STAMFORD – Just before a vote to extend the superintendent’s contract, the school board president cautioned members that a “no” vote would send a signal.
“You are saying, ‘Go look for another job,’” Jackie Heftman told her board.
In a 5-4 vote, that’s what board members did, even though some who opposed adding a year to Superintendent Tamu Lucero’s contract praised her work, one calling it brilliant.
A “yes” vote would have taken Lucero’s agreement to June 2025. Instead, it expires in June 2024.
The action comes after months of controversy over Lucero’s push to switch the high schools to an unpopular block schedule. Lucero moved forward with the schedule even though teachers said it was done without their input, and two high school principals determined it wouldn’t work.
Teachers at two of the city’s three high schools took no-confidence votes against Lucero. Parents initiated online petitions opposing the change. Teachers at a middle school and two elementary schools not affected by the schedule change also voted no confidence in Lucero, saying they, too, are left out when important policies are decided.
Ben Lee, a former city representative elected to the Board of Education last year, said teachers’ dissent is why he could not vote to extend Lucero’s contract, even though “there are things she has done brilliantly,” and he supports Lucero’s $406,000 compensation package, one of the largest in Connecticut.
Teacher morale is low because the administration is not engaging them, a situation that “is not sustainable,” Lee said. Being superintendent “is a talent management business, and you can’t have stakeholders with this many concerns,” he said.
“I don’t see a superintendent as having to be popular, but the level of trust … has to improve,” said Lee, an Army Reservist. “There has to be trust in the mission … I can’t in good conscience extend her contract for another year without seeing progress on this matter.”
Lee praised Lucero for working with state representatives to secure funding from Hartford for rebuilding Stamford’s failing school buildings.
Board member Josh Esses cited Lucero’s “laudable work in helping obtain critical funding,” but said he opposed her contract extension because education standards are slipping.
Eliminating honors tracking in middle schools and midterm and final exams in high schools, and instituting “equitable” grading sends a bad message, Esses said.
“I fear the tide of education in Stamford Public Schools is going in one direction, and it’s all about … making it easier for students to get through, and instituting regulations that will improve graduation rates” rather than help students learn, he said.
Board member Becky Hamman said she voted “no” because of educational outcomes.
“The superintendent’s main role is as the instructional leader,” Hamman said. “My concern … is we are failing in math and reading, and in attendance.”
Connecticut Department of Education data shows that Stamford does not meet a state goal that 75 percent of students show proficiency in core subjects.
During the pre-pandemic 2018-19 school year, only 65 percent of Stamford students were proficient in English language arts; 61 percent in math; and 59 percent in science, according to state data. But the four-year graduation rate was nearly 89 percent.
That year, 11 percent of Stamford students were chronically absent, which increased to 19 percent in 2020-21, when the pandemic began and more than 3,000 of the city’s 16,100 students repeatedly missed class.
The data shows that the Stamford district has many challenges. In 2020-21, 54 percent of students came from families with incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals; and 14 percent were English language learners, compared with 9 percent statewide.
School board members who backed Lucero’s contract extension said she is meeting the challenges with innovation and hard work.
“I understand there are areas of concern – that’s why we as a board adopt goals for the superintendent every year,” Heftman said.
She has worked with five superintendents in her dozen years on the board and “this one cares more about Stamford students and Stamford as a community than any other superintendent I served with,” Heftman said.
Board member Dan Dauplaise said Lucero “provides solutions,” and “does it excellently.” They have had substantive conversations about policy differences, Dauplaise said, and his views were heard.
“She is an agent of compromise, a strong agent for our school system, and the person to lead us,” he said.
Board member Jennienne Burke credited Lucero with executing a plan, based on one used in Norwalk, to get more state money for rebuilding Westhill High School by filing for special legislation.
Working with state representatives, Lucero proposed opening Westhill’s Pathway to Career program to students from neighboring communities. Because the program will be regional, Stamford now can get $206 million for the reconstruction, instead of $52 million under the previous formula.
“There’s an assumption that the funding happened because of state legislators, but it was a direct result of the superintendent,” Burke said.
Votes on past school boards, nearly always dominated by Democrats, have fallen along party lines. On this board, Democrats outnumber Republicans 6-3, but two Democrats – Lee and Fritz Chery – joined the three GOP members – Esses, Hamman and Nicola Tarzia – in opposing the contract extension.
Lucero came to Stamford Public Schools in 2013 as assistant superintendent of elementary education. She was named deputy superintendent in 2018 and superintendent in 2019. She began her career as an elementary school teacher and principal in her native Ohio.