This story was updated at 6:40 p.m.
The State Board of Education voted six to one Thursday to endorse Gov. Ned Lamont’s selection of Miguel Cardona, Meriden’s assistant superintendent, as the state’s next education commission.
The vote came after a sometimes-heated discussion — all held over a conference call — as board member Don Harris questioned why the governor’s chief operating officer offered the job to Bloomfield Superintendent James Thompson in a letter on July 8 and then switched to Cardona just days before the board vote.
Cardona, who is 44 and will earn $192,500, has a doctorate in education from the Neag School of Education at UConn and a Bachelor’s from Central Connecticut State University. He will begin serving as commissioner-designate on Aug. 7.
Cardona is bilingual and will be the state’s first Latino state education commissioner.
“For more than two decades, Dr. Cardona has dedicated his career to the students of Meriden, where he was himself born, raised, and educated,” Lamont said. “He firmly understands the challenges many of our urban areas face. I look forward to working with him over the coming years so we can fix some of these inequities and collaborate with educators, parents, and community leaders on providing the best outcomes for our schools and our children.”
In a statement Thursday, Cardona called the nomination an “honor” and expressed optimism about improving Connecticut’s schools.
“Through a collective effort between everyone who has involvement in our schools, I believe we can make a positive impact on graduation rates, further close achievement gaps, and ensure that all students have increased access to the opportunities and advantages they need to achieve success in life,” Cardona said.
The board’s endorsement of Cardona was somewhat overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the process, however.
Before the vote was taken, Harris — who is also chairman of the Bloomfield Board of Education and was the one no vote Thursday — asked why Lamont switched from Thompson to Cardona so suddenly.
“I would just like to know, does anybody know what happened?” Harris asked.
Paul Mounds, Lamont’s chief operating officer and the governor’s liaison to the State Board of Education, said that the July 8 offer letter started a discussion about salary and other issues that the governor’s office and Thompson could not come to an agreement on.
Mounds said Thompson wanted more than than the $192,500 offered in the letter, and that he wanted to bring in five additional staff members, which the state could not afford. This prompted a testy exchange between Harris and Mounds.
“I’m sorry to have to say this, but I don’t believe what you’re saying is accurate,” Harris replied. “I have had personal conversations with Dr. Thompson. He denies emphatically what you are stating …”
“Mr. Harris, I can understand why you would be very much in favor of this candidate for office … for a lot of reasons,” Mounds said, “but … this became what was best for the taxpayers of Connecticut.”
Harris countered, “Don’t you believe that you could have done this in a better way without humiliating someone in a very disrespectful manner?”
Mounds started to reply and Harris said, “If it was your intention not to take him forward, you could have cut this off a lot earlier. This process has been going on for a long time …”
Mounds responded, “This day should be about Miguel Cardona. I will say that much. Second of all, I would say that the candidate you are in favor of was provided an offer letter on a Monday. He did not accept it because of the salary.”
The salary request together with Thompson’s desire to bring on more staff made it “impossible for the state of Connecticut to reach those terms,” Mounds said.
Mounds later supplied an email from Thompson dated July 11 that said, “Please take note that I accept this offer contingent upon a successful negotiation of compensation.”
Thompson issued a statement Thursday afternoon through his spokesman, Stan Simpson, that congratulated Cardona and acknowledged the controversy created by the Lamont’s administration’s handling of the selection process.
“Dr. Thompson wishes Dr. Cardona well in his new role as Education Commissioner. Dr. Thompson also wants to acknowledge the dozens of calls, texts and emails from supporters around the state who expressed their befuddlement about this process” the statement said. “Dr. Thompson wishes the Governor and his administration well. He has come to accept that they have an unusual approach to conducting state business.’’
Simpson also said that Thompson “was negotiable on his salary. And though he did have plans to bring in some of his people – as any new leader would do – he had no plans to increase the department’s operating budget. There are several current vacancies in the department that he planned to strategically utilize.”
Thompson’s total annual compensation package in Bloomfield is $223,216, including a base salary of $143,716, a $55,000 contribution to a retirement fund, and a $24,500 contribution to an IRA-related fund.
During the conference call, several board members spoke out in support of Cardona.
Malia Sieve, said she is “really looking forward to him bringing the passion that he clearly articulated during the interview … I was very impressed with him and I look forward to working with him.”
Rep. Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford and a member of the legislature’s education committee, said, while it is “unfortunate the process played out as it did,” it is “now time that we collectively congratulate and provide the necessary support for Dr. Cardona as he transitions into one of the most critical roles within our state. With a track record of putting learners of all ages first, I look forward to working with Dr. Cardona to ensure that Connecticut provides a high quality learning experience for every child, every day.”
Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, a former ranking member of the education committee and a ranking member of the appropriations committee, however, struck a more critical tone, saying she is “absolutely appalled at the process” used to make the appointment.
Lavielle said, as she understood it, the governor wrongly believed in January that he could simply appoint the education commissioner with legislative confirmation — as he does with other commissioners. However, state statute requires the involvement of the State Board of Education in the appointment of an education commissioner.
Simpson said Thompson was “twice offered the job as education commissioner by Gov. Lamont. The first time was in January.”
Mounds insists this is not the case. The governor told Thompson that he was the preferred candidate in January, Mounds said, but that any appointment would require a recommendation from the State Board of Education.
“It’s so amateurish,” Lavielle said, adding that this week’s developments make Lamont “look even more unfamiliar with the process and the state Board of Education.
“That’s bad enough, but what makes this even worse is that these continual fits and starts postpone any serious effort to deal with Connecticut’s pressing education issues,” Lavielle said. “As in other areas, like transportation and economic development, the administration appears adrift.”
Cardona was on the list of three finalists who were forwarded to the governor by the board at the end of June. Those finalists included Thompson, who was the governor’s preferred candidate as early as January, Cardona, and Wallingford Superintendent Sal Menzo.
Mounds said that when terms could not be agreed upon with Thompson, the governor’s office moved on to Cardona, who he said readily accepted the $192,500 salary.
While Cardona was the governor’s pick, Thursday’s action by the board meets the requirements of state statute that says the board must make a formal recommendation of a candidate for commissioner to the governor.
Lamont will now nominate Cardona to be confirmed in the legislature.
Starting his career 21 years ago as a fourth grade elementary school teacher in Meriden, Cardona climbed the ladder from teacher to principal to his appointment in 2015 as assistant superintendent. In that position, he oversees the instruction, teaching, leadership development, and evaluation and curriculum for the district’s 9,000 students.
He is also an adjunct professor at UConn where he teaches courses on leadership, ranging from school improvement to culture and climate.
Cardona comes with high praise from his colleagues. Mark Benigni, who as Meriden superintendent has worked closely with Cardona for many years said, “He’s a terrific leader and been an exceptional partner in the work in Meriden and I know he will do a great job at the state.”
Benigni said Cardona was an exceptional principal at Hanover Elementary School and was named principal of the year in Connecticut in 2012.
Cardona has two children who attend Meriden public schools.