By Mike Lyons
Board of Education Chairman
To the Editor:
NORWALK, Conn. – Things are looking up for public education in Norwalk. Here is a report on some highlights of the progress we’ve made during the past 18 months:
1. Budgets. We all had to go through a rough time back in 2012, as we faced a terrible budget crisis; I had only been on the Board for two months when we were informed of the $4 million shortfall. But we’ve come a long way since then. The Board’s finances have had an operational audit, and its recommendations have been implemented. We have a new Chief Financial Officer, who has made great progress in improving our financial management and systems.
We have worked hard at getting control over our expenses and conducting fair but firm negotiations with our unions. Instead of a big deficit as with last year, this year we ended the year with a surplus, which we are plowing back into the system to rebuild the portables at Jefferson, hire back additional teachers and aides, and purchase additional classroom technology. Our base budget reopens our libraries to full operation, makes improvements to special education, and restores middle school intramurals. And we have completed paying back the entire $4 million shortfall, so our books are clean.
2. Long-term Budgeting. Our new CFO is now working on our first-ever three-year budget projection; we hope that adopting three-year budgets will allow us to avoid the annual budget panics, and engage in long-term planning that aligns our budgets to our long-term goal of improving student achievement. Superintendent Dr. Manuel Rivera is preparing for a public outreach process on the budget to coincide with his development of a Strategic Plan, which should be ready for Board adoption within the next 60 to 90 days.
3. Common Core Curriculum. We have made great progress with the first phases of implementing the new Common Core curricula (which experts feel marks the biggest change in educational philosophy in the country in over 30 years). With an $800,000 appropriation approved at our Board meeting last month, we have purchased the materials needed to complete both the entire K-12 mathematics curriculum, and the grades 6-12 English language arts program. We have the funding in place for the K-5 English program, and we will get that done by its scheduled implementation date of September, 2014. We have added a science instructional specialist position in this year’s budget, which will let us begin preparations for the next Common Core subject coming down the pike, science.
4. New Superintendent of Schools. The Board successfully managed a nationwide superintendent search, one that resulted in the hiring of our extraordinarily qualified new Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Manuel Rivera. Last month we approved a plan for a significant reorganization of the central office proposed by Dr. Rivera, a plan that definitely establishes a forward-looking, 21st century management approach for our schools. Dr. Rivera has filled the position of Chief for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships, and will be moving forward now to fill the positions of Chief Business Officer, Chief Human Resources Officer, and a number of other positions. We look forward to seeing him build a class-A management team for our schools at City Hall.
5. School Security. In the wake of Sandy Hook, we took immediate action, working with the city to provide police protection at all schools for the first week after the incident to protect against copy cats. This year, we worked with the mayor and city to add three police resource officers (to a total now of six officers) to increase security at our schools. We also worked closely with the city to have the police perform facility security audits at our schools, and developed a detailed emergency plan for the schools covering everything from storms to shooting incidents.
Individual schools’ Safety Committees will report on their schools’ specific needs this October. We appropriated $100,000 to begin making safety improvements, and are working on more facility enhancements that we will include in future capital budget requests. We are also implementing new communication protocols to get word out quickly to parents regarding any incidents at their kids’ schools, and expect a text-messaging system, supplementing the existing Reverse 911 system, to be activated by late October.
6. Teacher and Administrator Evaluations. We were successful in getting designated as one of 10 communities in the state to pilot the new system for teacher and administrator evaluations, a critical step to improved accountability of the school system. There have been bumps in the road (due to delays at the state level), but we are well along in implementation of the first system of evaluations that ties teacher and principal evaluations to the performance of their students.
7. Technology Improvements. We are in the midst of a multi-year technology program (much of it Common Core-driven). We will make all our schools wireless, we are expanding use of the Wireless Generation system, APEX learning, and similar technologies. We plan to have the Genesis portal fully operational by December of this year, which will allow parents full online access to their children’s assignments and grades.
8. Briggs Turnaround. Two years ago some were calling for the closing of Briggs, our alternative high school. We refused to close Briggs, and supported applying for status as a State Turnaround School. We recently won a major state grant and hired a contractor to work with the excellent new principal at Briggs to turn the school into a major resource for and asset of our school system for students who need an alternative educational opportunity.
9. Building Stronger Partnerships. It is a priority of Superintendent Rivera to grow and enhance our existing partnerships with Norwalk ACTS, Norwalk Community College, the business community and other community groups to expand opportunities for learning outside the classroom. This growing partnership bore its first fruits in the hiring of Dr. Rivera, with a profile developed by our broad-based Search Committee, which was chaired by Dr. David Levinson, president of NCC.
10. Civility. Finally, we’ve worked to improve the civility of Board meetings themselves. We adopted a Civility Code and, for the most part, we’ve lived up to it. We held a very successful Board retreat last week at Norwalk Community College and agreed on basic principals regarding communications, proper roles of the Board and the Superintendent, and setting up a Strategic Planning process.
Our schools often get a bum rap, so I wanted to update my fellow Norwalkers on the great progress being made in the Norwalk Public Schools. We have a long to-do list, but much has been done already. The momentum for creating a great school system is growing.