NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalkers are reacting to the news that the New Haven Board of Education spent $150,000 on a legal settlement involving Frank Costanzo, now Norwalk Public Schools Chief of School Operations.
The New Haven Register on Friday published a story offering that dollar figure, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, and quoting New Haven Board of Education President Darnell Goldson as saying, “I am never comfortable when the Board of Education has to pay money from kids’ education to pay for lawsuits as a result of wrongdoing by employees or others of the New Haven Public Schools.”
“They are saying he was sexually harassing,” Norwalk Branch NAACP President Brenda Penn-Williams said Friday. “That doesn’t look good. He should not be employed by the Norwalk Public Schools.”
The Norwalk Board of Education “first heard of the lawsuit when it was filed in 2017 (well after we had hired Mr. Costanzo in 2015),” BoE Chairman Mike Barbis wrote Friday, later releasing a statement lauding Costanzo’s performance for Norwalk Public Schools.
Goldson declined to comment to NancyOnNorwalk. NHPS Chief Operating Officer William Clark did not immediately respond to a Monday afternoon email from NancyOnNorwalk, requesting the settlement documents.
“The settlement agreement expressly states that there is no admission of any wrongdoing,” Attorney Jeff Bagnell, representing Costanzo, wrote to NoN on Monday. “The parties also expressly agreed that neither would disparage the other. No jury ever heard the full facts of the case, though I would have preferred that. I would caution against any further, post-settlement attempts by third parties to disparage my client. It is time for everyone to move on.”
Costanzo was accused of sexually harassing a New Haven Public Schools employee while he was an administrator there. Costanzo came to work in Norwalk in September 2015; the incidents described in court papers are alleged to have happened in 2014. Plaintiff Chanel Renee Rice filed the suit in March 2017.
Penn-Williams has been decrying Costanzo’s presence in Norwalk Public Schools for months, in September asking Board members, “What are we teaching and modeling for our children?”
Connecticut Association of School Administrators (CASA) Chairman Tony Ditrio has also blasted Costanzo, pointing out in multiple conversations with NancyOnNorwalk that Rice, in court documents, quotes Costanzo as saying he couldn’t remember what happened at a Christmas party because he had been inebriated.
Barbis on Friday wrote:
“I have not heard directly from any parents or community members about concerns regarding this settlement in New Haven although I am aware that there are social media postings about it.
“There was no finding or admission of any improper activity in the case (this was a settlement with no admission of the allegations).
“Of course, this lawsuit had nothing to do with the Norwalk Board of Education and the settlement was exclusively with the New Haven BOE. We had nothing to do with it.
“Mr. Costanzo’s record in Norwalk has been exemplary and there have been no allegations against him here.”
The story was posted on the Facebook page Norwalk Parents for Education.
“This is disgusting,” one woman wrote. “How can he have a position at this level with these allegations against him? Anyone in an upper management position should be held to much higher standards. Why does he have a job with children?”
“I’m not sure why this would be news to anyone. This has been known for years. Norwalk willingly and knowingly hired him knowing this lawsuit and the allegations surrounding him,” another wrote.
“Please, education officials are subjected to some extremely difficult situations with students, parents and peers,” a man wrote. “If I have learned anything about public schools, politics and moneyed families have ridiculous influence over public school districts with limited funds to defend themselves legally. In some cases, wealthy families with special needs children hold entire school districts hostage with legal actions. Don’t assume a good educational professional is tainted based on a quick and inexpensive settlement to aggressive and potentially frivolous lawsuits.”
While Barbis said the Board of Education didn’t know about Costanzo’s New Haven problems when he was hired, Ditrio has said Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski did.
Ditrio, in a Monday email to NancyOnNorwalk, wrote:
“I was part of the interview committee for Chief of School operations when Frank interviewed. Dr. Adamowski made many statements that indicated he was very familiar with Frank and his work in New Haven. I would find it hard to believe that he did not know about something that was an open story in New Haven. Did he deny knowing about Frank before he hired him? In my opinion knowing about this would actually make him more attractive to Adamowski. Frank was in desperate need of a new position and desperate people will do whatever they are told to keep their job.”
He added, “It is also true that he definitely knew about it when he renewed his contract and put him in a place to be Super when he leaves. Sad to think that is what Norwalk has become.”
Adamowski, in a statement, said:
“Dr. Costanzo was not ‘desperate’ for another job. He was recruited by me along with several other outstanding administrators that I had worked with, knew about, or who were recommended by others I respected. I became aware of Frank’s work when I was special master of Windham. The Windham High School redesign was based in part on the widely known success of Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School in New Haven, where Frank was the principal. A delegation of Windham staff visited his school on several occasions, and Frank served as a consultant on the design specs for the new humanities academy in Windham. During that time, I became aware that Frank’s school had the highest graduation rate of any New Haven School (93%), and that New Haven Superintendent Garth Harries was also utilizing Frank to coach other principals.
“Ironically, during the interview process in Norwalk, Mr. Ditrio favored Frank. He felt the other strong candidate would be more rigorous in terms of principal evaluation. Frank was the recommendation of the Interview Committee, and while their advice was advisory, I took it seriously.”
Barbis on Monday released a statement from the Board’s Executive Committee:
“While we will not comment on the allegations brought against Dr. Costanzo and the New Haven school district for their handling of allegations, we can comment on the process in Norwalk.
“No one involved in the hiring process knew about Ms. Rice’s allegations regarding Frank Costanzo at the time he was hired in 2015. The only source presented is Tony Ditrio, a former employee who has made numerous unfounded allegations in the past.
“Ms. Rice did not file her case until 2017. Dr. Costanzo’s record in Norwalk has been exemplary and there have been no allegations against him here. He has tackled many challenging situations across our district. Staff and parents have reached out to us in an impressive show of support for Dr. Costanzo.
“Examples include his availability 24/7, his thoughtfulness, attention to detail, dedication, balanced approach, and his willingness to provide a tough message when needed. One administrator said to us, ‘He is a responsible administrator with the district’s well-being at heart’.
“The Executive Committee of the Board of Education would note that Dr. Costanzo has given us much needed guidance in challenging situations where we have had to make difficult decisions balancing the needs of students, parents, teachers, administrators and other staff members.
“This all said, the Norwalk Board of Education takes all allegations of misconduct seriously and will appropriately pursue and address any allegations that take place within our school district.”
Ditrio retired in 2016 from his post as Kendall Elementary School Principal, a role he took in 1999. He is also former Norwalk Association of School Administrators (NASA) President, and carried on as Vice President after retiring.
Board of Education member Julie Corbett on Facebook addressed the allegation that Costanzo has been “put in place” to be the next superintendent.
“I’m not going to comment about the allegations or the settlement of another district, but I will clarify that a superintendent search is not currently underway,” she wrote on the parents’ page. “There are two senior staffers who are qualified to act as superintendent, if necessary (Dr. Frank Costanzo, COO and Dr. Brenda Myers, CAO). In addition, based on the timing of the end of current Superintendent, Dr. Adamowski’s, contract, the next iteration of the school board (who will include district representatives elected in Nov 2019) will make the hiring decision.”