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Opinion: It’s June 1st — Do you know where your child’s preschool program is?

Steven Colarossi

Steven Colarossi

Correction 10:28 a.m.: A contract referred to between the Board of Education and Stepping Stones Museum was signed by former Supt. Manny Rivera, not the current superintendent.

 

Steven Colarossi is a former member of Norwalk’s Board of Education whose wife is one of the two Brookside preschool teachers who will maintain their salaries when transferred to another grade next year.  He has recently filed a complaint with the state Freedom of Information Commission against the Norwalk Public Schools for failing to provide financial documentation concerning Norwalk’s preschool programs.   A copy of that complaint, as well as copies of the documents he referenced, is available at http://drive.google.com/drive/folders/0B9zEmk3mJF92Q0tCQjJoYjd4ZFE

For nearly one month, parents of children at the only preschool operated by the Norwalk Public Schools have been forced to wonder what program Supt. Steven Adamowski will deign to offer them for next year.

Since May 4, when the Brookside PTO president sought information on the Norwalk Parents for Education Facebook page about rumors that Supt. Adamowski was privatizing the public preschool at Brookside Elementary School, the Administration has jealously guarded any information that might be important to the parents of the toddlers nurtured and educated in that program.

Despite days of concerned postings from the parents of children in Brookside’s preschool program, Supt. Adamowski refused to offer any information, much less any opportunity to meet with these parents.  Instead, on May 9, his Chief Communications Officer posted a response that the program was not being “privatized” but that “best practices” were being implemented and that changes were “expected” for the Brookside program. Of course, those “best practices” involved ceding the public preschool to a private company with less than four years of experience and no accreditation in the field. The private company, Stepping Stones Museum for Children, had previously partnered with the private, for-profit Literacy How, Inc., in opening a preschool at the museum in 2012.

At the suggestion of a Board of Education officer who misinformed the parents in a series of Facebook posts that Norwalk’s Early Childhood Council had authority over changes to the Brookside preschool program, parents attended the Early Childhood Council meeting of May 11.  There, more questions were raised when the district’s Instructional Specialist for Early Childhood explained that the superintendent had made the decision to change the program, that a meeting would be eventually scheduled for parents, but that no meeting could be scheduled until a contract was signed with the private preschool provider.  Of course, after a contract is signed there is no opportunity for parental input to have any meaning.  Those hearing those words were left with the sinking feeling that their parental input was meaningless as Supt. Adamowski, who has never visited the Brookside preschool program, had already decided on his privatization plan.

But still, no information was provided to the parents whose very young children were expecting to return to the school and the teachers with whom they had formed a bond over the past year.

Then, at the May 17 Board of Education meeting, supporters of the Brookside program (including the Brookside PTO president) addressed the lack of parental input into the decision that appeared to have been made behind closed doors between a newly appointed superintendent and a private preschool provider that lacked the national accreditation which the Brookside program (under the stewardship of the same two teachers who have taught there since it began in 2007) had achieved.

The only morsel offered by Supt. Adamowski was that comments made about a possible vote on this privatization plan would not occur at the June 7 Board of Education meeting because that would be a “working” meeting at which a revised Strategic Operating Plan would be presented.

Now, here we are nearly one month since parents first learned unofficially of the privatization plan and they are still without any information as to what the new program will entail, who will be their children’s teachers and how a private group with only limited preschool experience will manage the four preschool classrooms Supt. Adamowski intends to award them.

Now, admittedly, as Supt. Adamowski’s minions have stated, he did include one sentence in his draft Strategic Operating Plan of an interest in furthering a partnership with Stepping Stones Museum for Children which had been operating a preschool (not licensed by the state) at Fox Run Elementary School since October 2014.  And, I suppose that working parents should have thought to read the draft Strategic Operating Plan more closely and divined the true meaning behind that one sentence. But, shouldn’t a superintendent of schools, who in the same draft Strategic Operating Plan pledged to “refine and implement a communication system to increase transparency to the community and improve feedback loops to the district,” have thought enough of Norwalk’s parents to appreciate that not everyone would have the psychic ability to discern that a nationally accredited, highly regarded public preschool program was at risk for privatization?

You see, as parents have tried to explain, high-quality full-day preschool slots are typically filled by March or April for the coming school year. Yet, Supt. Adamowski’s refusal to provide any information to the parents until he decides they are worthy of it eviscerates their ability to make an informed decision for their children. And, worse still, these parents will be left with few options if they decide that their children would be better served elsewhere.

