School board leads reform

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- Photo by Esther Zuckerman.

At a talk in William L. Harkness Hall last Friday, an elderly audience member sitting toward the back of the room quizzed Garth Harries ’95, an assistant superintendent for New Haven’s public schools, on whether the city’s Board of Education thinks like Mayor John DeStefano Jr.

The man, wearing wide glasses, said it was a “problem” that the mayor appointed all the board members. Harries, a former New York consultant hired over the summer by the city, countered: “I’m an unabashed supporter of mayoral control in public schools.”

The passage of a landmark teachers’ union contract in October created reform committees comprised of teachers, parents and administrators to figure out the nitty-gritty of the city’s reform plans. Ultimately, the Board of Education must approve these recommendations. But whether the board will simply follow DeStefano’s vision is still to be determined. Although board members say they will independently review the proposals, the president of the teachers’ union, David Cicarella, said the board will not defy the mayor.

THE MAYOR’S VISION

DeStefano said he started to think about comprehensive school reform in the summer of 2008, when he was nearing the end of a billion-dollar-plus school construction program, in which all New Haven public schools were either renovated or rebuilt.

But though Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez said he always assumed at the time that comprehensive reform would follow construction, the mayor said he did not have that in mind.

Still, DeStefano said while reflecting on the construction program and other previous education initiatives, “We weren’t getting the kind of dramatic results we hoped for.”

In spring 2009, a few months before the teachers’ union contract negotiations, Cicarella got a call from the mayor. But at the time, the union president knew his constituents would not be willing to do whatever the mayor wanted. DeStefano was “going to have to work with us,” Cicarella said.

Meanwhile, a chorus of teachers and administrators said they wanted to be included in DeStefano’s quest for school reform, the mayor said. And Larry Fox, a consultant employed by the city in the spring to help bring about negotiations of the teachers’ union contract, encouraged DeStefano to work with Cicarella.

After six months of negotiations with City Hall, the union overwhelmingly ratified the contract in October, and it was easily approved by the Board of Aldermen the following month.

Now the reform process will soon land in the hands of the board.

New Haven’s Board of Education consists of seven members appointed by the mayor, and the mayor himself is the eighth. An appointed Board of Education is rare, board member Michael Nast said; New Haven has the only fully appointed board left in Connecticut, said Thomas Murphy, the Connecticut State Department of Education spokesman.

Board member Elizabeth Torres, who has two children in the New Haven public school system, said the board is “struggling” with how to tackle reform. Currently, the board has two committees that meet twice a month: the curriculum and administration and finance committees. Although Board of Education President Carlos Torre said some members of the board discussed adding a separate committee to discuss reform plans, the board decided at a meeting last week to keep its committee structure as is for now.

Both DeStefano and board member Alex Johnston, chief executive officer of the education reform organization Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, expressed anxiety over the work that needs to be done in the coming six to eight weeks. The board is expected to make a decision on the criteria for evaluating schools based on student performance by Feb. 22.

‘NOT A DICTATORSHIP’

Harries said the central office that runs the 44 schools across the city will critique the committees’ reform recommendations once they are presented to the board. But the assistant superintendent added that he expects the eight-member group to question these proposals.

Still, Cicarella said, the board is “the mayor’s thing.” He added, however, that in the case of school reform, which involves collaboration between the union and mayor, the control is a good thing.

Mayoral control of education reform has been hailed by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Jeanne Allen, the president of the national Center for Education Reform in Washington, D.C. Duncan wrote in an October article for the American School Board Journal that while elected boards do not cause school systems to fail, they are often run by the interests of board members.

DeStefano said he tried to appoint board members with diverse opinions. Board members range from Selase Williams, the provost of Southern Connecticut State University, to Torres, who works with community housing in New Haven.

“I would say it’s less an issue of conflict than an issue of a complimentary and nuanced understanding of the issues of school change,” DeStefano said. “Not antagonistic. Different points of view.”

Although Williams said the board will listen to the mayor, he added that the mayor has also listened to the opinions of others on the board.

“It’s not a dictatorship,” Williams said. “It’s his vision to reform the school district, so I think we’re all on board with him on that. … I think we’re all supportive of him on this. I’m sure we’re going to have disagreement.”

But what if the board disagrees with the committees’ recommendations? Two board members interviewed, including Johnston, said they are not exactly sure what will happen. Torre said public hearings may help.

“We can send it back. We can make recommendations. The public can make recommendations,” Torre said. “We’re looking for good ideas and good processes wherever they are.”

But, Torre said that if they cannot come to an agreement, they will have to send the proposals back to the committees.

And, still, DeStefano has a vision of his own for school reform, one that includes acquiring money from a federal government that may not immediately provide it.

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