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.