An Open Letter to Mayor Rilling, members of the Board of Estimate and Taxation, and the Common Council

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It is a difficult time to lead.

This is a long one, and I hope you’ll stick with me until the end. In past years, when I have come to address the Council, Mayor, and BET at public comment during the budget process, I have spoken to what I know is the desire and motivation that got you all into public service in the first place – the genuine desire to make the world better. When I was elected to the Board of Education, I almost immediately realized how much more difficult that is than most people understand. People think it’s easy, and that they could do it better, but I know it’s hard, and getting harder. It’s also a very scary time to be in government. I imagine you have all had these moments of reckoning with yourselves.

The tone of the conversation about our schools is making it harder to fix problems.

I know many of you, and I know that none of you has negative motivations for making budgetary choices that will damage our schools or our youngest residents. I know that your intentions are good. Despite this, I am consistently surprised by the adversarial way many of you choose to have these conversations in the public eye. Tone matters almost as much as content, particularly when you are saying things that directly cause legitimate fear in our teachers, families and kids. A friend whose wife teaches in Norwalk approached me today and said, “I know you’re not on the board anymore, but my wife is really scared – do you think she’s going to lose her job?” Her fear will directly impact her ability to do the work of teaching, until and unless her fear is allayed. Causing that fear is partially your responsibility, and will continue to be until the tone and rhetoric around these tough budgetary conversations are consistently collaborative.

People can’t learn or teach when they’re scared.

People can’t teach, learn or work effectively when they are scared, or hungry, or living with uncertainty, and that is a practical, logistical, and pedagogical part of the problem facing American public education that requires intervention at the school level. Please don’t tune this fear out. I’ve been teaching for a long time. I’ve taught kids in general and special education, and kids from all kinds of socioeconomic backgrounds. I used to run a program to teach music to children and adults in the shelter system. It does not matter how smart someone is. It does not matter how motivated they are to learn. You can’t learn well if you’re hungry and you can’t learn well if you’re scared.

Many of Norwalk’s kids and families have the deck stacked against them.

Everyone I know involved in Norwalk Public Schools at every level – students, teachers, paraprofessionals and administrators — is knocking themselves out trying to create academic and future success. In spite of this, Norwalk’s education system is never going to be able to produce the same results as Darien or Westport or Wilton. In Darien, Westport and Wilton, 80 to 90% of the children have their material needs met. Most students don’t need to work to support themselves or their families, they aren’t worried about where their next meal will come from or if they’ll be living in the same apartment next month. In Norwalk, 70% of our families are “high needs,” meaning they are experiencing poverty or have other social or economic factors statistically against them.

Our administrators and teachers aren’t causing the problem.
Children with money tend to do well in every school system, because their needs are more likely to be met. It is the same in Norwalk. Our kids who are well-to-do, do well. Our kids who are not, do less well, but they do better here than in our peer districts. You can look at this disaggregated data, and I encourage you to do that.  We just have a higher proportion of kids with needs here, and the way you communicate around this issue feeds the beast. Every single one of you holds Norwalk’s diversity as something that you love and cherish – and you chose to take on leadership here. You have an obligation to try to ensure the needs of our beautiful diverse kids are met. In order to do that more effectively, you need to understand that the systems that are failing those kids are bigger, and older, than us in this community, center that priority and understanding, and commit to meeting those underlying needs as best you can.

We need all our kids to be well educated for the world to survive.

Effective cognition can’t occur when children’s needs aren’t met. I know I am being repetitive, but it’s crucial that this is understood. Johnny can’t read when Johnny isn’t eating, or when he’s scared mom won’t have a job anymore. When we ask our schools to educate our kids, ignore the decks that are stacked against them, and then fault the schools for “failing,” we are complicit in setting our schools and our children up for failure. It is an unwinnable game. The “extras” that are in jeopardy with these potential cuts are not extras for our kids. They are an attempt to meet the needs of children so that education in the fundamentals can actually take place successfully. You may feel that this goes beyond the traditional definition and role of schooling, and perhaps it does. I ask you to consider that we need the role of education to evolve, and to view it in the context of the great challenges humanity is facing and may not be able to meet. Not only do our kids deserve the opportunity to succeed, but our community and world need their success to survive.

Underfunding our schools will just cause different financial problems for many Norwalkers.

Times are hard and money is tight. Believe me, I get it. I would invite you to just consider, though, that rather than making a choice that will ease the financial burden of your constituents, you’re proposing a choice that will actually severely financially burden us too – everyone talks about the potential for property values to suffer, but I wonder if you’ve thought of the damage caused to the lifetime earning potential of each of our 12,000 youngest citizens. That’s a financial burden. The cost to the community when those children grow up and require subsidies to live because they couldn’t access the education required to get higher-paying jobs will be high too. Choosing to fund mental health and medical services through the city-side, or through a patchwork of outside providers, is inefficient and disruptive for the kids, when those services already exist and can be  executed well and with continuity through NPS. Please remember that your choices don’t just affect now – they affect the next 50 years, for tens of thousands of people, just to start with, and not only financially, but personally. This isn’t a can you’re kicking down a road, these are human lives.

