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Norwalk partisans continue to play blame game over Rivera’s exit

NORWALK, Conn. – There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to the exit of Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Manny Rivera, State Sen. Bob Duff (D-25) said Saturday.

“I saw him the other day,” Duff said at the League of Women Voters of Norwalk’s Pie and Politics forum. “There are some things that he said publicly about why he left, and there is some things he didn’t say publicly about why he left. I think if the public had the full story they might change their tune a little.”

Duff was responding to a request made by Joe Giandurco, a social studies teacher who often attends Board of Education meetings and who is married to Councilwoman Shannon O’Toole Giandurco (R-District D).

Giandurco asked Duff and State Rep. Chris Perone (D-137) what the Democratic Party is planning to do about the BoE situation, referring to “negative and visceral attacks” from Democratic members that “fostered the resignation of probably the best superintendent we have ever had.”

Giandurco said he is in his 14th year as a Norwalk teacher and is on his seventh superintendent.

“It’s getting to the point that I can’t do my job, but I’ll be blamed by the community because I don’t have a leader to rely on,” Giandurco said.

Indeed, Norwalk superintendents have come and gone in this time period:

  • Sal Corda 2001-2009
  • Susan Marks 2010-2012
  • Manny Rivera 2013-2014

There were interim superintendents as well, including Deputy Superintendent Tony Daddona and current interim James Connelly, according to Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large), a former BoE member.

Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Manny Rivera.

Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Manny Rivera.

Giandurco said it “took the air out of the balloon of the Norwalk Public Schools the minute (Rivera) resigned.” Norwalk “would be getting ECS funding if (Rivera) was here,” Giandurco said.

Perone said he could agree that the rhetoric needs to be dialed down, calling it a no-brainer.

Party politics are a “whole other conversation,” he said, as BoE members will be held accountable when the next election came around.

Duff came out of the box swinging. “It’s both sides,” he said. “It’s not just one side.”

Duff said that Rivera’s exit was a punch in the gut. The situation will not be helped by people taking cheap shots and attacking the mayor, he said.

“If it was acknowledged that there was probably fault on both sides I think we could move forward. Until we get to that point where we depoliticize this issue, we’re going to have a hard time moving forward,” Duff said.

Reached Sunday, BoE Chairman Mike Lyons said in an email, “If Bob can give a single example of behavior on the part of Dr. Rivera’s supporters that somehow contributed to his departure the way the publicly verifiable (in tapes on your website) behaviors of his three Board opposers did, I’d be happy to talk about it.  Otherwise, his comment is just political cover for those who opposed Dr. Rivera and eventually made his life here miserable. Attempting to spread the blame to those who are blameless is a perfect example of politicizing the situation.”

Rivera could not be reached for comment, but he said at the time there was more to his decision than the racism charge, although that was a painful factor. “I’m not going to go down the road of bashing people or being critical of one, two, three, four or five individuals,” Rivera said. “I don’t think that that’s productive or useful. It’s not my style, it’s not how I operate.

“The other observation I made was, ‘Boy, the stakes are really in the ground here.’ I guess part of my concern, which made me think that Norwalk would be a difficult place to be long term, was that I didn’t see things changing,” Rivera said.

Asked by email about Duff’s assertion that Rivera had private reasons for leaving, Mayor Harry Rilling wrote, “I had several private conversations with Dr. Rivera after he announced his intention to take the position in New London. He shared some very personal reasons for his decision. I will not violate the confidence he placed in me. I was very disappointed that he left but respected his decision. We should now move forward to find a new superintendent who will implement the programs started by Dr. Rivera and begin implementing his or her vision.”

23 comments

John Hamlin March 2, 2015 at 7:04 am

This is all politics and one can hope that another election cycle will eliminate some of the toxic incompetent BOE members. But don’t defend them.

EastNorwalkChick March 2, 2015 at 7:17 am

Are we sure that it is the Board and politics at fault here, or could it be the life long BOE administration employees who felt their fiefdoms threatened that Rivera is speaking about and helped him make his decision to leave?

