State Education Chief On Forgivable School Loan: ‘How Do We Ensure The Conditions Are Reasonable?’

A story by Linda Conner Lambeck of the CT Post covers state officials’ perspective on providing safeguards for the $3.5 million forgivable loan to the Board of Education. State Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor would have veto power over selection of the school chief. Some have called this a power grab. But isn’t it reasonable for the state to have an interest in its investment? Why all the hullabaloo?

HARTFORD — The goals behind the unprecedented $3.5 million legislative bailout of city schools were to make it fair, legal and something other districts wouldn’t be lining up to get, state officials said Wednesday.

After months of behind-the-scenes negotiations between city and state officials, the Legislature on Tuesday agreed to give the district funds necessary to seal a 2011-12 budget deficit that a year ago stood at more than $16 million. The district will now end the fiscal year balanced and will get pieces of the loan “forgiven” for each of the next three years as long as it agrees to conditions set in the legislation.

In exchange for the forgivable loan, the district has to give the state commissioner of education veto power over its selection of a school superintendent and chief financial officer. In addition, it may require the district to go beyond the improvement plan requirements of the state’s newly formed Alliance District, a collection of the state’s 30 lowest performing districts.

“Don’t overread that,” Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor said Wednesday. “The question arose: How do we ensure the conditions are reasonable? It is meant to say we are going to pay special attention to (Bridgeport’s) application.”

Pryor said asking the district to do more may mean asking it to be more specific in the ways it will work to improve student achievement and to pay special attention to the staff it recruits.

During bailout discussions, there were concerns expressed that other districts facing budget problems might seek similar aid, Pryor said. The idea behind the added conditions was to make it not easily attainable, he said.

Pryor said the power he now has over the school superintendent selection, once Interim School Superintendent Paul Vallas leaves, is to pick from a short list of candidates selected by the local school board. He said there could also be a collaborative process in the selection of finalists.

The bailout deal is a pared-down version of conditions crafted last fall after the state replaced the school board with one picked by the state and was asked to help solve the district’s budget shortfall. The state Supreme Court has since ruled that the board replacement was illegal and an elected board will return in September.

According to Pryor, there were several versions of the deal and potential conditions, many of which became moot when the state’s new education reform package was adopted last month. That package gives Pryor and the state Department of Education broad control over how the state’s lowest performing school districts spend new state grant money.

Ben Barnes, secretary of the state Office of Policy and Management, said Wednesday the deal was something that had to happen.

“It was the morally right thing to do,” he said. “I think it was something that had to happen. Now I hope Bridgeport can see some progress.”

Barnes knows personally of the district’s financial constraints, having served as the district’s interim finance director for much of 2010 before being tapped for the Malloy administration. Pryor said Barnes was instrumental in making the deal come together.

Although there was intense pressure to finalize the deal sooner, Barnes said there was uncertainty over the state’s legal authority to give the district more money without legislative approval. According to Barnes, such a bailout had never been done before. “I am enormously relieved we now have a statutory basis (for the loan),” said Barnes.

Adam Wood, chief of staff for Mayor Bill Finch, said Pryor’s involvement in the selection of the next superintendent is a positive thing. “The bottom line is that we have not seen progress in the district in decades. Commissioner Pryor helped us attract a Paul Vallas, who is doing all he can to make positive changes in the district, so his track record so far is good,” said Wood.

Wood added that the city also contributed more to the district as a condition of the loan by agreeing to pick up the cost of crossing guards, security and other expenses.

Robert Trefry, chairman of the state-appointed school board, said he hasn’t seen the language that passed, but is pleased that it did.

Unlike Mary Loftus Levine, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, Trefry does not consider the conditions to be a power grab by the state. Levine said Tuesday the district was being forced to give up its autonomy for a few million dollars. She called it undemocratic.

Trefry disagreed. “I know the delegation worked hard for it and that it had the support of the governor and administration,” he said.

The board, which has several special meetings scheduled this summer before it is replaced, will take up the loan acceptance when it meets on June 25.



  1. The Finch Administration is rudderless, $3.5 Million to close the BOE gap.
    What was the Mayor’s favorite quote? “Don’t ask me to fix the BOE without the tools to do it.”
    Now he ready to give it all away, so he can blame someone else for his shortcomings.
    Give me a break, the BOE can easily find $3.5M in its coffers, just ask Paul Timpanelli.

  2. $3.5 Million from the State as a loan to fund a 2012 BOE deficit is the subject? Is there an opportunity to pay the loan back that would eliminate the State control? Anyone know? I have missed seeing that question asked in the dialogue.

    $3.5 Million is about 1% of the money spent by the Bridgeport School System from State ECS, local property tax, and other funds/grants from Federal and State. Wasn’t Vallas making contingency plans for the failure of this money to show up? Haven’t some of those been activated? Will they provide desired savings that can be used to repay the 2012 money? Would you sell your right to local control for 1%? Would you ask for financial reporting that covers all City general budget as well as grants budgets?