You didn’t create the difficult circumstances you’re working within, but we need you to inspire us to band together instead of seeing each other as adversaries.

You didn’t invent redlining. You aren’t responsible for the legacy of segregation, or the state and federal structures of funding that pits communities against each other perennially. You are, however, responsible for talking in a way that encourages Norwalkers to see each other as competing for resources, instead of talking in a way that inspires us to be a community where we all work together to ensure everyone’s needs are met as best we can.
If you aren’t able to succeed in balancing all these needs and priorities, and you may not be able to, please understand how graciousness and dignity can also powerfully impact communities, and let that be your goal. Then, please consider:

  • For the Mayor, City and NPS finance directors and Committee chairs of the Board and Council to meet regularly throughout the year, so that these discussions are less likely to veer off the rails.
  • In those meetings, consider creating and sharing 2-, 5- and 10-year draft budget trajectories, to help educate the community in understanding how budgets work in a city of 90,000.
  • Please remember that the way you talk directly and practically impacts the quality of people that the school system is able to hire and retain, and directly impacts the quality of the foundational education the system is able to achieve.

I genuinely thank you for your time and your service.

Sarah LeMieux

Board of Education member, 2017-2021

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14 responses to “An Open Letter to Mayor Rilling, members of the Board of Estimate and Taxation, and the Common Council”

  1. Mary Ellen Flaherty-Ludwig

    I appreciate your cogent and future-thinking letter, Sarah. Tone in our City of
    Norwalk and Board of Education dialogue is key. I believe we all want to sustain our Norwalk students in their efforts to become future contributing citizens. It is a difficult time to lead. The weight of the noble task of educating is on our shoulders. Let’s work together to provide the highest increase to the budget that is fiscally responsible.
    Current BOE member representing District E
    Mary Ellen Flaherty-Ludwig

  2. Jo Bennett

    Sarah, the hard truth here is that EVERYONE is a bit scared right now. The world is an uncertain place, the economy has been tilting every which way, and from educator to engineer, how many of us have complete confidence that our livelihoods are guaranteed to be around tomorrow? During hard times,companies cut salaries, benefits, bonuses and employees. It isn’t the fault of taxpayers if we as a city and school system have spent our way into hard times, and we shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of poor decision-making.

  3. John O’Neill

    From above:
    “A friend whose wife teaches in Norwalk approached me today and said, “I know you’re not on the board anymore, but my wife is really scared – do you think she’s going to lose her job?” Her fear will directly impact her ability to do the work of teaching, until and unless her fear is allayed”. — While I’m sympathetic to this teacher’s plight, can someone tell me how many teaching vacancies are currently available across the state of Connecticut? I agree with Sarah on one point: Tone does matter. Based on your comments you would think the world is coming to an end for this teacher and their family. Last time I checked there were thousands of teaching positions available within driving distance. (Including here in Norwalk)

    Regarding Federal Funding during the pandemic — EVERYONE knew those funds were temporary. To plan to include those funds once DC money ran out was poor planning and possibly disingenuous. But maybe I’m not that smart.

    Regarding redlining and segregation: Why stop there? Just call the United States the worst country on the planet. My only confusion is that Black, Brown and White people keep coming here. Why on Earth would they do that?

    My biggest problem with your piece is you really don’t call out legislators in Hartford and DC who are not doing what you’ve elected them to do. Is it because you don’t want to criticize those in your own orbit? Your very own Bob Duff takes a Victory Lap on peanuts offered to struggling cities like Norwalk on ECS funding….Where’s your outrage with crumbs being sent our way instead of the bread?
    Harry Rilling may be in election year mode, BUT he also knows revaluation is coming. Below there’s a note about Rowayton taxes increasing 6+%. Harry knows once property values are adjusted COMMERCIALLY and residentially.. 6% will just be the down payment on increased property taxes in certain areas of Norwalk. Dachowitz knows Norwalk is beginning to fly a little close to the sun credit-wise on upcoming school construction projects. City Hall is caught in a bind and Estrella’s political posse is obviously on full court press right now.
    In conclusion, until you call out Duff and his comrades with the passion you’re calling out Harry I can’t take your seriously. Follow the money.

  4. Patrick Cooper

    Wow. Just, horrible. Bad flashback – to 1974, and the absolute worst top-40 song ever in constant rotation – the miserable Morris Albert warbling his ode to this LeMieux thesis – “Feelings, nothing more than Feelings”.

    Where is the math?

    No mention of ECS. No. Not – a – one.
    No mention of spiraling costs via baked in salary increases in spite of declining performance. Anyone in the private sector guaranteed a raise every single year regardless of results? No.
    No mention of lost revenue through tax breaks for administration-friendly developers.
    No mention of lost revenue via mismanagement
    No mention of lost revenue due to lawsuits

    No. It’s ALL “Feelings”. What’s truly scary? No math.

    Hey Sarah – what are YOU afraid of? You are not in office anymore, and you know the deal. Why not tell the truth?