Lisa Thomson March 2, 2015 at 7:36 am

I was at the LWV meeting and appreciated Chris Perone’s honesty in acknowledging the bad behavior. Sadly, Bob Duff deflected – brought up the mayor (I never even heard his name mentioned in the question) and tried to blame everyone – then said he didn’t really know what goes on on the BOE. Really, Bob? As long as you have been a senator, I’ve personally asked you to intervene on various educational issues and you have – dodged or deflected. This is part of the reason we are not on the best of terms. You know exactly what has been is going for years and yet you shy away. Education is messy but it is the lynchpin of so many issues that plague Norwalk. Voters seem to be repeatedly electing a person who is the lead water carrier for Hartford – but who does very little heavy lifting for Norwalk.

Oldtimer March 2, 2015 at 8:59 am

Politics can be a messy business. Everybody tries to sound like they have enormous respect for Dr Rivera, but the same people insist on speaking about his reasons for leaving as if they knew, direct from Dr Rivera when they never had a conversation with him. There is something not quite honest about this approach. Most try to put a political spin on the story, blaming the “other” party. The mayor did have some private conversations, which he intends to keep private, presumably because he was asked.

There are probably a number of reasons Dr Rivera went home to New London. A recent marriage is certainly one of them, especially if his new bride wanted to stay in New London. I won’t speculate on other reasons, but it is no secret Norwalk is not an easy job for a reform minded superintendent dealing with so many entrenched people who seem dedicated to maintaining status quo and have lived through many superintendents. They tend to think of a new super as, at best, a two year situation and national statistics seem to support that attitude.

Bruce Kimmel March 2, 2015 at 9:07 am

As Dr. Rivera was in the process of applying for the New London job, he met with a number of people and said a number of things. It is important to remember that he was applying for a superintendent’s job in another Connecticut city and was careful about what he said; and it is also important to remember that he did, indeed, have some personal issues for leaving that had nothing to do with politics or education.

Having said that, I take great exception to the rumor-mongering among a few political leaders whose goal is simply to spread the blame for Rivera’s departure so broadly that it protects their own political party. I was astounded when I first heard their argument, and appalled at how quickly the notion spread that their were really five members of the BOE, including Rivera’s biggest supporters, responsible for his departure. It’s become an article of faith among party leaders.

By focusing on what the former superintendent might have said about a couple of board members “micromanaging,” and then raising it to the level of the racism charges and obstruction of three other board members may be the worst, and most politically self-serving false equivalency I’ve seen in a long time. And is undoubtedly the reason why there has been no public statements condemning the behavior of certain members of the board. How convenient.

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of what went on every two weeks at board meetings knows what really happened, and are probably quite upset that there have been no consequences.

Lisa Thomson March 2, 2015 at 9:09 am

Old Timer – you are right. But at some point Norwalk has to look within its own political soul (if it has one) and acknowledge the string of superintendents that have graced the halls of East Avenue. Reasonable people in politics have turned a blind eye to the dysfunction for years. I applaud Joe Giundurco for saying what parents and teachers feel at the moment.

Casey Smith March 2, 2015 at 1:58 pm

Before Dr. Rivera even arrived, there were Board members who were claiming they had no input in to the selection process and then voted against his appointment. IMHO, that cast the die. The man wasn’t even in the building yet. It was the same thing that happened with Dr. Marks.

Regarding the racism accusations, this was pretty telling. “Rivera could not be reached for comment, but he said at the time there was more to his decision than the racism charge, although that was a painful factor.”

The fact that he also got married would also factor in. All in all, it does not make for a good situation, and Dr. Rivera realized it. Those are all things that I know about via the media and doesn’t bring in any of the personal reasons. I can’t fault Dr. Rivera one bit.

Bill March 2, 2015 at 3:38 pm

Bob Duff, shame on you. Shame on you for covering for a few individuals within your political party. Have a spine. You obviously never attended a BOE meeting or read a transcript. It is people like you and the public unions who fund your campaign that don’t allow Norwalk to succeed. Shame.

Steve Colarossi March 2, 2015 at 4:21 pm

If you read nothing else of this long-winded diatribe, know this: Bob Duff was right.

Those who claim to “know” that a seasoned superintendent left because a minority of his BoE didn’t wholeheartedly support every one of his initiatives either possess (1) psychic ability for Dr. Rivera never blamed any single group for his departure, (2) an exalted opinion of the political abilities of the three members or (3) an extremely low opinion of Dr. Rivera’s ability to overcome strife while achieving all of his objectives.

