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Parents On Search Committee For Hartford School Superintendent Frustrated By Mayor's Intervention

Vanessa De La Torre

February 24, 2011

After the whiplash of Tuesday's superintendent search upheaval, Milly Arciniegas and Precious Ross-Ellis each stewed in a common frustration.

They were the two parent representatives on the board of education's committee to find a successor to Steven Adamowski. The panel had recommended Assistant Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, and on Tuesday evening the board was set to appoint her as the next schools chief. About 50 parents planned to witness the vote.

Then, with three hours to go, Mayor Pedro Segarra held a city hall press conference to slam the selection process and call for a national search. The board canceled its meeting. Kishimoto deemed it "a slap in the face."

Arciniegas and Ross-Ellis said they felt swung back to a time when dysfunction crippled the school system.

"It's all about power," Arciniegas said Wednesday. "Not even about the kids. It's all about people throwing their weight around."

"I thought it was important for the job to be completed," Ross-Ellis said, referring to Adamowski's reform plans. Kishimoto, a top deputy, pledged to continue the reforms over the long term.

"All these years we were going back and forth, back and forth, without any stability," said Ross-Ellis, the president of the parent-teacher organization at Weaver High School. "Stability is what I was looking for."

On Wednesday, a day of damage control, school board Chairman David MacDonald said the 13-member search committee would meet within a week to consider Segarra's request for a national search, and then make a final recommendation to the board.

MacDonald also made a point of criticizing Segarra's timing "He has really upended the whole process and put the district in a very difficult position" and said the mayor's "actions are risking the reform we worked so hard to create here."

In October, the board approved a leadership succession policy, discussed since last summer, in which a national search would begin only if the committee did not recommend a candidate within the school system.

The last time the board conducted a national search in 2006 for Adamowski the cost was $71,757.66, according to the district's figures.

But at his press conference Tuesday, and in later interviews, Segarra said the selection process had been flawed.

Only two candidates, Kishimoto and Tim Sullivan, the principal of Greater Hartford Classical Magnet School, were interviewed. Segarra said others told them that they would have applied, but they were "fearful" that they would be "getting in the way" of Adamowski and the board's perceived favorite: Kishimoto.

Segarra said Wednesday that a few people in the community had also told him that the school system's spokesman, David Medina, had lobbied for their support of Kishimoto. The mayor appeared to be referring to a WNPR report in which Elizabeth Horton Sheff, the school activist, said that she had been contacted by Medina and considered it inappropriate.

Both Ross-Ellis and Arciniegas, president of the Hartford Parent Organization Council, were adamant that their decision to pick Kishimoto was their own and not influenced by outside forces.

And Arciniegas said that Horton Sheff who did not return a request for comment Wednesday had, in fact, called her to lobby for Sullivan and warned that if Arciniegas went with Kishimoto, a parent-led school initiative called Parent University "would not come to if she had anything to do with it."

"Scare tactics," Arciniegas said. "It's crazy. Crazy. Those days are over."

Segarra's short-circuiting of the superintendent selection process is the most recent entry in a long history of turbulence in the city school system.

More recently, the city's contract with a private company, Education Alternatives Inc., to run the schools from 1994 to 1996 ended prematurely and was uniformly panned as a disaster. Patricia Daniel, a superintendent hired in 1997, was fired in May 1998. Anthony Amato was then hired in February 1999 to lead the schools. His successor, Robert Henry, took over in 2002 but quit in 2006 following tension with then-Mayor Eddie A. Perez.

Jim Starr, executive director of the education reform group Achieve Hartford!, said the schools have made significant strides during Adamowski's tenure, raising test scores through a five-year reform plan that he presumed until Segarra's press conference, anyway would be extended under Kishimoto.

The mayor had "several opportunities to weigh in. To do so at the eleventh hour is really disappointing," Starr said. "At best, it sends an external message of confusion and lack of leadership, and at worst it's damaging to reform and the great progress to date."

Kishimoto, who said Tuesday that she was "pretty disgusted" by the abrupt turn of events, declined to comment again until a final decision is made on whether the board will pursue a national search.

Adamowski declined to comment Wednesday. He plans to retire this summer.

Ross-Ellis said she would have preferred having more than two internal candidates to interview. But she was comfortable with her recommendation, and resented that the search process had dissolved into city infighting. "We're not competing against Glastonbury or Avon. We're competing against each other."

"People are talking negatively about our school system," Ross-Ellis said. "I'm tired of it."

It's possible that some disagreements could continue through the next year.

The city charter gives the mayor the authority to appoint five members to the nine-person board of education. Many of the board's current appointed members were chosen by Perez, and their terms expire at the end of the year, Segarra said.

Segarra noted Tuesday that should he win election in November, he would get to make those five appointments in January.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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