Connecticut's conundrum in dealing with its tops-in-the-nation academic achievement gap is summed up by the saga of Bridgeport School Superintendent Paul Vallas.
Despite new landmark education reforms, Connecticut can still react antagonistically to changes in the status quo for education equity. Whether it's charter schools, magnets or some other alternative, the critics proclaim "corporate takeovers." Truth is state law bans for-profit management companies from running public schools.
The real fear is that schools established under reforms will infringe on unions and their work culture. These schools usually require major internal restructuring, longer school days — and in some cases a Saturday academy or extended school year.
Like him or not, Paul Vallas served 16 years as a school superintendent in New York, Chicago and New Orleans. He is widely regarded as a turnaround expert, though there are mixed reviews in each city. His Bridgeport detractors went to court challenging his qualifications to be the city's school chief, because a certification waiver was mishandled. It was an unnecessary distraction for the failing district .
As the gamesmanship unfolded over whether Vallas was "qualified" under state law, the legal actions undermined his leadership. Vallas' stay was destined to be short. Either he was going to be kicked out by the state Supreme Court or leave on his own — fed up with the politics. This month, the high court rightfully dismissed the case against Vallas; about the same time he was selected as the lieutenant governor running mate for Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn in 2014.
So, Vallas is a goner. Bridgeport schools are still underachieving. A new school board has been elected. They get do this hiring dance all over again.
Here's something the state General Assembly can do in 2014 to avoid a repeat of the malice against Vallas: Remove the requirement that an out-of-state superintendent — not certified in Connecticut — has to take an independent study program to received certification. Give the education commissioner the power to simply waive the need for certification if there is a candidate with compelling credentials. It's demeaning to have out-of-state education CEOs engage in a college exercise that they are more suited to be teaching.
Here's something the new Bridgeport school board and state education Commissioner Stefan Pryor can do in 2014: Make sure the next school chief is someone who fully engages parents and teachers as part of a turnaround plan. Outsiders coming in with bold ideas, but perceived by parents and staff as dismissive, don't last long.
The case against Vallas was personal and petty. Some people — including reform supporters and opponents — didn't like his management style, which they viewed as dictatorial and arrogant.
Gwen Samuel, who heads a statewide parents coalition, said in an interview on my TV show in August that there was a disconnect' between Vallas and the peeps on the street.
"He never communicated with the families and communities of Bridgeport,'' Samuel said. "So, if you're coming with all this expertise, then communicate with the actual stakeholders that will benefit from your decisions. But this coming in like 'I'm a knight in shining armor, coming in to save you,' I believe that is what is causing Vallas to get this resistance.''
The thing to remember about these turnaround champions is they like to take charge and have strong egos. They have a clear vision for what they want accomplished. And, yes, there are times they get so caught up in the vision they neglect to engage the parents or the school board.
When it comes to superintendents, the Land of Steady Habits is quite unstable in some key municipalities. Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven, Waterbury, New Britain and Windsor are either looking for new school chiefs or recently hired one.
I'm still perplexed at how the state with the widest academic achievement gap in America gets nary a dollar of the hundreds of millions in Race to the Top federal funds earmarked for states with compelling turnaround plans.
Maybe the feds see the drama in Bridgeport as another indication that Connecticut's commitment is unsteady.
Stan Simpson is host of "The Stan Simpson Show'' (www.foxct.com/stan and Saturdays, 5:30 a.m., on FOX CT).Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun