BOE members only a piece of the ‘Old Norwalk’

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To the Editor:

Ever since Norwalk’s nationally recognized superintendent announced he was leaving, endless speculation has dominated headlines as to the reasons why. We’ll never truly know all the contributing factors to Manny Rivera’s personal decision, but perhaps his Convocation speech sheds some light.

Last August, Rivera spoke to staff about efforts to change the entrenched politics of the school system. Reported and recorded by Nancy on Norwalk, Rivera said, Last year, I jokingly referred to the Old Norwalk Way. I’ll tell you, that’s a tough monster to bring down. Changing bad habits, bad practices and the old ways of doing businesses, it’s not easy.”

Was Rivera’s decision to leave made easier by the entrenched camps of Old Norwalk? I think so. Based upon my 11 years of experience as a parent volunteer, PTC officer, grant writer and educational activist, I have some of my own examples of what constitutes the Old Norwalk:

  1. Years of Voodoo Economics by Central Office: NPS’s budget went unchallenged by the BOE from 2001-2007 and was never broken down into a rational level of understanding. The city expressed concerns but did nothing. Enter the 2008 financial meltdown and Susan Marks. She hired ‘outside’ for the Finance Department. They were the first ones to put ‘meat on the bones’ and unravel the OLD NORWALK finances and insurance fiasco. Her reward…? The BOE Finance Chair whipped parents into a frenzy, holding Norwalk’s famous Concert Hall crisis meetings, all the while blaming the new superintendent! The mayor’s office left her flapping in the wind. Elected in 2011, three-time BOE Chairman Mike Lyons campaigned on the budget reform that was started. It continues today.
  2. Lack of an English Language Arts (ELA) Curriculum: It took 10 years and Common Core to get an ELA program for the most vulnerable of our students, the elementary kids. Ten years ago, I was drafted onto the Rowayton School PTC, as treasurer. It was 2004 and we were spending ~ $50,000+ dollars on a Columbia Teachers College program. I was shocked AND resistant. Why was the PTC in the curriculum business? I was told NPS didn’t have one. Each school, grade or teacher did something different. Last spring, Rivera outlined an entire language arts strategy and curriculum for the district. It was long overdue. Another reform note: when Marks secured outside funding for an assessment tool to be used by ALL staff, to mitigate reading specialist positions under fire in the budget, it was fought. Her legacy, WirelessGen software, is NOW deployed in all 12 elementary schools.
  3. Dismissive Principals and Fearful Staff – NPS’s District Data Management Team was put in place during Sal Corda’s last year, when Norwalk was identified as a District In Need of Improvement. An original parent member, I regularly witnessed principals refusing to submit data and many NPS staff sitting in silence while potential reforms were discussed. Why?
  4. Third Party Reports: Perhaps the 3rd-party operational reviews conducted on NPS explain the silence. All mentioned the same entrenched cultural obstacles that reform minded superintendents Marks and Rivera encountered:
  • 2007 Cambridge Report. “Improve the district culture and climate which is regarded by many people in schools, central office and community (including parents) as lacking in openness and authenticity
  • 2008 CREC Report on Special Education in Norwalk Schools. “Throughout numerous sources of information collected, too often there was a common thread of mistrust….evident within and between all groups-BOE, administration, teachers, related staff and parents.
  • 2011 GE Report, aka CCSS System Review: “…the challenges facing the district are significant obstacles to overcome….A number of these challenges are rooted in the very heart of the Norwalk PS culture.
  • 2012 CREC Report on Special Education. “Little evidence any (2008 CREC report) recommended activities were instituted prior to July 2010.”

5. BOE Members Sympathetic to Employees Rather than Students: BOE members come and go. Four members are elected At-Large; five are by neighborhoods. Some get re-elected; some never serve a full term. Those seeking office, range from politicians to idealistic parents shocked to realize that adult issues consume their volunteer hours with student achievement often taking a backseat.

Fast forward to the current BOE crisis and members Rosa Murray, Migdalia Rivas and Shirley Mosby, whose actions may or may not have contributed to Rivera leaving. While “race” continues to dominate headlines, as much as speculation over Rivera’s departure, I’d argue these three simply represent the Old Norwalk. I believe Murray has been on the BOE (off and on) since 1995. Rivas was appointed mid-term in 2006, running unopposed twice. Mosby, the daughter and sister of current and former NPS employees served a 2007-09 appointment before being elected in 2013.

So long as public education in America (and not just in Norwalk) has to wait for the obstructionist and tenured status quo to retire, followed by complacent politicians and BOE members who favor adults, students will suffer and tax dollars will fund mediocrity. One needn’t look far.Two years ago, parents in Darien filed a Special Education lawsuit. Their superintendent stepped down. New London’s BOE sunk to rock bottom and was taken over by the state. It’s now redistricted into magnet schools. Is NPS seeking to be so ungovernable that the state takes over? Can New Norwalk expect to throw $250K at ONE individual and believe they can turn around a $160M Old Norwalk ship by themselves? Norwalk needs to wake up. To see the effect that change management takes on individuals, compare the enthusiastic faces of Marks and Rivera upon their arrival compared to the exhaustion on their faces, following the endless BOE disputes over the most trivial. Norwalk voters need to know – there are two camps in NPS – those who long for reform and those who fight tooth and nail against it. Will the status quo and delayed retirements trump change, student achievement and closure of the achievement gap; or will middle class flight and stagnated property values be Old Norwalk’s legacy?

Lisa Thomson


10 responses to “BOE members only a piece of the ‘Old Norwalk’”

  1. John Hamlin

    Great letter. If we could only break the union hold on the status quo and make public employees accountable, that would be a huge step in the right direction. Connecticut needs a Scott Walker to take on and win against the public employee unions. But the corrupt bargain between politicians and unions prevents municipalities from having authority over their employees.

  2. piberman

    On target Lisa Thompson as usual. When will Norwalk voters demand, yes demand, that their Party leaders nominate BOE candidates who are truly up to the task of being effective BOE members ? Rather than ones who pursue special agendas, make outlandish public claims, do their “work” in the public media and interfer with well minded BOE members. Norwalk’s Party Chairs and Town Committees are fundamentally responsible for the City’s long standing school problems. If they haven’t the resolve to nominate candidates up to the task then its “the same old”fractious and ineffective over and over again.

  3. LWitherspoon

    Lisa Thompson, please continue to speak truth to power. NPS desperately needs your common-sense approach to reform.

  4. David

    Lisa – a well written letter, and good to get a historical perspective. There is a saying, in corporate America at least – too much looking in the rear view mirror and you’ll drive off the road!

    I’m still trying to get my head around this. The visceral reaction to Mr. Rivera’s resignation was to blame the obstructionist elements of the BOE. And why not? I don’t mind people disagreeing, but you have to come up with constructive alternatives – that hasn’t happened, to put in nicely.

    The thing that strikes me about what you wrote is that Mr. Rivera seemed to be winning on all fronts. The financial instability had been calmed, 3-year budgets were put into place, union negotiations proceeded at a record pace, the BOE leadership was re-elected without opposition, heck, even the Norwalk teachers leadership was on this site supporting Mr Rivera’s efforts!

    I only say this because there’s a lot of hand-wringing and finger pointing. How about we just do what we’re doing and make incremental change? I mean, I know no one wants to hear that, everyone wants to crash the sky down and rebuild, but how realistic is that?

    I think the change in our education ecosystem has been massive since the low point of parents protesting outside of City Hall. Is it perfect? No.

    I do feel Mr. Rivera is being a little unfair to us – he is keeping secret his “personal” reasons for leaving and that’s fine, but he is only giving us his tertiary grievances, which are all BOE related. If Mr. Rivera is really *that* perturbed by a vocal minority that isn’t stopping him from getting his own way, well that really does reflect poorly on Mr. Rivera. 3 out of 9 oppose what I’m doing? Give me those odds in Corporate America any day!

    Anyway, just my two cents. Thanks for the letter.

  5. Hobbes the Calvinist

    Three cheers for the multi-tasking Lisa Thompson: is anyone else amazed that she can type while grinding her ax AND leading the pep squad for Susan Marks?

  6. MarjorieM

    Good one, Hobbes! I’ve learned that the Apples preach to their own here on NON. The same people cheer each other on and on and on. I’m ( obviously ) no fan of their spin. Often their quotes are taken out of context or huge omissions are made in describing those who are not liked by them. “They” are allowed to destroy the reputations of those who have devoted 30 years or more to the education of our children. They don’t play fair. Bullies don’t make good role models.

  7. Taxpayer Fatigue

    …and so goes “Old Norwalk”!!

  8. Taxpayer Fatigue

    30 years of more of educating our children who achieve amazing test scores in the very low 70s…Norwalk property owners have some of the highest property taxes in the state, if not the entire country! Unfortunately, the data and facts tell the brutal, honest truth of where we are today. The “Old Norwalk” embraces and celebrates mediocrity, the “New Norwalk” has raised expectations and seeks excellence. Good letter Lisa. Thank you for all you do!

  9. anon

    Good letter. @Witherspoon and @Taxpayer Fatigue, ditto.

  10. Norewalk Lifer

    Dear Ms Thomson:

    Thank you for your letter, so the moral of the story is, all us “Old Norwalkers” should just up and leave. Thank you, think I will.

    Because truthfully? I am not interested in a small group of individuals being right Ms. Thomson, I am interested in kids getting a good education like yourself, but when you pigeonhole people you do not understand, nor have taken the time to acquaint with, you speak of something you don’t know about, Dare I say what that is?

    When is the last time, you came out of your sleepy little glen in Rowayton and had a cup of coffee with one of the mothers who is concerned about her child’s education, I mean, from South Norwalk, that is?

    How do you institute the emblem of role model? by hiring them, have you noticed Ms. Thomson, that our colleges are graduating more and more African American science majors? do you know that China graduates 10,000 for every one engineering graduate we have? Do you also know, and maybe you don’t that those universities in China have PhD programs that are equal or lesser than our Master’s degrees programs?

    Do you also know those students usually leave their home and come here to work at American tech companies? why? because our way of institution assimilation of knowledge speaks volumes.

    I would ask, why are you so insular in your campaign? and also I’ve had limited exposure to Dr. Marks, I heard her speak at my daughter’s graduation at McMahon, three speakers Ms. Thomson, Mayor Moccia, Dr. Marks and Jack Chiramonte, none of them impressed the audience. But the Valedictorian? did a stellar job, animated, engaged, enthusiastic, disparaging of himself, and inclusive of his class mates.

    Now, I would argue that Norwalk, in spit of the best intentions of those in authority, continues to produce wonderful students, who thru their own self motivation, and drive, strive to achieve.

    And THAT, Ms. Thomson is the true “New Norwalk”

    Norwalk Lifer

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