State Changes Course On Education Commissioner | Connecticut Public Radio
WNPR

State Changes Course On Education Commissioner

Jul 17, 2019

In a dramatic reversal, Miguel Cardona, an assistant superintendent in Meriden, is expected to be chosen as Connecticut’s next state education commissioner, rather than Bloomfield Superintendent James Thompson, sources close to the search committee said Tuesday. 

The state Board of Education is expected to recommend Cardona to Gov. Ned Lamont this week. Sources said Cardona was chosen over Thompson because, as the selection process came to an end, he appeared to be a better leader for the times.

Just last week, in a letter dated July 8, the governor’s chief operating officer, Paul Mounds Jr., said he was pleased to offer Thompson employment as the the state commissioner of education. Mounds pointed out Tuesday, that the letter did specify that “this agreement is valid upon your recommendation for Commissioner by Connecticut State Board of Education.”

For that reason, Mounds said, the job offer was not a definite arrangement. In addition, Mounds said that as conversations occurred with Thompson “concerning the roles, responsibilities and potential salary” to become commissioner, it became clear that the discussion over salary was not moving toward agreement. The salary offered in the letter was $192,500.

But Stan Simpson, a spokesman for Thompson and the Bloomfield district, said that Thompson accepted the job offer, only to have the governor renege on it and in so doing “publicly and needlessly humiliated one of Connecticut’s most respected education leaders. This process lacked integrity — and now it lacks candor.”

Simpson said the governor and his advisors “caved in to external pressure. It’s as simple as that.”

But a source close to the search said that as discussions with Thompson progressed, “it became clear that the administration and the State Board of Education and Dr. Thompson were not on the same page with respect to roles and responsibilities.”

Cardona, on the other hand, another source said “came prepared, he came with a vision. He came with the sense that he wanted the role for the right reasons.”

“Miguel was the most competent for this moment to become commissioner,” the source said.

Thompson was informed that he was not selected on Tuesday. Simpson said that Thompson wishes Cardona well “and is willing to support him in any way needed” but had sharp words for Lamont.

“James Thompson is a man of high character and integrity – and one of the most influential voices in New England on strategies to reduce the academic achievement gap,” Simpson said. “That the governor didn’t have the conviction to stay with his first choice for Education Commissioner is extremely disappointing – and lacks integrity. He snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.”

Simpson that Thompson is “very disappointed. He accepted a written offer from the governor’s office and was looking forward to working with staff and state superintendents on executing substantive strategies to reduce and eliminate the state’s academic achievement gap.”

Ben Foster, a longtime African American educator in Bloomfield and New Britain who is now retired, said he has been receiving calls from people who are “so very upset about this. I’m still trying to digest the news,” Foster said. “I can’t fathom at this point in time why the position would have been offered to Dr. Thompson and then removed, so I assume that some kind of pressure … I just don’t know.”

Rep. Bobby Gibson, D-Bloomfield, said he plans to have a press conference on Thursday to address the switch in commissioner candidates at the State Capitol at noon, though he declined Tuesday to say more on the subject.

Cardona, 44, who has a doctorate from the University of Connecticut and is bilingual, started his career in Meriden, climbing the ladder from teacher to principal and now serves as assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

“I’m thrilled for Miguel and the state,” said Mark Benigni, who as Meriden superintendent has worked closely with Cardona for many years. “He’s a terrific leader and been an exceptional partner in the work in Meriden and I know he will do a great job at the state.”

“Miguel is a champion for all kids,” Benigni continued. “He wants to make sure those students who need assistance are getting that help. He wants to make sure our highest performers are being challenged each day as well.”

Benigni said Cardona was an exceptional principal at Hanover Elementary School and was named principal of the year in Connecticut in 2012. As assistant superintendent, Cardona “played a huge role in some of the [school] turnaround work we’ve accomplished in Meriden,” Benigni said.

Cardona also was co-chairman of the state’s Achievement Gap Task Force. “Miguel is very creative, innovative and passionate. I’m sure that passion came out in the process,” Benigni said. “I think what he’ll bring to the table is that he is a true collaborator. He will work well with other commissioners. He’s not afraid to look at things from a different angle and think outside the box.”

Benigni said that Cardona has also worked closely with foundations investing in Meriden’s public schools, including the Dalio Foundation, which earlier this year committed $100 million over the next five years to help students in struggling schools. Those funds are to be matched by $100 million in taxpayer dollars.

Cardona has two children who attend Meriden public schools.