Sadly, this lack of an organized “communication system” and refusal to allow any “transparency” into his proposed contract with a private preschool provider reflects an on-going pattern by the Norwalk Public Schools.  First, the contract for the private preschool at Fox Run requires the Norwalk Public Schools (that’s the taxpayers) to pay the tuition for each child who attends the program, to pay a portion of the administrative salaries and benefits of the people hired by the private provider, to pay for the company’s supplies, to pay for all the start-up costs of outfitting the preschool classrooms, to pay for the staff needed to collect and account for the tuitions charged to the families using this program and to pay for regular newsletters to the preschool families.  And, secondly, if that’s not enough, the Fox Run preschool contract also gives this private program free (and that term is used quite literally) reign to use not just their classroom but also all of the school’s other facilities.  Thirdly, Norwalk has also reimbursed Stepping Stones for the costs of the annual Stepping Stones Museum memberships given to the families of the children at the Stepping Stones preschool at Fox Run. This is a contract, despite several amendments which were signed by former Supt. Manny Rivera that has never been disclosed to or approved by the Norwalk Board of Education.

Adding to this lack of transparency is that Supt. Adamowski signed a contract with Stepping Stones for the museum to provide teacher training to Norwalk’s special education preschool teachers at a cost of $245,000 over a three-year period. Certainly, this contract raises the obvious question about what expertise a children’s museum (even one with as illustrious a reputation among children’s museums as Stepping Stones) knows about teaching special education pre-school students.  But, it should also raise a more fundamental question — why is the Norwalk Public Schools paying an “Instructional Specialist for Early Childhood” (who oversees 10 preschool teachers) and paying an additional $245,000 for training of her staff (a service one would expect a well-paid district administrator to provide)?

Now, like me, I’m sure that many people are certain that someone on the Norwalk Board of Education would have raised these issues when the teacher training contract was sent to them for approval. Unfortunately, like Brookside’s preschool parents, the Board of Education wasn’t given the courtesy of being informed about such an important decision.

“Communication” requires more than merely announcing decisions that have been made without any input from parents and taxpayers. “Transparency” requires a superintendent of schools to do more than offer a single, cryptic sentence in a draft document for a change that will have a significant impact on Norwalk’s youngest and most vulnerable students.  But, underlying such true communication and transparency is the requirement that the leader of our schools recognizes that he is accountable to the citizens he serves, and that information is not a scarce commodity to be rationed by fiat but a right to which all are entitled.

18 comments

Steve Colarossi June 2, 2016 at 8:38 am

CORRECTION: No amendments to the Fox Run Preschool Contract were signed by Supt. Adamowski. Please excuse my error.

Editor’s note: This correction has been made in the story.

Educator June 2, 2016 at 8:48 am

If Colarossi’s accusations are true this is very disturbing. It may be time to ask the state to come in and do an audit on Adamowski’s operation.

Laurie Hall June 2, 2016 at 10:55 am

Since the ultimate oversight for the schools is the responsibility of the superintendent and the oversight of the superintendent is the responsibility of the Board of Education, I hope Mike
Lyons responds to Mr. Colarossi’s letter. If it’s true that my tax dollars are currently paying, and have been paying, for a private company in a public school (Fox Run), I want to know why the taxpayers paid for the Stepping Stones preschool.

If Stepping Stones is going to take over the Brookside program, will the taxpayers be paying for that too? Let’s see the data supporting why Stepping Stones should be in charge of any of Norwalk’s preschools.

A_Martin June 2, 2016 at 9:05 pm

Those poor parents. It’s not fair to make them wait for a simple answer.
How can a school department be so insensitive to families?

