By David Medina
Welcome to the Hartford where everything is designed to shield Mayor Luke Bronin from the consequences of his own decisions.
Hartford Public Schools, for example, made two interrelated announcements back-to-back during the week of October 10th, to persuade city residents that their children will receive a better education if certain neighborhood schools are shut down.
In the first instance, the Board of Education unveiled the first draft of Equity 2020, the plan to close four low-performing underutilized neighborhood schools and shove their 3,500 students into the rest of the low-performing neighborhood schools.
The better funded Sheff magnet schools that are focused on luring white students from the suburbs will remain untouched.
The school board, under the direction of chairman Richard Wareing, is expected to approve Equity 2020 in December, so that the targeted schools are eliminated from the budget for the school year that begins in August of 2017.
In the second instance, the board appointed a search committee to find a qualified educator to replace outgoing Superintendent Beth Schiavino Narvaez, and be the henchman who implements Equity 2020.
Despite its name, there is no equity in Equity 2020. It is simply a brutal, slash-and-burn blueprint for rapidly shutting down the Martin Luther King, Burns Latino Studies, Thirman Milner and the Simpson-Waverly neighborhood schools.
The plan offers three scenarios under which the four doomed schools would close. The only real difference between them is the pattern for redistributing the displaced students throughout the school system.
Equity 2020 also calls for terminating the leases on schools that operate in rented spaces and doubling them up with schools that are located in city-owned buildings. As such, High School, Inc. and the Kinsella high school students would join the Journalism and Media Academy in the renovated Weaver High School building.
The plan makes no provisions for meeting the educational needs of the displaced students or for such things as after-school programs, transportation services, dental and health clinics, security, custodial services and school meals. That ugly task would have to be completed by whoever replaces Schiavino-Narvaez and the central office staff well before the first day of school in August.
The basic objective of the plan is to use the money saved from closing the schools to help Mayor Bronin eliminate the city’s enormous budget deficit and allegedly avoid bankruptcy without alienating Bronin’s political base. Neighborhood schools, including the ones targeted for closure, have increasingly become a dumping ground for Special Education students and the largely Latino population of English-language learners. Equity 2020 would make them even more of a dumping ground. Latino voters did not support Bronin in 2015. So he owes them nothing.
The city’s deficit for this year stands at $22 million and next year’s deficit is projected to be about $40 million. Meanwhile, Standard & Poor’s has downgraded Hartford’s bond rating near junk levels, based on what it said were Bronin’s unrealistic budget projections. Earlier this year, Bronin tried and failed to have the state legislature grant him the authority to unilaterally cut pensions and nullify labor contracts — a power that even the President of the United States doesn’t have. Lately, he has advocated for lowering expenditures in Hartford and other cities by regionalizing services and tax rates with neighboring towns, grand ideas that have fallen flat before.
That leaves Hartford Public Schools, and, more specifically, the neighborhood schools, as the only service that Bronin can freely disembowel to make it look as though he’s doing everything possible to keep the city from going bankrupt. All he needs is a compliant superintendent who will implement Equity 2020 and take the heat when raging parents demand to know how the city can justify opening an expensive new baseball stadium and closing schools at the same time.
Over the coming weeks, the search committee will interview candidates, check their backgrounds and perhaps hear testimony from parents and community leaders on the type of educator they want to see as superintendent. The committee will recommend a nominee and the Hartford Board of Education will then vote to offer the nominee a three-year contract with a salary of roughly $250,000 a year.
Everything will appear honest and above board, although many suspect that the selection process has already been rigged to favor Dr. Jose Colon-Rivas. Dr. Colon-Rivas became the district’s chief operating officer in July, after more than 30 years of service in both City Hall and Hartford Public Schools. He has been a teacher, principal of Hartford Public High School and a central office administrator. As chief operating officer, Dr. Colon-Rivas is already second in command at Hartford Public Schools and has done much of the day-to-day decision making there while Schiavino-Narvaez transitions to her new job as chief of instructional leadership in the Pacific Ocean for the U.S. Department of Defense.
Dr. Colon-Rivas is also invested in Equity 2020. He sits on the Equity 2020 Committee that will present the final draft of the plan for Board of Education approval in December. He even facilitated the unveiling of the first draft on Oct. 13. The more he fronts for Equity 2020, the better he looks. He has the added advantage of having served as a mayoral appointee to Hartford Board of Education, right up until the day he accepted his current job of chief operating officer. So, he clearly has Bronin’s confidence and is well-known to the board members who would appoint him superintendent.
The only potential candidate who poses a serious threat to Colon-Rivas is Dr. James Thompson. Dr. Thompson, who was educated in Hartford Public Schools, is already superintendent of Bloomfield Public Schools, widely acclaimed as the most improved district in Connecticut every year since he took it over in 2011. Like Colon-Rivas, he spent most of his career as an educator in Hartford, where he became famous for his data-driven work in transforming low-performing schools, including an amazing turnaround of the Simpson-Waverly Elementary School that led to a coveted national Blue Ribbon Award from the U.S. Department of Education in 2003. Thompson, moreover, would be an attractive choice for Luke Bronin to present to the city’s African-American community that strongly supported him for mayor in 2015.
Dr. Thompson, however, would probably have little incentive to come to Hartford without a free hand to run the district as he saw fit. Being a hand puppet to Board Chairman Richard Wareing is not his style. Dr. Thompson also signed a three-year contract extension with Bloomfield recently, where he supervises 2,500 students instead of 21,000 for a salary comparable to what he would earn in Hartford. Furthermore, Thompson made his reputation as an educational leader who improves schools, not one who closes them.
The search process for Hartford superintendent may attract additional candidates. Some will take it seriously and others will throw their hats in the ring with no expectation of getting the job, thereby legitimizing the process. The urgency to pass Equity 2020 and the short timeline to fill the superintendent’s position makes it hard to imagine any of those candidates matching the experience, credentials, and the value of Jose Colon-Rivas or James Thompson.
That being the case, Mayor Bronin should simply skip the dog-and-pony show and choose the candidate that he has already decided can best satisfy his political and economic needs. Even the shoe-shine boys in Hartford know that Equity 2020’s role in Bronin’s bankruptcy gambit will determine who gets the job. So, be transparent. Don’t insult the public’s intelligence with a charade.