State-appointed school board doing its best to institutionalize changes

BRIDGEPORT —The state-appointed school board voted Monday to extend the contract of Interim School Superintendent Paul Vallas through the 2012-13 school year.

But that’s not all.

During a meeting that started at 6 and didn’t end until about 10:30 p.m. The board also took the following actions before a crowd of about 100 people:

* agreed to accept the state’s offer to give the district a $3.5 million forgivable loan in exchange for giving the state Commissioner of Education the right to approve finalists for superintendent once Vallas leads. Carmen Lopez, a retired judge, told the board the deal amounted to legalized extortion. Board member Hernan Illingworth, who has a daughter at Central High School, said no way was he going to turn down the $3.5 million the district needs to seal the last of its 2011-12 budget deficit for conditions he didn’t think were “so bad.”

*  approved of the administration’s plan to offer Curiale School as an applicant for the Commissioner’s Network. If selected, the school will get new money and state intervention.

* announced it had reached a deal to keep the University School in business, at least as a special education provider. Terms were not immediately available. Vallas said the school still won’t get alternative education students next year.

* approved a deal with RYASAP to establish centers in the city high schools to “assist” guidance counselors. He said private funding would be sought to help pay for it.  Illingworth told Vallas wants to make sure the new program works with counselors and doesn’t compete with them.

* learned that Vallas is bringing back the drug prevention program that was cut at Central High School more than a year ago. It reportedly will be restarted at all three high schools in the fall.

* formally approved a Financial Oversight Committee which will meet quarterly to provide audit services to the finance committee of the board.  Participants will include Paul Timpanelli, president of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, and others. Board member Jacqueline Kelleher called it a quality assurance measure.

The decision to extend Vallas’ contract came after the board listened to nearly two dozen speakers, some who want Vallas to stay even longer and others who said the district would be better off without him.

Here is a sample: Parent James Cloud asked people to remember where the district was a year ago when dozen of teachers, social workers and guidance counselors were threatened to be cut. “For the first time I feel we are trying to make progress,” said Cloud, who credited Vallas with putting textbooks back in the school.

Ann Trapasso, a Central High School English teacher, however, called this not the best year for her students, particularly with a year end test forced upon the district that she said eliminated the time for year end projects. And Judy Roneson, another Central teacher, said the district is shutting down teacher voices.

“I want him to be here,” countered Olga Disby, who said Vallas has provided a vision for the district but needs to remain here to make sure it happens.

District PAC President Korene Garcia said because of Vallas, classes didn’t have to combine and social workers weren’t cut. Those were very sad options, she said..

Others questioned some of the contracts Vallas has entered into, including a $10.8 million contract for textbooks, and a two-year agreement to change the software used to place and bill for special education students.

George Mintz urged the board to check out the districts Vallas previously led in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans and find out if the students there are doing well today.

Board Chairman Robert Trefry, who will give up the seat in two months when an elected board is restored to the city under court order, said the extension was made to provide the district stability. He wanted to extend the contract longer. Vallas has said he will only finish out the 2012-2013 school year. His current contract ends January 1, 2013.

Under the agreement he will make the same daily rate. The only change is that he must give the district 60 days notice before he leaves. The old contract did not require him to give notice.

Vallas came to the district at the behest of Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor to help fix the district gaping budget deficit and develop a plan to improve the state’s lowest performing schools

Vallas defended is record in the city, telling the board he is please with how fast he has been able to bring his initiatives to scale such as his efforts to seal the budget deficit and a deal that will allow qualified students to take courses at area colleges. Like it or not, he said, the curriculum has to be aligned to the common core of curriculum being developed and the test will help the district determine just how far city students are behind. He also said he has used Public Consulting Group in Chicago and Philadelphia to help him collect Medicaid reimbursements, with “spectacular success.” Under that deal, the company is getting $18,000 a year and a 15 percent commission on medicaid reimbursements.

Vallas said anyone who think private investment in education will result in profits “doesn’t have their head on straight.”

“The community needs to know there is not a conspiracy,” said Kenneth Moales, a member of the state-appointed school board to the notion that all the reform efforts are an effort to give the corporate world access to the district resources.

Linda Lambeck