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Day After Harsh Words With Superintendent, Hartford School Board Issues A Critical Job Review

By VANESSA DE LA TORRE

September 26, 2012

HARTFORD The day after lambasting Superintendent Christina Kishimoto in front of students at a public meeting, the board of education on Wednesday released an annual performance review that was largely critical of the schools chief.

Board Chairman Matthew Poland said the board has not asked Kishimoto to resign "by any means," but that effort is needed to resolve their persistent problems over communication.

"The board will really like this to work," Poland said Wednesday. "Can we do this together? That's not a unilateral decision. On both sides there needs to be a plan on how we're going to work together for the benefit of the district and for reform. And I think that's doable."

In a letter e-mailed Wednesday to Poland that was copied to her lawyer, John Droney, Kishimoto wrote, "I will not engage in political debate with board members.

"My duty, my sole concern, is for the academic and career success of our Hartford school children and youth."

Kishimoto also pledged in the letter to take steps immediately to improve communication, including advising board members monthly of upcoming contracts and arranging one-on-one meetings with the board.

"It is my hope that we can move forward with our student-centered work," Kishimoto wrote. She could not be reached for further comment.

The board's relationship with Kishimoto, who has been superintendent for 15 months, appeared to implode Tuesday before a unanimous vote approving a $100,000 contract with the College Board that will provide free, in-class SAT testing to city students. The board originally rejected the one-year agreement last week, citing a lack of details about it.

Since February, when five new members joined the nine-person board as mayoral appointees, including Mayor Pedro Segarra, himself, the board has complained about receiving scant information from Kishimoto to make important decisions.

At the first regular meeting of their four-year terms, for example, the board tabled a vote on a proposed contract for Hartford to manage the Great Path Academy magnet high school at Manchester Community College. School officials were in a huff, but ultimately provided information such as enrollment figures, and the five-year contract was approved at a special meeting in early March.

Before the board majority changed, Kishimoto had pushed initiatives through with relative ease.

Tension thickened when the board rejected the College Board contract. Hartford seniors who were prepared to take the SAT during the school day Oct. 17 had to rush to sign up by Monday for the Oct. 6 national testing date. At Hartford Public High School's Law and Government Academy, there was turmoil and tears last Thursday and Friday over who would receive a limited number of fee waivers.

Board members later said they were not told of the tight deadline facing students if they denied the contract, and believe the board was unfairly made the villain. The controversy also coincided with the board's private meeting with Kishimoto on Thursday to discuss her performance evaluation.

"I'm not going to fault this board ... for taking time to make a decision," Segarra said while addressing Hartford students who attended Tuesday's special meeting. Many were Law and Government Academy seniors who had protested the board's decision; TV news cameras were also present.

Board member Richard Wareing was more pointed.

"We can't continue with this dysfunctional dynamic because now it has hurt the kids," Wareing said. "The superintendent needs to ask herself whether she wishes to continue to treat this board as an unpleasant necessity or as a true partner in the work of reform. And we must ask ourselves whether she is the right person with whom to entrust the education of more than 20,000 kids."

Kishimoto later called Wareing's comments "inappropriate." Poland, however, also suggested that the board has reached a crisis point in its partnership with the superintendent.

The board's performance evaluation included 10 student achievement targets from third-grade reading to 10th-grade math that Kishimoto agreed upon last December with the previous board majority. She failed to meet most of them, according to the document.

Other measures were qualitative and rated on a 1 to 5 scale, with 1 being unacceptable and 5 noting outstanding performance. Among them were educational leadership (a "satisfactory" 3.0) and engaging stakeholders (2.4).

On the topic of board-superintendent relations, Kishimoto received a 1.6 rating.

The board listed examples of "situations that undermined the building of a positive relationship," including the Great Path contract; a "poorly managed" April proposal for 100 magnet seats for a new STEM program at Betances School, which the board eventually approved; and the redesign of Milner School.

In May, Kishimoto recommended that the board approve a management partnership in which the Jumoke Academy charter school would run Milner. That is now a reality: the low-performing elementary school is under state intervention and part of the new Commisioner's Network. But at the time, Poland appeared infuriated because he was just hearing of the proposal even though Kishimoto had been working on it for months.

"We will not be disregarded about the Hartford public schools," Poland said. "And you can take that to the bank. You can put a period at the end of that sentence. This board is not going to be marginalized ... We are not going to simply rubber-stamp what comes to this board under the cloak of urgency."

Poland reiterated Wednesday that communication is key.

"We're not simply going to say yes unless we know what we're saying yes to," he said.

Paul Holzer, executive director of the advocacy reform group Achieve Hartford!, expressed concern.

"Clearly, tension between the board and superintendent has the potential to affect the health of Hartford's reform, most especially by taking the focus off of the kids and what's being done to improve their education," Holzer said. "We remain hopeful that the two sides can work together to resolve their differences."

Board member Cherita McIntye said Wednesday that "the board is perfectly willing to work with the superintendent if we can figure out the most effective way to run the district." At Tuesday's meeting, McIntye said the board's questions over potential contracts and school decisions "aren't about micromanagement."

The board wants information so "we have confidence that there is enough support" for initiatives to be carried out, said McIntye, an industrial psychologist who is director of executive learning at ESPN.

McIntye is among the board appointees under Segarra. The others are Poland, who is chief executive officer of the Hartford Public Library; Wareing, a lawyer; and Jose Colon-Rivas, a former Hartford High principal who is currently the city's director of families, children, youth and recreation.

Segarra began on a rough footing with Kishimoto in February 2011, when he held a press conference unsuccessfully calling for a national superintendent search only a few hours before the previous school board was set to appoint her as the city's next schools chief.

In picking his board appointees, Segarra said he wanted people who would be fair, smart and independent-minded.

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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