Private Donors For City Education

Baby, keep that moolah coming! Dramatic change in the structure of the city’s school system suggests private donors are more willing to get involved, according to this story by Shelly Banjo and Lisa Fleisher in the Wall Street Journal.

Wealthy donors have created a fund to pay the salary of a new Bridgeport school superintendent, ushering in hopes of a new era of private money for reform efforts in Connecticut’s most troubled school system.

City and school officials said the fund would be administered by the Fairfield County Community Foundation, a $150 million organization where Democratic Rep. Jim Himes and former Bridgeport mayoral hopeful Mary-Jane Foster serve as board members.

The Bridgeport Education Reform Fund was set up Thursday with pledges totaling about $400,000 from several anonymous donors, two days after the Bridgeport School Board appointed as interim school superintendent Paul Vallas, the former New Orleans schools chiefs and a national figure in education reform.

Mr. Vallas, who will serve a one-year contract, will have his $229,000 compensation paid through the fund, said Bridgeport School Board Chairman Robert Trefry.

Public-school districts across the country have seen an influx of private money in recent years as wealthy donors interested in improving public education have opened their pocketbooks to bankroll their ideas.

But donors had shunned Bridgeport’s schools, which had long been criticized as administratively dysfunctional and financially unsound.

The new fund was launched after Bridgeport and Connecticut officials took a series of steps desired by wealthy donors, including a state takeover of the school board in July and the firing of the former superintendent in October.

Mayor Bill Finch has tried to alter the city charter to gain control of the public school system, and Gov. Dannel Malloy this week outlined a schools platform steeped in the rhetoric of education reform.

Officials from the ZOOM Foundation, backed by hedge fund manager and philanthropist Steve Mandel, had urged state and city officials last summer to dissolve the Bridgeport school board and offered help with “education reform.” He declined to comment on the new fund.

Mr. Finch and others said they hope Mr. Vallas’s appointment spurs a flood of private money into Bridgeport schools, where 98% of public-school students come from families that earn less than 185% of the federal poverty level.

“We can’t blow this opportunity because this is our chance,” Mr. Finch said, adding he wants to raise $50 million for public schools over the next five years.

Private funding has drawn criticism from teachers unions and other skeptics who say it makes public schools less accountable to taxpayers.

Gary Peluchette, the president of the Bridgeport Education Association teachers union, said he was heartened by the positive reviews he’d heard about Mr. Vallas’s previous relationships with labor.

But he said the anonymity of the donations concerned him.

“Where is the money coming from? How did they earn this money? At least with public money, we know it comes from taxes,” Mr. Peluchette said.

Sallie Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the Fairfield County Community Foundation, said people have reasons to give anonymously.

“For some of them, it’s their spiritual belief to give anonymously. Some of them are very low-key people and don’t want anybody to know where their charitable interests lie,” Ms. Mitchell said. “Some people are quiet millionaires next door and really don’t want people to know that they have this amount of wealth.”

An advisory committee for the fund will make spending recommendations that will be reviewed and approved by the foundation’s board of directors, said Juanita James, president and CEO of the Fairfield County Community Foundation.

Mr. Vallas has built his reputation running large, beleaguered urban school districts such as Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans.

He was most recently called on to advise the Haitian government after the January 2010 earthquake.

Mr. Vallas said he initially started working with Bridgeport—a much smaller enrollment, with 20,000 students, than his previous districts—while helping an old friend, new State Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, get settled in his new job in September.

Three weeks ago, Mr. Vallas said he was approached about becoming superintendent and found out about the new fund a week ago.

He said he sees Bridgeport as a lab for educational change that could be replicated across the country.

“For all the big districts that get the attention, there’s dozens of other districts like Bridgeport … that are ignored,” he said. “They don’t always get the needed attention nor the needed help.”

He said he was not interested in how the fund will operate, except to the extent that it will pay transition expenses.

“Hopefully they’ll raise millions of dollars for the foundation to fund a number of initiatives,” he said.

