The Golden Age of Education Reform at Hartford Public Schools is over.
It ended Tuesday night, Sept. 20, when the Hartford Board of Education approved a quick and dirty search for a new superintendent to replace Beth Schiavino-Narvaez. Schiavino-Narvaez, whose Fulbright Scholar-Harvard Graduate School of Education credentials blew away all other contenders for the position two years ago, resigned abruptly on the second week of the school year.
If one is to believe her, she is leaving for the dream job of life: chief of instructional leadership for the U.S. Department of Defense in the middle of the Asian Pacific. But it’s hard to escape the fact that she — and whoever replaces her — would have had to do some pretty ugly things to the city’s school children in the coming years as a condition for keeping her job.
In fact, the new job description for Hartford superintendent should read something like this: “Hartford, Connecticut school district seeks qualified educator to close and consolidate schools in the city’s poorest neighborhoods; perhaps hand a few of those buildings over to charter school organizations, and, if necessary, kick back large amounts of education funds to City Hall to help it close its enormous budget deficit. An ability to improve learning is desirable but not required, unless parents turn on you, in which case, you’re on your own.”
The real job description will probably paint a much rosier picture of the situation. The Board of Education, after all, has to keep up appearances. But that’s essentially what the new superintendent will be expected to do.
Hartford is broke. The city has already cut municipal services down to bare-bones levels and lacks the tax base to support even that. The budget deficit for this year stands at $22 million and next year’s deficit is projected to be in the $30-to-$40 million range. Meanwhile, Standard & Poor’s has downgraded Hartford’s bond rating for the second time in six months on grounds that the current fiscal 2017 budget relies on draining the city’s reserves and phony labor concessions. The new rating, BBB, is just one level above junk bond status. Even a vulture hedge fund manager might hesitate to invest in Hartford municipal bonds, as the city has few assets to sell if it can’t repay its investors.
Mayor Luke Bronin says his top priority is to keep the city from going bankrupt, although some would argue that he’s just putting on a good show to actually lay the groundwork for bankruptcy. He has been devoting much of his time lately to making a case before the state legislature for creating new revenue sources and lowering expenditures in Hartford and other cities. These include regionalizing services and tax rates with neighboring towns, ideas that have bombed many times before. A judge would have to be satisfied that Bronin made every possible to effort to avoid bankruptcy protection, in addition to cutting jobs and services and selling off city-owned property, before granting it.
These efforts would include appointing a submissive superintendent who will go beyond the severe job and program cuts that Schiavino-Narvaez implemented, even if student achievement suffers. Hartford Public Schools is, by far, the city’s biggest expense. Hartford contributes about $95 million, about two-third’s of the city’s overall budget to support the district. The school system gets the rest of its money — about $327 million — by way of the state aid and through special grants.
The name most often mentioned as a possible successor to Schiavino-Narvaez is Dr. Jose Colon-Rivas, 52, who became the district’s chief operating officer in July after serving 11 years in City Hall as director of the the city’s department of families, children, youth and recreation and as a member of the Hartford Board of Education, appointed by former mayor Pedro Segarra. Dr. Colon-Rivas, in fact, co-chaired the search committee that nominated Schiavino-Narvaez for superintendent two years ago. A lifelong educator, he began his career as a teacher in Puerto Rico during the 1980s, then came to Hartford Public High School as a substitute teacher after receiving his Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction with a specialty in childhood development and educational psychology from Pennsylvania State University. His upward climb from there included stretches as a math teacher and assistant principal at Bulkeley High School, principal of Hartford Public High School and as a central office administrator. Many still remember Dr. Colon-Rivas for the way he led Hartford Public High School through a very difficult process of restoring its accreditation. He has survived three separate administrations at City Hall and several turnovers at the Board of Education. Yet, through some miracle of God, has maintained positive relationships with everyone he has ever worked with.
If anyone can navigate Hartford Public Schools through the treacherous waters of impending bankruptcy, without compromising the district’s educational integrity, it might be Dr. Colon-Rivas.
But he has two distinct disadvantages: First of all, Dr. Colon-Rivas is Puerto Rican. Hartford’s Latino voters, most of whom are also Puerto Rican, overwhelmingly supported Bronin’s opponent, former mayor Pedro Segarra, in last year’s Democratic mayoral primary. Bronin owes Latinos nothing. Secondly, Dr. Colon-Rivas has a personal stake in the success of Hartford Public Schools. He established his career there. Bronin, on the other hand, has no personal stake. He sends his children to private institutions in West Hartford and financed his election campaign with large contributions from out-of-state charter school organizations that, if given the opportunity, would gladly replace Hartford Public Schools.
That leaves two other potential candidates, who might accept the high risk of being named superintendent: Dr. James Thompson, the Superintendent of Bloomfield Public Schools since 2011, and Timothy Sullivan, Assistant Superintendent for Operations at the Capitol Region Education Council. Like Dr. Colon-Rivas, both men were veteran administrators recognized for their work at Hartford Public Schools long before rising to their present jobs and all three live in the city.
Dr. Thompson is famous for his data-driven work in transforming low-performing schools, including an amazing turnaround of Hartford’s Simpson-Waverly Elementary School that in 2003 went from one of the poorest schools in the district to winning a national Blue Ribbon Award from the federal Department of Education. He recently signed a three-year contract extension with Bloomfield after guiding that district to highly acclaimed gains in student test scores and graduation rates, even as it was aligning its curriculum to the Common Core State Standards.
Sullivan, who served Hartford Public Schools for 23 years before accepting his current assignment at CREC, has never made a secret of his desire to become the Hartford superintendent some day, having twice before offered himself as a candidate for the job. He spent more than half his time in Hartford as a very popular history teacher at Weaver High School and as the assistant principal of Bulkeley High School. But he made his mark as the highly respected and award-winning principal of the Classical Magnet School, growing it from a mere program with 350 students in 2004 to a 6-12, inter-district school of 700 students seven years later. Classical Magnet remains one of the most desirable schools in Hartford, largely due to his influence in shaping the school’s theme.
So far, no one has declared his or her candidacy. The small search committee that is expected to produce a nominee for superintendent before Schiavino-Narvaez leaves in December has yet to be selected. People all over the city are meeting in secret to speculate on the factors that will drive the decision. But all anyone knows for sure is that Hartford Public Schools is going to have to ante up resources to either facilitate or prevent a city bankruptcy proceeding. And educators who built their reputations around improved learning are struggling with their consciences on whether it’s worth putting those reputations on the line for what has all the makings of a suicide mission.
To use a very worn out cliché, “Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.”