  5. Sarah LeMieux

    This new style of aggressive internet commenting sure is fun. Let me see if I’ve got it: first, attempt to discredit someone else’s informed opinion as feelings. Make vaguely accusatory statements about the truth, and be sure to capitalize random words for emphasis. Employ some kind of simplistic list without explaining it. I’ll have to work on this format.

    I’ll tell you what I’m afraid of, though: when you work as hard as everyone in NPS works, and you are still villainized and told you are failing, and should do more with less, it creates a situation where we are unable to hire and retain good people, which then results in very real circumstances of corruption and neglect and financial waste – exhibit Norwalk during our “revolving door” period.

    Similarly, when you have a solid Board of Education of collaborative, intelligent folks who are consistently thrown under the bus, it creates the very real risk that no one sane will be willing to participate in the future. That similarly results in corruption and wasted time and money, again, exhibit Norwalk during its “revolving door” period.

    I mentioned the issues I think warrant focus at this time. I would encourage a systemic, longer-term view to avoid shortsighted financial decisions that will harm the city and its constituents financially in the long run.

  6. Sarah LeMieux

    Gosh, I didn’t mention ECS in a letter to city officials who have no decision-making power about it. I must not have any thoughts about its impact on our sys– oh wait, I did say “You aren’t responsible for…the state and federal structures of funding that pit communities against each other perennially. You are, however, responsible for talking in a way that encourages Norwalkers to see each other as competing for resources, instead of talking in a way that inspires us to be a community where we all work together to ensure everyone’s needs are met as best we can.” I remember now. I was probably talking about ECS there while encouraging city officials to solve the problems that are under their control. I probably also wrote a bunch of informed testimony to the state about revising the ECS formula, It’s tough to really say though, my head is too full of feelings for effective cognition to take place.

  7. Nora King

    Under your leadership as chair, our test scores started to fall. With the baton passed to Colin they continued to fall with his efforts focused less on academics and more on social issues. Our schools of excellence were lost. Throwing money at poor leadership is not going to fix our problems or educate our kids. Academically the focus is in the wrong place with this administration. Until the leadership engages parents and feedback from the community they will continue to misappropriate funds for their personal causes and beliefs instead of what many parents want to see happen in the school system.

  8. Sarah LeMieux

    Nora, I’m not sure why you would think any board chair determines what is taught in the classroom, or sets curricular priorities. Perpetuating confusion about roles and responsibilities doesn’t help improve the system.

    For clarity, in between 2018-19 and 2021-22 (there was not test data for 2019-20, or 2020-21) the test scores for the state of Connecticut as a whole went down 4.5 points on the Next Generation Accountability Index, to 69.7 (the goal is 85 or above). Every single district in Connecticut suffered a drop in test scores during that time period, as did every other district in the United States, due to worldwide disruption from the Covid-19 pandemic. If you disaggregate the data to show high-needs students, our scores dropped significantly less during that time than our DRG peer districts of Stamford and Danbury. Test scores over the past 4 years are not a valid metric by which to measure any school system.

  9. Claire Schoen

    Question for those commenters who keep referring to declining performance – can you enlighten us with some statistics? Do they factor in that our students and teachers have just gone through an unprecedented disruption in learning (aka Covid)?
    And, about this accountability thing – since you apparently know what’s going on, someone must’ve been accountable to you, no? I don’t really get why some parents (who are not trained educators) expect to be involved in deciding how and what to teach our children.
    Haters gonna hate, I know, but let’s let the teacher teach.
    (Note these are my personal opinions, not those of NoN)

  10. John O’Neill

    Sarah: I respect and appreciate your opinion. I may disagree, but it doesn’t mean I’m ignorant. Sometimes the most complex issues are solved with the simplest solutions. But what do I know? I’m just a guy who’s trying to put food on the table and raise a family.

  11. John O’Neill

    Claire: You think a parent should not be involved in what and how to teach our children? While I appreciate your opinion,I can’t believe a parent who loves their children would agree. That thought baffles and scares me. Wow!!
    Maybe I’m misinterpreting your comment? Wow..

  12. Claire Schoen

    @John, of course parents need to be involved – I was probably over-involved with my kids’ education many years ago. But I am not an expert in curriculum design or educational strategies, so I believe we should leave that to the experts.

  13. Nora King

    Claire, They are not experts at all. Robert Pennington was a new principal with less than two years under his belt. Now he is running curriculum for our schools? Where are the experts? Our BOE has no academic experience at all. What we have is a superintendent who has disengaged parents, her total focus is on multi language learners. What about all the other kids? Her focus has been on decimating the neighborhood schools, micro managing our teachers, and focusing on social issues that don’t belong in our schools especially middle and elementary. You are clueless about what is taking place and you are not a parent. I have a front row seat and it is not pretty.

  14. Sarah LeMieux

    Our board has the most professional and diverse education-specific experience of any that I can remember. Colin is a literature professor, Mary Ellen is a science teacher, Godfrey works in private sector education improvement, and Sherelle is an award winning writer and the head of the library, and that’s what I happen to know about offhand. 6 of the 9 members are parents of NPS students, as is the superintendent herself, who is also a former science teacher. Asserting that the superintendent is solely focused on MLL students is just inaccurate and I am wondering what data would lead someone to that conclusion.

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