At a $229,000 salary without travel allowances or other perks, Mr. Vallas said he would be taking a pay cut.

Mr. Vallas’s appointment came as an encouraging signal to longtime Bridgeport boosters who say they’ve struggled for years to attract support from corporate and private education funders in Fairfield County, the state’s wealthiest corner.

“Bridgeport, the largest city in the state, has been struggling to achieve at anything other than being that poor, urban city in Fairfield County, so people would say, ‘Why invest in Bridgeport?'” said David E. A. Carson, a founder of the Bridgeport Public Education Fund, a private foundation. “Even the state Legislature, which sends less money to Bridgeport than other urban districts like Hartford and New Haven, doesn’t trust sending money to Bridgeport schools.”

Whitney Tilson, the founder and managing partner of T2 Partners LLC and a prominent advocate of education reform efforts, said snagging a big name like Paul Vallas would help lure more private money to the city. “He’s probably more likely than a local candidate to draw the interest of—and financial support from—some of the big, big funders out there,” Mr. Tilson said.

Mr. Vallas faces significant challenges in the $282 million Bridgeport school system. It faces an $8 million budget gap, most of its classes are considered overcrowded by state and federal measures, and only 66% of its class of 2009 graduated from high school, compared with 91% statewide.

Mr. Vallas said he wanted to come up with a five-year financial blueprint, a plan to revamp the curriculum and education programs and recruit a superintendent to replace him.

“My plan is to be done within a year, and to have the budget balanced, to have the academic plan embraced and supported, and to have the next generation of leaders ready to drive the system forward,” he said.



  1. On the face of it, someone outside of Bridgeport cares about the education of youth in this city enough to write out checks to the Fairfield County Community Foundation (FCCF) for the benefit of the kids. $400,000 is not a number to sneeze at. So I guess the FCCF gets in touch with the City and offers the money towards what end??? It appears the City had no grants writers on board, and therefore no one requesting money based on a well-thought-out RFP. But the money came anyway … Isn’t that wonderful, seriously?

    But are there strings of any kind on the money of which we should be aware? Strings that pull one way or another??? Open, accountable and transparent, my OATs mantra???

    I have been a member of the Fairfield Rotary for years. That service organization has several ongoing programs that provide assistance to people in Bridgeport including school youth. But the largest service performed by people in Fairfield, and Danbury, and Enfield, and Groton for the taxpayers and youth in Bridgeport (and New Haven and Hartford) is the willingness to be paying about 80% of the operating costs for annual school budgets. Think about what the mil rate would be if State Educational Cost Sharing were not available.

    And if the operation of our own BOE is a mystery to many of us, think what it must seem like to serious taxpayers in other communities who pay for most or all of their own school systems and then see State income taxes in large amounts come to the largest cities. How do they get a say about results for dollars spent?

    So perhaps there are financially knowledgeable, serious-minded and philanthropic people out there who feel their dollars can support an acting Superintendent in Bridgeport who has set reform in motion in other troubled urban districts??? And FCCF is the conduit for tax-deductible generosity??? Welcome, I think. Could we have found a way to effect change through the vote of the elected representatives? Is the funding a one-time event or part of a larger plan? Who knows? Who will share?

    It is clear the Mayor is looking for additional Charter power over the local educational establishment by his words on the appointment of a Charter Review group. How do outsiders with funds feel about such a change??? Is it ever possible in Bridgeport to have a dialogue in full public view so pros and cons can be vetted before the contracts are signed, new law has been made and/or public outrage at municipal announcement and practices becomes palpable??? Resort to the courts takes time and is expensive and if too many items find their way to State courts and commissions, don’t you begin to wonder what outsiders think is going on in Bridgeport???

    Who are the Kings bringing gold to Bridgeport this year? Why are they here at this time? What bright star in the sky are they pursuing? Can the community get on the same page as an open and transparent new story unfolds with consequences and results where leaders are accountable? Time will tell.


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