State education commissioner visits Windham
By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Windham - posted Tue., Apr. 12, 2011
There were a lot of opinions expressed during the April 11 meeting of the Windham Board of Education, and a lot of emotions palpable in the room. The meeting, held in the Windham High School Auditorium, was rescheduled from April 12 to allow for the appearance of Acting State Department of Education Commissioner George Coleman.
On April 6, Coleman announced that he was appointing a “special master” and two assistants to intervene in the district. The special master would have authority to deal with staff, budgets, administrators and the district’s improvement plan. But the announcement left a lot of questions, chief among them the scope of the authority of the special master. The April 11 meeting was the first attempt to allow Windham residents to have some of their questions answered.
Sitting on the auditorium stage were members of the Windham Board of Education, state Sen. Donald Williams (D-29th District), and state Rep. Susan Johnson (D-49th District). At the center of the group was Coleman, who gave an overview of the state’s position.
The chief concern in Windham, said Coleman, is declining test scores within the district. Most disturbing was a downward trend among the highest-performing students. “As a result of the last assessment cycle, we witnessed conditions that necessitated such action,” said Coleman.
The “special master” approach was described by Coleman as a less-invasive attempt to right the wrongs within a district than allowed for by existing legislation. Coleman admitted that the details of the new approach were still being worked out in the legislature. But the goal of the intervention was clear - to close the achievement gap in the district, and reverse the downward trend of all learners. “Our expectation is that we want to do this in collaboration,” said Coleman. “We will test the limits of the law in order to make a difference for this city’s children.”
“We are largely concerned about the [district] plan,” said Coleman. “We preserve the prerogative to redo the plan.” He suggested that the approach would reach beyond the school itself to the community at large and “require greater participation of parents.” A successful educational experience, he said, requires student who are in school and properly prepared to learn. Coleman suggested they would identify families “where these things are obstacles and assist families to make changes.”
A question-and-answer session after Coleman’s presentation revealed a variety of different emotions and opinions. There was some anger. “What took you so long?” asked resident Peter Quercia. There was some blame, with one mother standing up to suggest that Windham High School was not properly supervising her daughter. Others suggested that the problem lay in incoming families who did not speak English as their primary language. Still others felt that the town needed more Latino representation among its administrators, its Board of Education and its teaching staff.
Coleman repeatedly reminded people that blame would get them nowhere, and that it would require a collaborative approach to make positive changes in town.
A frequent topic was the system of educational funding in Connecticut. Coleman deflected this issue to Williams. “We do fund education through a mish-mash of sources,” said Williams.
Williams said that a top priority was to move away from legislation that would make matters worse for towns like Windham, suggesting that some legislators were proposing measures that would take more money away from poorer urban areas and move it into the suburbs. “In the short term, we have to make sure we don’t take a step backwards,” said Williams. In the long term, he added, the goal should be to move away from funding education through property taxes.
Windham Board of Finance Chair Barbara McGrath asked for assistance with the budgeting process. Reminding Coleman that it took the town five referendums to pass the budget for the 2010-2011 fiscal year, McGrath suggested that each referendum leads to a chipping away at the education budget. She told Coleman that the town had passed zero-increase budgets for two years, with a very small increase for 2010-2011, resulting in a consistent loss of educational resources. “That’s one of the reasons that you’re here,” said McGrath. “We’ve been stepping on the air hose.” McGrath asked for any additional funding the state could provide, as well as any assistance it could provide in getting this year’s municipal budget passed more smoothly.
While Coleman sat through two hours of questions and answers and did his best to address residents’ concerns, there were clearly still many unanswered questions about the state intervention in Windham Public Schools. Williams has pledged to arrange another public forum, the details of which are still to be determined.