Meriden’s Benigni submits credentials for state education commissioner post []

December 10, 2014

Article as it appeared in the Meriden Record-Journal

MERIDEN — School Superintendent Mark D. Benigni said Monday he had submitted his resume and credentials to the American Federation of Teachers Connecticut chapter upon the union’s request to recommend him for state education commissioner.

“I am fortunate over the last 20 years to have worked with so many dedicated teachers who embrace change and put student learning at the core of their work. To have their union leadership recommend me for the Commissioner of Education position is a great honor and very humbling,” Benigni said in a statement.

An AFT spokesman confirmed that the union had submitted Benigni’s name for consideration for the soon-to-be vacant position. In his statement, Benigni said “it is premature in the process to discuss any further.”

“We have long advocated for the kind of collaborative leadership that Mark Benigni has demonstrated as superintendent of Meriden Public Schools.” said AFT Connecticut President Melodie Peters.“By working with the district’s teachers and support staff as true partners, Mark has helped bring about real improvements in the community’s schools over the past four years.

“Mark shares our local union members’ mission of reclaiming the promise of public education and their labor-management relationship has greatly benefited Meriden,” Peters added. “We believe he would bring that same approach to the role of State Education Department commissioner, which would naturally benefit all of Connecticut.”

At last week’s state Board of Education meeting, Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor announced he would leave office the first week of January. The board voted at its meeting to recommend an interim commissioner by Jan. 7.
David Bednarz, deputy press secretary for Malloy, said Monday, “The Governor’s office is in the midst of a thorough search for the next Education Commissioner, a process that includes gathering suggestions and input from stakeholders.”

Kelly Donnelly, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said: “The state Board of Education is currently focused on selecting an interim commissioner. Once the interim has been named, (the members) will turn their attention to determining the details of the search process for a permanent commissioner.”

Benigni notified Meriden Board of Education President Mark Hughes Nov. 19 that he was contacted about the job opening. In the email, which Benigni provided to the Record-Journal, Benigni said he was “asked by someone who corresponds regularly with the Governor’s Chief of Staff to share my resume for consideration for Commissioner of Education.” Benigni said he did submit his resume to the union but added that “many other candidate names have been submitted as well.”

“Even if I was pursued further for the position, I would have to seriously consider my family obligations and my love of my current position,” he wrote.

Hughes notified the other members of the school board in an email three hours after he was contacted by Benigni. He outlined a half-hour discussion he had with Benigni and added there has been “long running speculation” about Benigni and the vacancy.

“We discussed what a great opportunity it is and also how much he loves his current position,” Hughes wrote. “He has assured me that this is a step in the process that he would [be] foolish not to take no matter what he ultimately decides if offered the position.”

In October, Malloy appointed Benigni chairman of the State Education Resource Center Board, formerly the Special Education Resource Center — a quasi-public agency primarily funded by the state Department of Education.

Malloy was a frequent visitor to Meriden schools in the past year, having toured extended-day programs at Casimir Pulaski and Roger Sherman schools with Benigni and national AFT President Randi Weingarten. Malloy has also visited the city’s two high schools under renovation.

In 2006, Malloy considered Benigni as a running mate in his race for governor before losing a Democratic primary to Ned Lamont. Malloy was successful in his 2010 bid and was re-elected last month.

On Monday, Hughes said that since the original request for documents Benigni “has had no contact from anyone at the Capitol. This is extremely preliminary.

“That being said, I think he would make an outstanding candidate,” Hughes said. “He’s proven himself a collaborative leader, he’s advanced our district immensely — for all the reasons we think he’s an outstanding superintendent I’m sure state officials would think he’d make an outstanding commissioner.”

Board of Education members renewed Benigni’s contract this past summer, extending it until June 2017 with a 2.85 percent raise. Benigni’s contract is renewable every year and gives him a salary of $173,376 and other benefits.

A vote to authorize Hughes to sign the contract was unanimous with one abstention by board member John Lineen, who has said only that it was for “personal reasons.” Lineen could not be reached for comment Monday.
Pryor earned $185,048 as education commissioner in 2013.

Benigni’s verbal evaluation by the board was nothing short of glowing, with members describing him as a “calculated risk taker who is willing to do what it takes to advance the Meriden school district,” according to an evaluation summary.

