STAMFORD — Two Board of Education members, who said their views of School Superintendent Tamu Lucero changed over recent months, were among those who voted Tuesday to extend her contract for three more years.
Republican Josh Esses and Democrat Jackie Pioli were in the “yes” column for Lucero who, on a 6-3 vote, now continues in her post until June 30, 2026.
Esses was among the school board members who voted against extending Lucero’s contract last June, citing a series of no-confidence votes from teachers and what he called a lowering of standards.
In explaining his vote Tuesday night, Esses said much of his opposition was rooted in situations created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I joined the board at the end of COVID, when all eyes were on the schools. I looked closely at the district and we were falling short,” Esses said. “I and a lot of people asked the superintendent the question, ‘You’re in charge – why haven’t you fixed this?’ That’s where I started.”
He learned from his work on the board that deficiencies with curriculum, evaluations, and enforcing standards predated the pandemic, Esses said.
“These issues have been with us a long, long time. But we have a plan to fix them,” he said. “We are on a path for having a roadmap for every classroom … for more rigor and accountability. I wish we had done it earlier, but we are doing it now. I’m glad (Lucero) has promised to do it and I think she is up to the task.”
A recent audit found that 80 percent of required courses had no written curricula, going back many years. Lucero has promised that all classrooms will have written curricula by 2025.
Pioli, who served on a previous school board marked by turbulence, has pushed Lucero’s administration for more data, more thorough evaluation of programs, better tracking of student performance and other issues. She has seen changes, Pioli said Tuesday.
“Since my return to the board, there have been improvements in what I see as crucial areas – social-emotional intelligence, reading support and curriculum upgrades,” a remote learning program for high school students and programs for struggling students, Pioli said. “I have seen an improved effort to be inclusive and equitable for all students … [and] I want to see the effects of the initiatives you are bringing.”
A well-paid post
Lucero, who became superintendent in 2019, is consistently at the top of the list of highest-paid city employees, and is among the top-paid superintendents in the state.
Her new contract will increase her annual salary from $295,000 to $307,000. Annual contributions to her tax-sheltered annuity and her deferred compensation plan will increase from $26,000 each to $30,000 each.
According to the contract, Lucero also will get 2 percent annual raises, a $3,000 stipend for her doctorate degree, a $25,000 retention stipend each Jan. 30, a $600 monthly stipend for travel expenses, and other bonuses.
The exact total of the compensation package was not available Wednesday, but it will exceed her current total of $406,000 by at least $20,000.
The school board meeting Tuesday illustrated that Lucero continues to have supporters and detractors.
For and against
Member Versha Munshi-South, who has children in Stamford Public Schools, said Lucero “has met or exceeded all the goals set for her by the board a year ago.”
Lucero “has excellent relationships with our state delegation … and has worked behind the scenes to get funding from the state,” said Munshi-South, a Democrat.
Lucero helped the school system increase the rate of reimbursement from the state for school construction projects from 20 percent to 60 percent. Stamford is undertaking a $1.5 billion, 20-year plan to repair or rebuild school buildings.
The board’s vice president, Democrat Andy George, said Lucero is “a superstar … she is out in the community building bridges all the time.”
Democratic board President Jackie Heftman said Lucero was the best candidate when the Board of Education unanimously voted for her to be superintendent in 2019, “and her performance validates that. … I don’t know what more we can expect from a superintendent.”
Board member Michael Hyman, also a Democrat, said he likes that Lucero visits the school buildings.
“That’s an important part of leadership,” Hyman said. “I think we have the right leader.”
But the Stamford Education Association sent the board a letter saying a union survey showed that “teachers are overwhelmingly against extending the superintendent’s contract.” The union
believes the school system “needs a leader who is transparent, respects teachers, and respects what they do,” according to the letter.
During the 2021-22 school year, teachers at several schools took no-confidence votes against Lucero, saying she and her administration don’t value them and fail to include them in decisions. High school teachers were angry that the administration kept moving forward with a controversial block schedule over their strong objections. Lucero ultimately dropped the schedule for something closer to what teachers advocated.
It was one of the reasons Republican board member Becky Hamman said she would not vote for Lucero’s contract.
“You have to make sure you rebuild the trust. Communication matters,” Hamman said. “Central Office is not saying how they will hold principals accountable. They have not been evaluated for 10 years and I think that needs to start immediately.”
Fellow Republican board member Lisa Butler told Lucero, “I really like you as a person but I can’t vote for your contract.”
According to Butler, parents felt that needed support was lacking during COVID, and the high school block schedule plan “wasted six months of discussion … it took two principals to say we tried it and it didn’t work” before the administration scrapped it. She also noted that an audit showed the school system has not had a set curricula since 2009 and that Lucero was “here during that time.”
Butler said that her children “weren’t challenged” in high school and that she knows parents who are worried they are sending their children to college unprepared.
“I was elected by the people of Stamford and they are adamant they do not want to approve a three-year renewal.”
Democrat Fritz Chery was the third “no” vote.
Mayor Caroline Simmons attended the meeting to support Lucero, saying it is “essential to have continuity with a superintendent who has been a leader” on the school reconstruction plan.
Lucero “puts her heart and soul into this district,” Simmons said.
Lucero has been with the district since 2013, when she was hired as an assistant superintendent. After the vote, she thanked the board in an email, saying the school district is changing “how we teach, recruit and retain our amazing teachers, leverage and use technology, and reimagine our school facilities.”
Drawing students to the magnets
In another matter, the Board of Education voted to codify an unwritten policy that assigns coveted seats in the city’s three inter-district magnet schools to teachers and administrators who work in those schools.
The practice has been controversial because seats are filled by lottery, which teachers and administrators are allowed to bypass, even as hundreds of Stamford families sit on waiting lists.
“We have had a longtime practice of allowing magnet school teachers to get professional courtesy, when the policy says that is not appropriate,” Lucero said during the meeting.
Her office reviewed the policy and decided it needed to be corrected to conform with practice, she said.
“My authority as superintendent allows me to let people in. But I don’t want to do that,” Lucero said. “It should be clear to everyone in the community how they can get children into the school.”
Controversy over the policy increased when it was revealed that seats in Rogers International, Strawberry Hill and the Academy of Information & Technology – the city’s highest-performing schools – are left empty because of a state regulation that 25 percent of the students in inter-district magnet schools must come from another district.
Stamford has had trouble meeting the requirement and leaves seats open for in-town students when there are not enough out-of-town students to meet the 75-25 ratio.
Schools spokeswoman Kathleen Steinberg said Wednesday the district “is committed to optimizing enrollment” at Rogers, Strawberry Hill and AITE.
“We have always promoted these programs to pre-k programs and school counselors in neighboring districts and last year piloted a successful Facebook advertising campaign that increased attendance at the AITE open house for prospective students and families,” Steinberg said in an email. “We will be examining opportunities to better promote our inter-district magnet schools as an attractive option for out-of-district families for the 2024-25 school year.