HARTFORD — Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced Monday that Stefan Pryor, his controversial state education commissioner, will leave by January and is "actively seeking new professional opportunities'' — a move that critics branded as an election-year bid by Malloy for teachers' votes.
Pryor informed the governor Monday that he will not serve a second term, according to a statement released by Malloy's office.
"Having served for nearly three fulfilling years as commissioner, I have decided to conclude my tenure by the end of this administration's current term ...,'' Pryor said. "Because I believe it's important to communicate my decision proactively to the governor and the public, I am doing so now."
Pryor has earned praise for leading collaborative efforts to improve failing schools in Connecticut and to develop a new teacher evaluation system, as well as for expanding opportunities for early childhood education. Earlier this year he was also widely criticized by some legislators, parents and teachers for implementing too many education reforms too quickly.
His decision to step down comes in the midst of a state investigation into the operations of the Hartford-based Jumoke Academy charter schools and FUSE charter management group, which had counted Pryor as a top supporter until disclosures in The Courant that former charter boss Michael M. Sharpe was a convicted felon who lied about having a doctoral degree.
A federal grand jury is investigating FUSE, or Family Urban Schools of Excellence, and issued a subpoena to the state Department of Education a month ago seeking Pryor's emails since January 2012. The subpoena indicates that the FBI is interested in emails related to FUSE founder Sharpe, the closely related Jumoke Academy, which receives millions in state grants, and Hartford's Milner School.
In addition, Pryor endorsed New London's decision in June to hire Terrence P. Carter, an education-reform administrator from Chicago, as its next school superintendent. That move has drawn criticism in the wake of The Courant's revelation in mid-July that Carter referred to himself as Dr. and as having a Ph.D. for more than five years when he didn't have a doctorate from an accredited university. The city school board has since launched an investigation into his background.
Pryor has often had a tense relationship with teachers unions — a significant voting bloc for Malloy in what is expected to be a tight election race. Pryor is a co-founder of the Achievement First charter network's flagship school, Amistad Academy in New Haven, and at least two of his top aides have ties to charter schools. The unions have been opposed to the expansion of charter schools in Connecticut and have criticized some of the Malloy administration's education policies.
Mark Waxenberg, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, said of Pryor's decision to leave: "Change is a good thing."
Allan Taylor, chairman of the State Board of Education, said he was "saddened" to get the news about Pryor. "I thought extremely highly of him. I think he has earned the full support of the board and continues to maintain that. … I would have preferred that he stay. I think he's doing a terrific job."
On Monday, Malloy praised Pryor: "Commissioner Pryor has worked hard and well on behalf of Connecticut students. In the three years he's led the department, we've taken tremendous steps forward to improve education, with a particular focus on the districts that have long needed the most help. We needed someone who could act as a change agent, and Stefan fulfilled that role admirably. And we're seeing strong results."
Although Monday's announcement indicated that Pryor's move was his own choice, Malloy critic Jonathan Pelto characterized the decision as Malloy's sending "Pryor packing" — in hopes of distancing the governor from Pryor.
"It's a late and overdue political maneuver to try desperately to convince teachers, parents and public school advocates to vote for him," said Pelto, an independent candidate for governor who is trying to petition his way onto the November ballot.
Sen. Toni Boucher, a Republican from Wilton and ranking member of the legislature's education committee, said: "I have to tell you I was anticipating this would happen. And it would happen before the election. It's not a surprise. The governor needs to win back support and creditability that he lost among teachers and the union."
Handpicked by Malloy in fall 2011, Pryor has a Yale law degree, not a doctorate in education, and spent the previous decade working mainly in economic development, first in Lower Manhattan and then as deputy mayor of Newark, N.J. But Pryor was also one of the founders of the Amistad Academy in New Haven in the 1990s and had been involved in many education projects, including several years working on the reform of impoverished schools in Brooklyn, N.Y. With Malloy's backing, Pryor embarked on an ambitious agenda of reforms that mirrored national change supported by the U.S. Department of Education.
The CEA's Waxenberg said Monday that the union never disagreed with the goals that Pryor set for public education. "We disagreed with how do you get there," Waxenberg said. "We certainly are not in any way saying that he did not have the right intentions to maintain and advance public education in Connecticut."
But with the recent FUSE events, even some Democrats have privately conceded that Pryor has become a political liability for Malloy. That criticism was turned up after embarrassing revelations involving the charter school operator that Pryor had once embraced for his signature education initiative, the Commissioner's Network. Pryor directed additional funds and resources into a network of low performing schools in an effort to turn them around.
With Pryor's approval, FUSE and the Jumoke organization received an annual, state-funded $345,000 management fee to run Milner School in Hartford — an agreement that began in 2012 and was terminated in June after long-standing complaints from city school officials that Milner was being mismanaged.
Once touted by Pryor, the Milner partnership became a debacle. Documents released to The Courant through the Freedom of Information Act show that then-Superintendent Christina Kishimoto threatened to fire FUSE over problems that included a vague curriculum and lack of teacher training. Milner Principal Karen Lott also expressed concern to Pryor about the "absence of needed instructional resources," despite the infusion of state funds for Milner.
Emails also show that Pryor's aides sought to mediate a truce over the past several months and to continue the FUSE-Milner partnership for the 2014-15 school year.
Asked about the complaints over Milner, Pryor told The Courant in June that "there are critiques that go both ways ... I don't know enough about either of their activities to know the details of who's right and who's wrong in every single instance." He also expressed support for FUSE, which in 2013 began managing another Commissioner's Network school, Dunbar School in Bridgeport, for a $435,000 state-funded fee.
That changed after The Courant published stories later in June detailing Sharpe's decades-old criminal background, which included 1989 guilty pleas to charges of embezzlement and conspiracy in connection with a federal corruption case.
After acknowledging that he falsely claimed to have a doctorate in education, Sharpe, the former head of Jumoke Academy, resigned as FUSE CEO on June 21.
FUSE would soon be pulled from Milner, Dunbar and a new charter school in New Haven, Booker T. Washington Academy, that had received Pryor's recommendation in the spring.
Pryor has placed Jumoke on a 60-day probation and instituted administrative actions to tighten controls on state-financed charter schools.
Praise For Pryor
East Hartford schools Superintendent Nathan Quesnel, co-chairman of the governor's Common Core Task Force, said he appreciated Pryor's efforts "toward closing the achievement gap," such as the millions in additional state funding provided to low-performing "alliance" districts and schools in the Commissioner's Network.
Jennifer Alexander, chief executive officer at ConnCAN, an education reform advocacy group that has supported Pryor and charter schools, said: "There are those who will use this moment to declare the 'end of reform.' They couldn't be more wrong ... We urge the next governor to appoint a Commissioner of Education who will continue efforts to improve public education in our state."
Gwen Samuel, president of the Connecticut Parents Union, which advocates for improved education, said she is concerned that Pryor's successor might not be as focused on making schools better.
Samuel said of Pryor: "He wasn't the greatest, but he was our hope that he was going to bring reform. … He had the tough conversations about improving education. Are we going to go back to business as usual?"
Staff writer Daniela Altimari contributed to this story.Copyright © 2015, CT Now