to what authority that person enjoys and what autonomy local officials retain.

In an attempt to make the title for this individual, who is appointed by the State Board of Education, less lofty, legislators on the Education Committee Friday unanimously voted on a bill that will change the title to accurately reflect that this person is there to foster collaboration for changes.

But the leader of one of the state’s teachers’ unions says the new title — “turnaround specialist” — does little to alleviate problems that other school districts may face in the future with such state intervention.

“Committee members should not be misled by a simple name change that does nothing to correct the problems experienced in Windham,” Melodie Peters, president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said in testimony to legislators last week.

“Since the Special Master’s arrival, standardized test scores in the district have dropped significantly, and the student population is more segregated economically, academically and racially than ever before. In short, things are much worse than they were in 2009,” Peters testified.

Since the law was approved, the state has appointed a special master for two districts: Windham and New London. However, critics say the law is too ambiguous, that it fails to define what Special Master Steven Adamowski has authority over. This has led to teachers butting heads with him over decisions they think teachers and local officials should be involved in.

The law requires the special master collaborate with local boards education and school superintendents to implement a district’s improvement plan manage the district’s federal, state, and local funding. However, legislative researchers report the law does not give the special master the authority to reconstitute schools. It also limits his authority by not superseding the statutory powers and duties of the local board of education.

“The law gives the special master certain fiscal authority that appears to overlap existing statutes that provide local school boards with fiscal authority,” the Office of Legislative Research reported last fall.

Amid the unrest in Windham, the State Board of Education last month voted to return daily operations back to Windham officials.

Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor told legislators that he is open to changing the title of the special master for future appointments.

“The Department would request further conversation regarding the change in language from Special Master to Turnaround Specialist. We are receptive to revising this language to ensure that the title best captures the meaning of this role but would like to discuss the precise terminology,” he testified.

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Jacqueline Rabe Thomas

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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