    Can anybody track these results? NOT WITHOUT PUBLIC REPORTS AND THE CITY FAILS THE PUBLIC WHEN IT DOES NOT PROVIDE THE MONTHLY REPORTS REQUIRED OF THE MAYOR BY THE CITY CHARTER! Is anybody calling the Mayor to task? Is anybody talking to their Council rep about it? The Council representatives are supposed to be our final check and balance on fiscal affairs. Instead they are the only watchdog and they are not performing as such. Will you ask them to be diligent? Ask them whether they intend to run again in the 2013 election? Might that raise their performance level? It couldn’t hurt. Time will tell.

  3. Bridgeport residents lost forever the right to vote for BOE? What’s next, state-appointed city mayor and city council members? Who needs democracy anymore, right? So much for the trillions in dollars taxpayers pay for Obama’s wars around the world to show how democracy is a better system while we are denied it at home.

    But really, what is the thinking? Instead of acting on good info and increase transparency after a couple BOE members pointed out waste, they called them dysfunctional and Hartford seized control! Then pushed back BOE elections until September, and now cancels them for 1% dollar amount of the budget. I saw a CT Post story saying the current board says they want Vallas to continue. No mention of city residents.

    Who do I call to get the handouts from all the Vallas BOE meetings? I attended one recently and it was interesting to see all these topics discussed. There were only three members of the public there. Like major issues and changes and hardly anyone there. There were some good ideas being discussed too, but why can’t we in Bridgeport participate? Even just one local person? These board members commuting from Hartford to make decisions for us folks here in Bridgeport who can’t govern ourselves. Was more transparency included in the goals of the current board? I am sure these handouts are online somewhere for all to see. Right?

  4. It’s the state’s money. Of course they are involved. Three years is a long time. That should see out the current term of the Finch administration.

    Can any of you guys imagine what kind of political issue this will be in the next mayoral election?

    1. Jim,
      I only wish I had your confidence that this will be an issue in the next mayoral election. My fear is it won’t be. Bridgeport voters have very short-term memories!
      We must keep it alive and in the press. If not it will be long forgotten.

  5. I am not suggesting we give up City governance and turn things over to the State, or put things in such a perilous position that they end up there. In the last quarter century, the City financial position became so perilous, a State guarantee along with a Finance Review Board was required; a Mayor collaborated with powers at State to buy time to ignore sufficient pension funding (by deferral) and later lost local control of that; and that same Mayor planned for the BOE resignation and State appointment fiasco; and has gone back for more funds for the BOE. And this Mayor is ACCOUNTABLE? For what? To whom?

    Tonight the City Council gets to review the Charter. Let’s see whether they have read the document and what they have to say about ALL of the changes wrought by the CRC. And let’s further see whether they have any amendments, deletions, revisions they wish to suggest at this point? Time will certainly tell.

  6. Sorry to add what I neglected to mention above.

    I have had the opportunity to speak with State of CT Office of Policy Management people this year and gain answers to questions, directions for further research and informal assistance. I have been basically impressed. You can get answers to questions about governance without a Freedom of Information letter? What a concept.

    I also had the opportunity to talk to State audit staff. They have internal auditors and do regular checking of numerous situations, and we don’t do that in the City of Bridgeport. But here’s the intriguing fact. The State seems to have Democrat auditors and Republican auditors or at least senior personnel who have such bi-partisan reputation and status. If anyone knows more, share with us.

    What really impressed me was that auditors are people too! And as people, they have interests, and people who have interests sometime run into conflicts of those interests with other interests. (Now those of us in Bridgeport know we do not experience those types of human conflicts in Bridgeport, because …) And the Legislature must have decided auditing public functions is important enough to have more than one ear open to listen to complaints or questions from the public. And later to pursue what looks like a target for inspection.

    Anyone want to talk to CRC or CC about establishing/restoring Internal Audit function in the City of Bridgeport? Time will tell.

  7. JML, please read the facts before asking the endless stream of questions.
    1) It is a forgivable loan spread over three years. If you don’t like the terms ignore them. Then the state will require that it be paid back. Otherwise, it becomes a grant.
    2) As to your comments about 1% of the budget, well Paul Vallas is your boy not mine. I think he is nothing but a thievin’ politician. Of course you can cover 1% of the budget but that would mean your boy can’t be spending millions on new curriculum and new software packages.
    3) Will JML finally get it and see what Paul Vallas is all about??? Time will tell …

  8. *** $3.5 million loan in itself makes it quite reasonable for the State to have an interest in its investment, no? Besides could the State’s Educational Commissioner’s temporary input be worse than what the city of Bpt has endured the past 30 years from its voter-elected BOE? Just the fact that Bpt’s school system is known for spending money like drunken sailors on 48-hour liberty is reason enough! *** You can’t always have your cake and eat it too! ***


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