Linda Chave June 2, 2016 at 9:40 pm

Bravo, Mr. Colarossi! I’ve really attempted not to comment on any decisions made by the current Superintendent as I didn’t want to be labeled as one of the ‘complainers’ who could force yet another ‘g-r-e-a-t’ superintendent out of Norwalk. As many will remember, that was the ‘blame game’ played by some members of the BOE and many of Norwalk’s education ‘experts’ after Manny Rivera’s departure. However, at this point the lack of transparency on the part of Adamowski’s ‘team’ is truly appalling. While his Chief Communications Officer continues to make us all ‘dizzy’ with the spin put on recent NPS ‘moves,’ it’s no wonder that Norwalk’s parents are feeling not just confused, but often deceived, by his decision making-process. As for Stepping Stones’ involvement with Norwalk pre-school professional development, of all the entities in the City, Stepping Stones might be one of the least qualified to provide PD for special education pre-school teachers. I’m also surprised but, then again, not entirely, that the Norwalk Board of Education actually paid for the annual Stepping Stones memberships given to preschool families at Fox Run – that’s very deceptive. Contrary to popular opinion, Stepping Stones, also an expert on ‘spin’, really does little ‘for free’ for the children of Norwalk, many of who are among the most underserved in Southern Fairfield County. As for the privatization of education – at any level – all one has to do is read how that’s working in other parts of the country to realize it’s the beginning of the end of free public education for our state’s and indeed our nation’s children. Just think of how private companies – like banks, or utility providers, or insurance companies – respond to YOUR consumer complaints. Now imagine yourself, and your children, as ‘consumers’ dealing with private education conglomerates and you’ll have a pretty good glimpse of the future of education if privatization continues at its current pace. Thanks again, Mr. Colarossi – I really admire your courage- and, as a secondary educator with SPED cross-certification, and ardent supporter of free, quality public education that SERVES ALL CHILDREN AND THEIR FAMILIES, I look forward to what your Freedom of Information fact finding reveals.

Bryan Meek June 3, 2016 at 9:39 am

In a perfect world we might be able to, but the city simply can not afford six figure salaries and lavish benefits for pre school teachers. Some think that all are entitled to a free public education, but the reality is it is not free and we must live within our means.

We are mandated by state law to comply with binding arbitration arrangements by boards appointed by the state’s political leadership. This year statewide average salary increases were over 3%. Norwalk was fortunate in that we were able to come in at under 3%. Still this 3% is $3 million this year, $6 million next, $9 million the year after. So on and so forth.

You get the picture. We need to do things more economically and the ELLI model has proven itself to be successful and a much more efficient model. We simply can not sacrifice 11,000 other children’s educations to continue the gravy train for some.

Steve Colarossi June 3, 2016 at 10:17 am

@LindaChave: Thank you for your kind words. The Board of Education is elected to provide a check and balance on administrators. However, if the BOE isn’t told about one-sided contracts that heap benefits to private companies, and there are no budget transfers on which the BOE is asked to vote, then members of the public need to bring that information to their attention.

Shayne Geir June 3, 2016 at 12:32 pm

I’m confused.
Mr. Meek says that Norwalk can’t afford “six-figure salaries and lavish benefits” for preschool teachers. But can Norwalk afford six figure salaries and lavish benefits for administrators AND rich contracts to private companies to do those administrators’ jobs?

Steve Colarossi June 3, 2016 at 1:41 pm

Bryan Meek has decided to abdicate his duties as a Board of member who should be questioning why lucrative no-bid contracts are being given to benefit a single private company and instead has decided to obscure the issues by trotting out his overwrought complaints with teacher salaries. That a fellow parent doesn’t seem the least bit concerned about the lack of information given to Brookside’s preschool families should, however, be the greatest source of concern for the public Mr. Meek’s ostensibly represents on the Board of Education.

His refusal to address any of the factual claims I made (and which I supported with a link to the actual documents) speaks volumes, as does his lie about the salaries paid to Norwalk’s two public preschool teachers.

Neither my wife nor Abby Peterson are paid six figure salaries. They do receive health benefits, but so does every teacher and administrator employed by the Norwalk Board of Education. Mr. Meek is right that the ability to watch the program they built grow into a nationally-accredited model preschool program is indeed a “lavish” benefit for their years of dedicated service- however, no benefit is as great as the joy they recount in seeing the young children they teach grow into productive students, good students and kind friends to one another.

Bryan Meek June 3, 2016 at 3:03 pm

SC. This isn’t about any two specific teachers. But clearly it is for you, the rest of the system be darned. My points were about the system as a whole. If we are ever going to achieve something close to universal pre K it simply can not be done under existing models. This isn’t a slight at your wife or anyone else. It is simple economic fact.

I’m not sure which other facts I was “supposed” to address either. The one you already had to back peddle on? It was my intent to point out fiscal realities, not to refute you line by line.

