The superintendent of one of the state’s lowest-performing districts said Thursday the state had declined her request to mandate training for the rancorous, locally elected school board – the only step the State Department of Education would need to take before it could take over local schools and replace board members.
Bridgeport Interim Supt. Fran Rabinowitz told a Superior Court judge while testifying in a school-funding trial that she was “summoned” to a meeting two weeks ago after four area college presidents wrote to Connecticut Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell asking her for assistance after public displays of rancor among board members.
“I wanted some acknowledgement that this board was not operating as effectively as it could be,” said Rabinowitz, who has been the interim superintendent for more than two years of the largest school district in the state. “I needed some outside help to say that… I raised options, all of which they said they were unable to do.”
She said the topic of having the state appoint a “special master,” as it has done in Windham and New London, also was discussed.
State education department spokeswoman Abbe Smith disagreed Thursday evening with the characterization that Rabinowitz had been “summoned” to a meeting with state officials.
“We said, if the opportunity arises for the state to be helpful, then we will be,” Smith said. “We will continue to be in communication.”
Asked if the state planned to exercise its authority to mandate training or appoint a special master, Smith declined to comment.
However, the attorney defending the state in the school-funding trial suggested to the judge why the state might be hesitant to intervene.
“There is nothing in evidence to suggest… that people would be particularly amendable to training,” said Joseph Rubin, assistant attorney general.
Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher summed up what such training could really mean for the local board.
“That’s a warning. That’s a precursor to a state takeover,” he said.
State involvement in Bridgeport is a sore spot for the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. During his first year in office, his education department and the State Board of Education kicked out the locally elected board and recruited a nationally prominent but controversial superintendent to head the troubled district. But the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled his administration had missed a critical step required by law before a takeover: providing training to the board so it has an opportunity to improve.
This is the second time since that ruling that the state department has rejected a request to intervene in Bridgeport. A complaint from the local teachers’ union in 2013 alleged that the superintendent at the time was shutting out teachers and parents by limiting the role of School Governance Councils in making budgetary, hiring and strategic decisions for the 21,000-student district.
In dismissing the request to intervene, the education department wrote to the leader of the Bridgeport Education Association, “First, you must show that you have exhausted your remedies at the local level.”
While the state has avoided appointing a board or special master to make management decisions for the city schools, state funding has been increasingly tied to Bridgeport’s implementing certain new programs.