The truth of the matter is that there are a multitude of reasons why a superintendent who had a job offer in the same city as he and his wife had family and friends would choose to live and work there instead of a city 80 miles from that “home” town.

Let’s first look at the political environment in which Dr. Rivera was expected to function. In response to some groundless claims of racism, one member derided his colleagues by referring to one as “the girl who cried black.” And, instead of leaders from both political parties strongly denouncing those comments, there was a host of “Ah, come-on . . . you know he’s just passionate.” Now, I question if a seasoned superintendent, seeing the drama playing out before him, doesn’t think that the city is so politicized that different rules exist depending upon whether certain self-proclaimed advocates and leaders like you.

And, this being Norwalk, the absence of evidence being offered for the claims can’t simply lead to the slow death of the story. Ignoring Galations 6:5, subverting Aristotle and extolling Nietzsche, the blame-mongerers promote renewed rounds of finger-pointing trying to hold some (but not all) politicians to account for their not making any charges of racism, for their not offering any support for the charges they didn’t make and for their not possessing the legal authority to do anything about the charges they neither made nor supported.

Let’s examine if reading blog comments instilled in Manny Rivera a sense that the entire Norwalk community was willing to engage in the kinds of difficult discussions needed to advance the true reform that our students need. One BoE member attacks website posters with whom he disagrees by assuming that they must be me and then offering imprudent and petulant commentary. Once again, hardly a BoE member a seasoned superintendent would feel comfortable turning to for an honest exchange of ideas. Combine that with the same member’s posting an attack of Norwalk’s state senator and implying that Sen. Duff shares in the blame for the BoE’s problems because he supported one candidate in 2013, and you have to wonder if Manny Rivera didn’t grow tired of being a playground referee.

Clearly BoE members who speak first and think later (if at all) might only be one reason why a seasoned superintendent felt it was as good a time as any to click his heels together three times and ride the first bubble home.

There is always the conflict that arose when BoE members decided that they had the votes to subvert an orderly curriculum and textbook review and tried to impose their own agenda on the process. Imagine your first days on the job and you find that you must weigh in on a critical issue that pits your teachers and administrators against the chairman of your Board of Education. Funny, but I don’t know if that’s the place that a seasoned superintendent with lots of options would chose to stay.

Of course, Manny also had to contend with a collection of former politicians, current BoE members and alleged reformers who, in blog posts, social media commentary and public comments at BoE meetings, would attack his deputy, praising his predecessor (with a stupefying lack of factual support), and demand the heads of administrators they feel don’t pass their muster. Whether he agreed with them or not, you have to wonder if their opinionated zeal didn’t leave Dr. Rivera questioning if his three-hour daily commute might some day bring him to the receiving end of their ire. And, in a world of deepening political factions, one must wonder if having no term limits for the BoE chairperson wouldn’t cause an independent-minded superintendent to question if such longevity couldn’t create competing caliphates (between the school departments political and educational leaders).

Now, I appreciate that the reasons why Manny Rivera left our kids promotes more passion and inability to see the other side’s view than the black-blue vs. white-gold dress controversy. But, as many of us have tried to learn a little something about perception bias through “the dress” intrigue, maybe we could take some time to try to learn about our own perception bias when evaluating our elected officials. Or, we could forget the whole thing and hope for more videos of escaping llamas to distract us from the appalling lack of accountability among certain of our elected officials and the disastrous effect it will have on our public schools and community.

piberman March 2, 2015 at 6:16 pm

Senator Duff is clearly giving “political cover” to local Democratic Party Chieftons and Mayor Rilling who never quite found the words to publicly object to the public claims of discrimination by two Democratic BOE members against the BOE. And pave the way for continued “public service” by these Democarats who have so embarrassed our City. That’s the real story here. Not why the Supt. left. Any Supt. worth his mettle would have been astounded that the Democratic Party Chief and the Democratic Mayor remained silent over these bizzarre and damaging charges. Imagine what could come next ? No Supt. can long remain in Norwalk while Democrat elected officials lack basic civility.

Senator Duff has weighted in on the downtown mall and now weighs in on the embarrassment of local Party officials. Better that Senator Duff confine his energies and talents to Hartford where our Governor has difficulty even correctly reporting the state deficit let alone managing it. Better that Senator Duff devote his energies to the ECS debacle. Everyone knows that Senator Duff “stands up for Norwalk”. But really we can manage our local affairs by ourselves. Thanks you very much 6 months after the fact ahead of next falls election when civic minded voters will have an opp;ortunity to tell Democrats how much they appreciate their valuable public service for our school children. .