Then you accuse me of lying and abdicating my duties. That’s rich coming from someone who’s hallmark contribution for four years was failing to get cupcakes and bake sales banned. Or were you micromanaging staff the whole time with the same lack of transparency you accuse this board of having, while not fixing any of the structural issues we are dealing with today?

Let me be clear. There is absolutely no intention to side step those who desire more and better communication. That is something that can always improve and will always improve under my watch. I too am waiting to see the full designs and yes I have a personal stake with two three year olds, but their interests are best served by optimizing the entire system. There is a lot going on and believe it or not, it’s about the whole system not just you or one classroom. Please give it some time and stop trying to lay blame for the whole pre school mess at the feet of NPS. You know full well how disingenuous you are with this headline and your efforts to whip up a frenzy when all this represents is a minor shift in a major system.

Bryan Meek June 3, 2016 at 3:09 pm

Shayne Geir, in a perfect world we could have robots run the central office, but alas we are stuck with paying market rates for the talent required to manage this operation. Please note, that is market rates. These salaries unlike some others are actually based on supply and demand, whereas others are rigged by state laws we must comply with that make it extremely difficult to afford everything we would all like to have for all of our children. Private sector wages are flat over the last ten years whereas public sectors are up over 25% in that same time. It simply isn’t sustainable. That’s why we need top talent to help manage this and run as efficiently as possible while delivering the highest quality system the taxpayers are willing to afford.

Steve Colarossi June 3, 2016 at 5:31 pm

Bryan Meek: You’re right- the issue of privatizing the Brookside preschool is not about two teachers who will have a job with NPS regardless of the decision that is made. However, your insults and lies made it about the only two teachers who will be affected by the privatization scheme.

You lied when you wrote “the city simply can not afford six figure salaries and lavish benefits for pre school teachers.” There are only two teachers who will be affected by privatization, so you must have been referring to Abby Peterson and Jen Colarossi. Obviously, you know that neither teacher earns a “six figure salary” and that neither teacher is losing her job (they will be moved to another grade). But, it was a nice bit of deception to suggest that the debate is about over-paid union slackers wanting to keep their jobs.

You then impugned both my wife and Abby Peterson when you wrote Norwalk “simply can not sacrifice 11,000 other children’s educations to continue the gravy train for some”. The only people whose “six figure salaries and lavish benefits” you mentioned were Abby and Jen, Therefore, they would be the only ones wanting to continue the “gravy train” you describe. And of course, your implication that they are so selfishly guarding their over-paid sinecures that they were indifferent to how those expenses would harm Norwalk’s other students suggests that they are callous.

That last line was both demeaning and untrue.

Obviously, you’ve never taught preschool or you’d know that the long days spent teaching, and the nights and weekends spent on lesson plans, hardly makes the position a sinecure. In fact, Brookside’s preschool teachers are with their students in class from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day- a slightly longer day than teachers have in the upper grades. But, you are an involved dad to two toddlers, so, quite frankly, I thought that you would have had more respect for the work undertaken by preschool teachers.

But, you did lie and you did insult them. And, of course, rather than admit that maybe you posted something in anger, you did what I would expect of a Finance Committee Chairperson who has overlooked glaring deficiencies in the school budget, hidden payments and unapproved contracts, you simply continued to divert attention from the real problems that exist.

And, just as an aside, I didn’t backtrack on the facts of my letter. Rather, I noticed an error and immediately corrected it– a practice from which you might benefit.

jill st john June 3, 2016 at 6:04 pm

Pre-school teachers make 6 figures?! Holy crap I am in the wrong business. Please tell me which ones make six figures, because next time they are buying drinks!

Kathleen Montgomery June 3, 2016 at 10:25 pm

Mr. Colarossi, thank you for taking the time to correct the statements made by Mr. Meek.

I would also add that “it the highest quality system the taxpayers are willing to afford” in reality is what we CAN afford. Big, big difference.

Bryan Meek June 4, 2016 at 9:13 am

SC. wordsmith and disort what I said all you want. Your defense of the status quo and personal self-interests does nothing to improve the school district.

Steve Colarossi June 4, 2016 at 4:12 pm

If there are contracts signed by Supt. Adamowski that weren’t approved by the Board, does it matter who brought it to the public’s attention?

If parents of Brookside students still have no information about who will be leading their children’s preschool program in the fall, does their angst deserve no attention because some BoE members don’t like the messenger?

If Brian Meek references another Administration buzzword or talking point in another post, what will his prize be for winning Buzz Word Bingo?

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