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Power Shift Coming Over City Schools

Perez Gaining Unprecedented Authority

November 7, 2005
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

The most interesting political change in Hartford this season won't take place on Election Day.

But soon after, under the terms of the city's new charter, the school board will grow from seven to nine members and Mayor Eddie Perez will appoint the majority.

The school superintendent will continue to run the system's day-to-day operations. That position was historically vested with more authority than the mayor - and was shielded from the political winds blowing through city hall - but the balance will soon shift.

Perez is about to gain unprecedented power over the city's troubled schools. Some observers are even wondering if Perez may go as far as appointing himself chairman of the school board.

Publicly, Perez and School Superintendent Robert Henry say they are committed to getting along.

But there are signs of potential trouble on the horizon - and some are worried politics could destabilize the system at a time when the federal government is demanding swift improvements in reading and math, and the state wants new magnet schools developed to ease segregation.

Underlying that concern is Henry's contract. It is up for renewal at the end of the school year - and Perez has declined to say if he will endorse an extension.

Marcus Rivera, who monitors the school system for the state Department of Education, said there is a "sense of renewal" in the district after years of turmoil and that too many new faces - on the board or in the district's central office - could jeopardize that.

"We're looking for consistency and accountability," Rivera said. "If this superintendent and this board are committed to the challenges, then these are the individuals we want to work with."

The Education Mayor

When the city took its schools back from state control three years ago, Perez anointed himself the "education mayor" and stepped decisively into the role of visionary.

He'll tell anyone who listens that he was no great student and that as a gang member at Hartford Public High School, he got in more than his share of trouble. Then, the story goes, he found the Holy Grail: Education. He was a married man, a father in his 20s before he started college.

When he visits the numerous schools undergoing renovation, which he oversees as self-appointed chairman of the school building committee, he tells students how many tens of millions of dollars the city is spending to spiff up their school. Their end of the deal, he tells them, is to graduate and enroll in a four-year college.

"I have spent a lot of time on education because I know it's the key to the city. You have to have results," he said. "I was elected to lead."

Perez has done more than talk about education. He's not shy about admitting that he keeps close tabs on the three members he appointed to the current board.

"I talk to them on a regular basis to make sure my priorities are out front."

At the mayor's urging, the high school curriculum is being revised to put most youngsters through a college-prep curriculum. Elementary school students are visiting college campuses for tours each year.

The mayor also established his own "Office for Young Children" at city hall, and tapped the district's head of early childhood programs, Jose Colon-Rivas, to head it up. The office coordinates an array of disparate public programs.

When Colon-Rivas moved to his new office at city hall, he left a huge void in the school district, where he'd headed up the accreditation of every school and oversaw all early childhood programs. Henry put on his game face as he waved goodbye, but insiders says he feels the loss of a key administrator.

Perez has made it clear he has a vision, but he's been far less clear whether he has faith in Henry to carry it out.

Even without a majority on the board, Perez played a major role in shaping a contract that keeps Henry on a short leash. The superintendent's three-year contract, which expires in June, has not been extended beyond next year.

Perez has also made it clear he will push ahead with initiatives he supports - even if they upset city public school officials. In his most controversial move so far, Perez and city business leaders lined up millions of dollars in scholarships for city students in the state's most elite private schools.

At a recent conference on school choice hosted by Trinity College, Perez made an eloquent plea for youngsters to have a broad menu of choices, including private school.

"Children come first," he said. "Independent schools have a wonderful record of wrapping their institutions around their students."

Perez also made clear that if anyone wanted to take him on over private schools, he was ready for a fight "If people think black and Latino kids should not have opportunities," he said, "they should come see me."

The Other Boss

So far, Henry hasn't taken Perez up on that offer, even though the superintendent admits he is not thrilled with the idea of improving educational opportunity in Hartford by tapping private schools.

"I'm a public school superintendent," he said.

But Perez, after all, is the mayor. And, by all accounts, Henry is a loyal soldier.

However, insiders say that the insecurity over his future is wearing on Henry, and point to a recent episode involving Assistant Superintendent Romain Dallemand as an example.

This fall, Henry locked Dallemand out of his Cabinet meetings, a move that was seen by many as punishment for rumblings that board member Michael Williams - a Perez appointee - was thinking about replacing Henry with Dallemand.

All the key players deny there was ever any such plan, but insiders - who agreed to speak only if their names were not published - say the Dallemand episode sent a chill through many, a warning not to be viewed as too cozy with Henry's critics.

Henry conceded that he prohibited Dallemand from attending his "kitchen Cabinet" meetings with his closest advisers despite the fact Dallemand is overseeing the district's ambitious initiative to integrate thousands of learning disabled students into regular education classrooms.

But he declined to explain his reason for locking Dallemand out of the meetings. And after being questioned about Dallemand's status, Henry - who denied suffering from any feelings of insecurity because of the contract issue - welcomed him back to his inner sanctum.

"It was a personnel issue," is all Henry would say.

While the mayor's new-found power may give him more control over the superintendent's future, Perez may need to be cautious in how he wields it.

In Henry's years steering the district, he has racked up some impressive victories: Two elementary schools have earned coveted federal blue-ribbon status; he has opened seven new magnet schools; he has overseen dramatic improvements in some of the district's most troubled schools; and every school in the district has earned accreditation.

Ada Miranda, a Perez appointee on the board, said she was heartened to see some of the district's core programs, such as the "Success For All" reading program, featured on a public television documentary about how to turn around troubled urban schools. It shows, she said, that district leaders are making the right choices.

Still, standardized test scores remain stubbornly and dramatically low, the drop-out rate high, attendance for teachers and students, though improved, remains lower than it should be, and suspensions and expulsions are high, even for the district's youngest children.

Despite pockets of success in a handful of schools, the ability to replicate that success and to sustain gains or build on them remains elusive.

If Henry were to lose his job for lack of progress, he would join a long list of superintendents who tried - but failed - to reform the city's ailing education program.

Two Bosses

So far, the relationship between Perez and Henry has been all over the map, from harmonious to guarded, to sometimes even distrustful.

The mayor has criticized the district for being slow in releasing information he wanted, and has even scoffed at the data. He didn't, for example, believe the district's numbers on the drop-out rate, or on the number of students enrolling in college.

But when a virtual war broke out between Henry and board Chairman I. Michael Borrero - a Perez appointee and longtime friend - Perez sacrificed friendship for the sake of stability by telling Borrero to withdraw his bid for re-election as board chairman.

Borrero one-upped Perez and resigned altogether. Although Perez backed Henry, he also fired a warning to the school chief, saying the excuse of a distraction was now gone.

The heat, Perez said, was now on Henry to produce results.

"To me, it was clear he could discern the issues from the personalities," Henry said. "He will act on the merits. The politics, I leave to him."

But, with a new political chapter about to open, many are wondering if the peace between the two chiefs will hold.

Will the mayor feel the need to take charge? Will he cross over the line dividing the policy-setting board from day-to-day operations overseen by administrators?

No, Perez said. "People know I spend a lot of time on education. I don't micromanage, but I spend long enough on the details to know the train is running on time."

Henry's public statements also are optimistic.

"I applaud him for having this broad vision and for having the clout to carry it out. He is committed to education ... joining the board would just bring unity to all of these efforts."

Rivera, the state's monitor for the district, agrees that vesting the mayor with increased control over the school system has the potential to increase flow of resources into the district.

But he said the key to success will be maintaining a sharp focus on education. "We don't want the politics to get in the way," Rivera said. "There's too much to be done.

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.
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