Letter: Portland Superintendent Responds to Open Choice Reporting

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I recently read the December 12th article published in the CT Examiner entitled, Few Rules, Little Oversight for 11 Million Open Choice Program.  I was astonished by two assertions raised in this article: First, the suggestion that funding used to supplement limited resources that support teaching and learning is a “slush fund” and not subjected to rigorous accounting procedures and oversight is entirely inaccurate. Second, the suggestion that a program designed to reduce the racial, ethnic, and economic isolation in Connecticut Public Schools is not having a positive influence on student learning is misguided and does not reflect the reality that I know.  

The perceptions set forth by CT Examiner reporter Julia Werth in this exposé are simply wrong, and anyone who frequents our schools, attends our Board of Education meetings, reviews student data, examines audit reports, or meets with teachers and principals would see and hear of the unmistakable successes that feature the actual story about Open Choice in Portland and undoubtedly throughout the Hartford region.

The Sheff v. O’Neill decision set forth by the Connecticut Supreme Court in 1996, upheld the opinion that educational opportunity was fundamentally impaired by racial and economic isolation in our state.  Equity of opportunity drove the creation of our Open Choice districts more than two decades ago, and it drives the collective efforts of so many engaged in our schools today. 

As the sitting superintendent of schools in Portland, I can attest to the reality that operationalizing this court decision and subsequent legislation is demanding, fraught with plenty of inherent challenges and sinister detractors.  However, I am moved daily by the unmistakable truth embodied in the painstaking work, driving passion, and tireless commitment of Portland educators who make the Open Choice Program a success for all our students.

The actual story that must be reported, one based on fact, is our success.  Program success can be found at our annual Honors Society induction ceremony, our ongoing musical and theatre productions, three seasons of sporting events, and ultimately on the graduation dais each year. This success is embodied in our teachers, who read literature and attend countless hours of in-service so that they can learn more about the teaching and learning needs of a more diverse student body and to better understand such complex issues as implicit bias and trauma informed instruction. 

That success is personified in the compassionate work of our staff who travel the extra mile to visit sick children and grieving families or the efforts of our middle school principal who traveled to Hartford one day a week last summer to meet incoming students and families as intensive efforts to build strong relationships with our Hartford parents continue. It is unmistakable in our desire to enhance our curriculum by making learning real and culturally relevant for our students.  For instance, we welcomed Deacon Arthur Miller to our high school both last year and this year to meet with English classes so that he could share his unique perspective of the 1955 Emmett Till murder case, the ramifications for the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and the case’s enduring influence in today’s era.   

It is unwavering in our determination to support all students by running after school homework clubs staffed numerous afternoons each week.  It is typified in our willingness and commitment to provide transportation to and from events such as school-wide dances, concerts, plays and student Planning and Placement Team (PPT) meetings.  Our success is uniquely expressed in the efforts of our teachers who provide endless interventions and constant progress monitoring in both math and reading so that we can be sure that all our students are experiencing at least one year’s academic growth each year. 

Finally, and most extraordinarily, our accomplishments, while difficult to measure, can be found in the strong relationships that are formed between our students and their teachers and counselors as they navigate the many social and emotional challenges that are inherent in our world today.   These successes, both in and out of the classroom exemplify the real Open Choice story. 

The argument that there is no oversight of these funds is erroneous and misinformed.  Like many towns, an annual State Single Audit is required for the Town of Portland due to the Town’s spending of state financial assistance.  Furthermore, since June of 2013, the Open Choice Program has met the criteria for it to be selected for programmatic testing by our independent auditors. Portland’s independent auditors have given our Open Choice program an “unmodified ‘clean’ opinion on compliance” with “no deficiencies or material weaknesses” as reported in the last six years’ public state single audit annual reports. 

Furthermore, a review of public budget documents and Board of Education minutes, would support my assertion that everything we do is public and every public Open Choice dollar we spend is directed toward the academic, social and emotional needs of all our students, both Portland and Hartford residents!  Our Open Choice money is not a “slush fund” for superintendents but a much-needed resource that district leaders and Boards of Education direct toward the greatest areas of need.  In fact, at a recent Portland BOE meeting in November, BOE members directed Open Choice funds toward the funding of a special education tutor and at our December meeting unanimously approved Open Choice funds for a halftime certified English language learner (ELL) teacher.  

Martin Luther King once remarked, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”   Throwing proverbial bombs on the well-intentioned work of thousands of Connecticut educators is senseless, as we are the impassioned souls “walking the talk” and trying to make a real difference for our communities and for our state. 

Our next steps must not come from those looking from the outside in; those who are making public judgments grounded in resentment and distortions of the truth that totally mislead the public.  The real work occurs inside each of our school districts as we strive to provide an open and inclusive learning environment for all our students, those who reside locally and those who reside in Hartford.  Helping our communities embrace the ideals that set the framework of the Open Choice Program must continue. Truly embedding diverse perspectives across all aspects of teaching and learning so that we can do our part to close the ever-present achievement gap in our state must also endure.  This is what ultimately drives our work in Portland and this is how we direct our Open Choice funding year after year.  I appeal to the greater public to continue to support us in this noble pursuit and I urge those critically targeting our work to look more closely at our efforts and our results.

Philip B. O’Reilly, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools
Portland


Julia Werth responds: There is no question that the Open Choice program, and urban-suburban programs in general, provide a valuable and necessary role in childhood education and opportunity. The point of my reporting was not to question that role, but rather to shed light on the remarkable lack of oversight by the state, and local boards of education, of $11 million of annual funding.  Audits, while useful, are no substitute for spending rules and oversight. 

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