Mayor John DeStefano and schools Superintendent Reggie Mayo are leaving. Are Garth Harries and school reform sticking around?
That is the question on many minds in the wake of DeStefano’s bombshell announcement that he will not seek an 11th two-year term as mayor.
Mayo, a top fundraiser and political ally to DeStefano for the past 19 years, has long said he would retire as soon as DeStefano does. He is expected to do so when his current contract runs out on June 30.
The dual departure opens the door for a new superintendent and a new mayor to take over running the city schools—to either continue the city’s still-nascent school reform drive or to change direction.
The most likely candidate to replace Mayo is his deputy, 40-year-old Yale alum Garth Harries (pictured Tuesday night at the mayor’s retirement announcement). DeStefano and Mayo brought Harries, a rising star in the reform movement, to town in 2009 to oversee their school-change drive.
The goal has been for Harries eventually to take over the reins from Mayo once he developed local relationships and trust. However, a new mayor and upcoming charter revision could complicate the transition and the continuation of an ambitious school-change plan that while nationally applauded has only really started to reverse years of educational decline.
School board members praised Harries’ performance Tuesday, while at least two possible mayoral candidates cautioned against seeing his ascension as a “foregone conclusion.”
“A position as important as school reform and whoever may be the next superintendent is something that should not be rushed. It’s something that different stakeholders need to be consulted with and brought to the table. Their opinions and feedback should be taken into account. I’m not aware of such a process happening,” said Board of Aldermen President Jorge Perez, who is seriously considering a mayoral run.
“I have little interaction with [Harries]. People make it seem like school reform has been around for ten years. It hasn’t. It’s been around for only a couple of years. No one year performance is an indication of failure or success. Before people can declare success—- whether it’s crime or school reform or controlling our budget—you need more than a year or two,” Perez said. He said the “jury’s still out” on whether school reform and Harries have succeeded in New Haven. “It’s too early.”
Mayor DeStefano is set to leave office in the fourth year of an ambitious school reform drive that aimed to cut the city’s dropout rate in half and close the achievement gap in five years—slowly beginning to a reverse a record of failure from the first 18 years he and Mayo oversaw the school system. DeStefano has been a central figure in the reform effort: After years of resisting calls for change, he embraced a plan and brought his superintendent and school board along with it. He negotiated a 2009 deal with the teachers union that made it easier to fire tenured teachers and overhaul failing schools. He got the school board, whom he appoints, to implement a new a “portfolio management” system that shifts accountability to individual schools. He got Yale to pledge up to $4 million a year for a new college scholarship program. He rounded up the business community and not-for-profits to get involved, too. The effort has earned national recognition, mostly for the way DeStefano made the teachers union as a partner in the reforms—union leaders agreed to a landmark contract that includes flexible rules for failing schools and grading teachers, ultimately pushing out the lowest performers while giving struggling educators more help.
Mayo (pictured) has been key to the effort. He brought to the reform drive years of relationships and experience and has been key to selling it to a sometimes skeptical bureaucracy whose members owe him their jobs. Mayo’s tenure in New Haven public schools traces back to 1967, when he got his start as a science teacher at Troup Middle School. He later served as chair of Troup’s mathematics and science department; assistant principal of Troup, principal of Jackie Robinson Middle School, K-8 director of schools, and executive director of school operations, before becoming superintendent in 1992 under former Mayor John Daniels. Mayo, a popular politician and a longtime powerbroker in New Haven’s black community, has stuck by DeStefano for the mayor’s entire 19-year tenure, proving key to the mayor’s reelection as a fundraiser and political fixer.
The superintendent, who just turned 68 in November, has been eying retirement for the past few years. But DeStefano asked him to stick around to help usher in a new school reform drive and he did.
DeStefano said Tuesday that he considered retiring two years ago, but he felt that school change was too nascent for him to abandon the effort. Now DeStefano’s departure frees Mayo to retire when his latest contract expires on June 30. He appeared in a jubilant mood Monday night and Tuesday.
On Tuesday morning, Mayo accepted a congratulatory handshake outside his fifth-floor office at 54 Meadow St. He danced a little jig and gave a high-five to a reporter, yet declined to confirm mounting talk about his departure, even as the Register’s Mary O’Leary reported a story about the widespread speculation over Mayo’s upcoming retirement.
Mayo attended the mayor’s retirement announcement Tuesday. He remained mum on his future plans.
“This is John’s day,” Mayo said.
Meanwhile, speculation swirled around the future of the schools.
Since he joined the district in 2009, Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries has invested significant effort in building relationships in New Haven and intricate knowledge of its schools. He has waited in the wings over the past two years as Mayo considered retiring, then obliged DeStefano’s request to stay on the job.
Harries was asked Tuesday if he plans to seek the superintendent’s job.
“I am focused on school change,” he replied.
“I’ll serve the city students however I’m asked,” he added.
If Mayo leaves on June 30 when his contract runs out, the current, DeStefano-appointed school board could hire Harries right away as superintendent. Or they could select an interim superintendent until the next mayor takes office.
Reached at DeStefano’s celebration Tuesday evening, school board President Carlos Torre said he is not at liberty to discuss conversations he has had with Mayo about Mayo’s future plans. The board has not discussed how to fill Mayo’s shoes, he said. Torre said the reason behind hiring Mayo’s two deputies, Imma Canelli and Harries, was to have “more than one person ready” to run the school system if need be.
