HARTFORD — A day after announcing his plans to leave soon, state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor addressed superintendents at their annual back-to-school meeting Tuesday, pointing to progress made during his watch and urging them to go forward with controversial education reforms.
"You are on the right track," Pryor told the more than 125 superintendents and school leaders at the Legislative Office Building. "Despite the anxiety and the controversy, the debates and the distractions, you are getting the job done."
He urged them to "stay at it … stick with it" and not to "settle for good enough when true excellence is possible."
In a brief interview before the meeting started, Pryor said his decision to leave by Janurary was his own and not in any way influenced by the upcoming election, which is predicted to be a difficult one for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
Republican legislators — and even some Democrarts — have said that Pryor had become a liability for the Democratic governor, who is trying to win back support from teachers, many of whom he alienated in 2012 when he said that teachers "basically" only have to "show up" for four years to get tenure.
As Pryor implements Malloy's vision for educational reform in Connecticut, he has become a lightning rod for criticism from teachers, parents and some legislators, who have said that too much change has been made too quickly.
A recent scandal involving the operations of the Hartford-based Jumoke Academy charter schools and FUSE charter management group further rocked the education reform landscape.
Pryor had been a strong supporter of Jumoke and the Family Urban Schools of Excellence, or FUSE, until The Courant disclosed that FUSE CEO Michael M. Sharpe was a convicted felon who lied about having a doctoral degree. Sharpe resigned after the disclosures.
A federal grand jury is investigating FUSE and issued a subpoena to the state Department of Education a month ago seeking Pryor's emails since 2012 related to Sharpe, to the heavily state-financed Jumoke Academy, and to Hartford's Milner School.
Pryor said Tuesday that the end of the governor's first term is "a natural point at which to transition" and he wanted to pursue new professional opportunities.
"Word often gets out when you start to have such conversations," Pryor said. "So my goal was to express my plans proactively and we accomplished that."
At Tuesday's meeting, Pryor and his staff reported on progress made in key reform areas, including a new teacher evaluation system and a new set of academic goals called the Common Core State Standards.
Pryor said that last year at this time, there was "understandable anxiety" about the new teacher evaluation system. "Educators justifiably cautioned against it becoming a gotcha game."
But now, he said, he hears about "professional dialogue that's occurring and the professional growth that's possible."
And, he said, teachers are beginning to take to the new academic standards known as the Common Core State Standards — "not universally, but increasingly."
Tuesday's meeting also was a moment for state education leaders to acknowledge Pryor's contributions since he arrived in September 2011.
State Education Board Chairman Allan Taylor told the group that he is "very much saddened" by Pryor's decision to leave, but said he has "left us positioned to keep that work going, which is important to all of us."
Taylor said he admired Pryor's work ethic, which he said "borders on the insane" with 80-hour work weeks all year long, and his "passionate dedication to what is good for the students of Connecticut."
Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said Pryor had to take "some of the toughest issues we've seen in public education in many years and wrestle with them. The discussions on many of these issues were difficult ... the people in the room unruly and unrulable. I think we did some great things, and I thank you."
Pryor said he isn't certain whether he will stay in education or go into a different field.
A graduate of Yale and Yale Law, Pryor helped found a charter school, Amistad Academy in New Haven in the late 1990s. Prior to joining Malloy's administration, Pryor worked in economic development —— as deputy mayor for economic development in Newark for five years, and as president of the Lower Manhattan Development Council, created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack.
"I've had the good fortune in the course of my career to have a series of high-impact, high-opportunity jobs," Pryor said. "…I couldn't say whether the next job will be in education or whether I'll return to another field that I've pursued in the past."
He said he does not think the FUSE scandal will affect the progress of the education reform movement in Connecticut. "These reforms taken together are moving forward effectively and are making a positive difference... I believe we've made the right investment across a series of reforms and that they are working," Pryor said. "So that's good for now."
Mark Benigni, Meriden superintendent, said Pryor has been "extremely helpful" and that "parts of this reform work" are "paying huge dividends for our students and families."
Fran Rabinowitz, interim superintendent in Bridgeport, said, "We haven't always agreed on things, but he's been open and understanding with me and has granted me waivers and let me move ahead."
But, Rabinowitz added, she hopes the next commissioner will come from an education background. "I mean no disrespect," she said, but "the head of a medical profession would certainly be a doctor, and the head of a legal profession would certainly be an attorney."