No apple for the commissioner?

The Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents is an outfit that probably doesn’t come up very often in idle conversations around the dinner table — in fact, most people probably have never heard of it. Nevertheless, a recent conflict within that organization could have an impact on our schools, and therefore on families all across the state.

The main issue seems to be that there are widely differing views, among superintendents, of the job performance, the management style and even the competence of Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor.

First the legislative committee of CAPSS wrote a seven-page “letter of complaint” that was highly critical of Pryor, saying that he leads a department “still largely in disarray,” that the department treats local school officials badly, is lousy at communication, is more interested in what politicians (especially the governor) think than in listening to local educators, and generally that Pryor is not up to the job of leading education reform in Connecticut.

Then that draft statement — which was never supposed to go public, because it was not the official position of the CAPSS board — was reported both in published news accounts and, at great length, by former legislator Jonathan Pelto in his popular “Wait, What?” blog.

Then CAPSS Executive Director and former Wallingford School Superintendent Joseph Cirasuolo issued a statement supporting Pryor and regretting that the committee’s criticisms might cause an erroneous impression of the association’s position. The draft statement “does not reflect the concerns of all superintendents by any means,” Cirasuolo said. “We support the commissioner ...” He also deplored the alarmist tone of parts of the memo.

Then Meriden School Superintendent Mark Benigni resigned from the legislative committee (though not from the association), expressing regret at how the episode was handled. “That’s not how I would want to be treated,” he said of the complaints against Pryor and the department. (It is only fair to observe here that the Meriden system has received considerable funding from the present state administration for reform-oriented programs, but other urban superintendents, including those from New Haven and Hartford, also were supportive of Pryor.)

The allegations about his leadership are certainly serious, and they come at a time when there’s a lot going on in school reform in Connecticut — what with new curricula, a new teacher evaluation process, more state intervention in the worst-performing districts, and initiatives to bring full-day kindergarten and an extended school day to many districts — so to see such dissention in the educational ranks now is a particularly troubling development.

Pryor expressed gratitude for the CAPSS board’s “unanimous statement of support,” called the superintendents “pivotal partners” and declared that the reform process, though “complex and challenging” at times, “is vital for the success of our students and our state.” For their part, the dissenting superintendents who wrote the troublesome memo also had a few bouquets to toss Pryor’s way, calling him “extremely intelligent” and “extremely dedicated.”

But so much for making nice: As far as Pelto is concerned, this episode “is a sad reminder about just how out of touch some governmental leaders are” and “just how thin-skinned the Malloy operation has become ...”

There’s certainly a place for decorum in conducting the people’s business, and personal enmity is unlikely to help matters. But let’s remember that these are public schools we’re talking about, supported by public funds — in fact, education accounts for the bulk of the budget in every municipality in our state — and that everyone involved is on the public payroll. So, if there’s a serious problem here, the public has every right to be concerned.



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