Norwalker35566 March 2, 2015 at 8:13 pm

This comment was disallowed because it violated our policy against attacking other commenters.

Joanna Cooper March 3, 2015 at 8:51 am

Dr. Rivera had his reasons for leaving but he had no reasons to stay. His reasons can be debated but the results cannot. We are once again a city without a permanent leader for our educational system. A city with a long history of not keeping their superintendents. That instability hurts our educational system and our city.

Why does this keep happening? One comment says it all, “Boy the stakes are really in the ground here”. There is a large faction in Norwalk doesn’t want change. Dr. Rivera is right about that. It’s the culture that our superintendents have run away from. A culture promulgated by an entrenched group of administrators and politicians that embrace unaccountability and the status quo.

It’s not just the political bullying of the three “obstructionist” BoE members lodging unfounded and unproven racist claims, certain insubordinate administrators maintaining fiefdoms and the deafening silence of the mayor, and Senator Duff as Norwalk was called ground zero for racism. It is no resolution and no plans for any months later. It’s all of it and more. Why would he or any others stay for long?

The ripple effects of losing another superintendent are so profound it’s hard to calculate the totality of the impact. It goes beyond hurting the morale of students and staff in schools and at Central Office. The Teacher said it… “It’s hard to do my job.” The lack of stability will not help to attract a highly qualified new superintendent, has significantly hurt property values and will not aide Norwalk in securing additional finding from the state.

It’s a mess and it is not going to change. The one real leader we had in town walked out the door. Who could blame him? There is no defending the racist claims Senator Duff. They are obviously bogus. Anyone reasonable logical grown up would have come to the table for a discussion and a resolution. It’s dirty politics and you foster their antics and not the kids by making excuses for them.

M. Murray's March 3, 2015 at 9:09 am

History is the greatest predictor of the future. Rivera bounced around every few years, and even accepted a job in Boston and then left before even starting. This is an ongoing pattern of hiring Superintendents who have no roots here, and will be here for the short term. Norwalk will continue to follow the trend of hiring people far from our district who will stay 2 or three years and then move on. If they want something different they will have to hire someone who has established roots within a very short distance of Norwalk.

Mr. Ludlow March 3, 2015 at 12:02 pm

Bad news: Fiefdoms will exist as long as BoE members go out of their way to protect the employees they like. It takes outrageous actions to get moved out (like creating an NPS discount airline). Overspending, failing to evaluate staff, and stretching the truth on a resume can all be career enhancers (if you’re in the right camp).
More bad news: All the BoE factions have administrators they protect. Why do you think they voted to waste big bucks for early retirement payouts?

Hobbes the Calvinist March 3, 2015 at 12:54 pm

The Board of Education can learn to heal its factions if the members start watching more late night t.v.

Maybe they could all watch Disney’s High School Musical (parts 1, 2 or 3) and overcome their differences by putting on a show. Who wouldn’t pay to hear Mike Lyons and Rosa Murray sing “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” to start each meeting?

The simplest solution might be for them to watch re-runs of Mister Rodgers Neighborhood. Then they could learn that they are all neighbors who should be a little nicer to one another.

Fran Wagoner March 3, 2015 at 2:00 pm

It seems like Steve Colarossi is a little early to start campaigning. I guess he is campaigning. Why is a Republican attacking another Republican? That just doesn’t seem right.

Steve Colarossi March 4, 2015 at 5:01 pm

@Fran- Being honest about the school system that is supposed to be serving my children aren’t the musings of a politician. They are the concerns of a dad who is worried that the four years it will take my son to be school-age won’t be enough time to fix the school department’s accountability deficit.

Oldtimer March 8, 2015 at 12:03 pm

Rivera moving on to another superintendent position is part of a national trend. The job is NOT a long term position in urban school systems anymore. The research that reports that fact does not even try to explain the reasons, but the numbers are clear. The job is the capstone of a professional career, only awarded to former teachers who have continued their personal post-graduate education to the phd level and earned retirement benefits from another urban system. In short, even with the high pay, there is not much incentive for a retired person to stay for a long time.

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