Hughes said Monday that the school board hasn’t set forth any formal plan for replacing Benigni as superintendent should his candidacy move forward, comparing Benigni’s recommendation for the post to buying a lottery ticket.
“If you buy a $500,000 lottery ticket, it’s fun to think about what you would do with it, but you don’t start mortgaging the house,” he said.

Board Secretary Robert E. Kosienski Jr. said Monday that aside from the email sent by Hughes the full board hasn’t discussed the issue. He added, however, that it’s “an honor for the AFT to have put his name forward.

“Is there a better-qualified person in the state? Probably not,” Kosienski said.

Benigni, 43, was hired as school superintendent in 2010. He previously worked as principal of Cromwell High School and an assistant principal at Berlin High School. He is also a former mayor of Meriden.

“I’m not surprised the (Malloy) administration sat down with the union and asked ‘who do you want?’” said state Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, a ranking member of the Education Committee. “It looks like the AFT has its candidate.”

Boucher was among many who saw Malloy’s union support falter after a series of missteps that began shortly after winning his first term and appointing Pryor.

“There was so much being thrown at them that it converged to cause a tremendous amount of friction among teachers,” Boucher said. “Because of the damage, once the election did occur, you ask the unions what they want and give them what they want.”

Pryor came to the job as a “change agent,” in Malloy’s words, one of the high-profile outsiders Malloy recruited to his administration.

Pryor served as a deputy for former Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Cory A. Booker. He worked on economic development after serving as president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Yale-educated lawyer founded a charter school in New Haven, and worked on education and youth issues in New Haven for Mayor John DeStefano.

Although it is not unusual for a commissioner to step down after one term, many political watchers saw in Pryor’s announcement that he was a liability to the governor’s re-election.

In June, before formally endorsing Malloy, the statewide labor federation adopted a resolution offered by AFT-Connecticut calling for a requirement that the education commissioner hold the same credentials as a school superintendent, a standard Pryor didn’t meet.

While announcing Pryor’s resignation, Malloy also announced the appointment of Meriden Federation of Teachers president Erin Benham to a seat on the state Board of Education.

Benham declined comment Monday.

The state board is in the process of selecting an interim commissioner as it searches for Pryor’s replacement. With an interim commissioner in place, the board will turn its attention to screening candidates for the permanent commissioner spot to recommend to the governor.

Malloy’s candidate will get a public hearing and vetting by the legislature’s Nominations and Appointments Committee before receiving a vote in the House or the Senate.

According to former state Sen. Thomas Gaffey, “The governor usually gets the person they want.”

Gaffey pushed for changing the law in 2007 because the education commissioner was the only cabinet position not vetted before the General Assembly.

“I’m sure Mark Benigni will do very well,” said Gaffey, a Meriden Democrat and former co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee.

Boucher said she was familiar with the national recognition Benigni has received for implementing extended-day programs and enrichment activities in three city schools.

“I’m encouraged by some of the things he’s done that have worked in urban schools,” she said. “The concerns are his quick rise at each position, and his age and he’s put forward by the teachers unions who have gotten some negative feedback for maintaining the status quo. But the AFT seems to be much more open to adapting and open-minded in New Haven.”

In the past, Wallingford School Superintendent Salvatore Menzo has also expressed an interest in the commissioner’s job, though he declined to comment Monday.

Roxane McKay, Wallingford Board of Education chairwoman, said Menzo hasn’t announced anything officially.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if Sal (Menzo) ends up on a short list somewhere, though,” McKay said. “What they’re looking for in terms of a commissioner, I’m certain Sal’s qualifications would fit the bill. I think he’d make an excellent candidate. I would hate to see him leave Wallingford, though.”

Joseph Cirascuolo, director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said Monday that he wasn’t aware of Benigni’s recommendation by the union, nor any other member superintendents who expressed interest. He weighed in on Benigni’s qualifications, however.
“Mark’s a capable superintendent, he’s team-oriented, he’s a leader; he would make a great commissioner,” Cirascuolo said.

Information from the Connecticut Mirror, an independent, nonprofit news organization covering government, politics and public policy, is included in this story.