“Personally, I would feel great with either one,” Torre said.
Board member Alex Johnston said he could not comment on the potential search process for a new superintendent. He did say he personally thinks Harries is a good candidate.
“I’ve been very impressed with what he’s brought to the reform effort,” Johnston said. “He has been a central actor in the positive changes” brought about by reform. “He would, I’m sure, say that this has been a team effort—he wouldn’t position himself as taking credit,” Johnston added.
Harries has “brought a lot to the school system,” said board member Mike Nast, “but I try to keep an open mind” about other potential candidates.
One candidate running for mayor, Alderman Justin Elicker, called on the city to conduct a national search.
“It shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion that Garth would be the next superintendent,” Elicker said.
Elicker called Harries a “quite competitive” candidate. “I think he’s an incredibly thoughtful leader ... I like his approach. He educates himself on the issues, he’s open to new ideas, and also understands the complexity of the school system.” However, any superintendent search should be a “competitive” one, Elicker said.
“Dr. Mayo’s moving on is an opportunity to bring in someone who is more independent and reform-minded,” Elicker said. By that, he said he means someone who operates more independently of the mayor’s office and is “given the flexibility to be their own boss” instead of being “micromanaged” by the mayor.
State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, who plans to announce his candidacy for mayor this week, said he’s open to working with Harries. Holder-Winfield noted that even while he was openly challenging the mayor he still had an open line to Harries. “Garth has always been willing to talk to me about whatever the school system is doing. I value that,” Holder-Winfield said. He said Harries has a reputation as “a person who really understands what needs to be done.” As a state representative, Holder-Winfield has sometimes clashed with the city as he has championed school-reform legislation of his own, especially when it comes to engaging parents.
“I don’t know that Garth would be the person who would be the superintendent for the long haul,” Holder-Winfield said, but he plans to sit down with Harries and hear his vision for New Haven schools.
So far, no candidate has raised major objections to the ideology behind the city’s school reform drive, which uses student test scores and other factors to grade teachers and individual schools. In coming to New Haven, Harries has departed from the purely corporate reform model he learned as a top advisor to New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. New Haven has sought a middle path that aims to collaborate with unions while still raising accountability for teachers and schools.
Elicker said he would both continue New Haven’s school reform trajectory and add to it.
“I think the mayor has taken a step in the right direction,” Elicker said. “We have to use data to evaluate our schools and our progress.” At the same time, he said, school should focus more on character education, early childhood, and parental involvement.
Holder-Winfield also said he would seek to bring a greater focus on early childhood education. The current reforms focus on “what do we do if the schools fail,” he said; Holder-Winfield aims to focus on “trying to deal with the issues before we get to failure.” That means extra supports in early years to help kids expand vocabularies and cope with trauma, he said.
Teachers union President Dave Cicarella said he thinks the city’s reform drive will withstand a change in leadership.
“The idea for school reform came from the mayor’s office,” he noted. But despite DeStefano’s central role in driving those changes, the work “should sustain itself.”
By the time a new mayor takes office in January of 2014, the schools will be half-way through the fourth year of the school reform drive, Cicarella noted. He said the effort should have momentum and stability by that point.
“If we’ve done this correctly, and I think we have, school reform should move forward. It shouldn’t make a difference if the mayor leaves or the superintendent leaves or if I’m not union president.”
Cicarella, who recently won reelection as union president, is set to start negotiating this summer a new labor contract to replace the one that expires on June 30, 2014. He said he doesn’t expect any major changes in the reform-related aspects of the contract, which include a new teacher evaluation and special provisions that allow principals to replace staff at select few “turnaround” schools.
He did mention one aspect of the reform drive he hopes might change with a new mayor: The annual grading of all city schools into three “tiers” based on student performance. Cicarella said the union does not support tiering because it has a negative impact on schools that get graded in the bottom-ranked Tier III. No matter how the district tries to shape the message, Cicarella said, parents and the public end up feeling that those schools are “bad.”
He said while the teachers union agrees with most aspects of DeStefano’s reforms, tiering “is one thing we’ve just been forced to accept. This is something that we’d like to see revisited.”
Several board members expressed hope in Cicarella’s assertion that as a whole, New Haven’s reform drive will survive.
“The school change effort has been going for several years now,” said Alex Johnston. “Certainly it is my hope, and I would hope that it is really broadly shared, that there is really a consensus in New Haven that we need to continue with dramatic improvements in New Haven Public Schools.”
“We have enough momentum in the system right now that it’s going to continue beyond the mayor,” President Torre said.
Torre, a professor of education at Southern Connecticut State University, was DeStefano’s first appointee to the school board. He has served for DeStefano’s entire tenure, save for two years he had to sit out because of term limits.
A new mayor would likely appoint new members to the board.
Another factor may complicate the process: Aldermen are currently considering revising the city charter to change the makeup of the school board. The board is the only one in the state that’s solely appointed by the mayor; some aldermen would like to change the board to include elected positions. A proposal for a hybrid school board, which Elicker supports, could appear as a referendum question on the ballot during the mayors election in November.
Most reform drives nationally have taken place in cities without elected boards, one mayoral ally noted Tuesday. An elected board could throw a wrench into the city’s plans.
Amid the uncertainty, Harries was asked about the prospects for New Haven’s schools.
He said the reform drive has made great progress so far. “I’m looking forward to continuing it, and I’m focused on the work at hand.”