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Letter: A status report from the Board of Education

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.

Mike Lyons

Comments

12 responses to “Letter: A status report from the Board of Education”

  1. Bruce Kimmel

    Excellent article. And the entire city can breathe a sigh of relief. Our school system is now rapidly moving forward on all fronts and we have a lot to be proud of. I would like to humbly add that the relationship between the Board of Education and the Common Council, after years of tension, is now closer and more productive than I can ever remember.

  2. Fred Wilms

    All of Mike’s points are absolutely true. Great progress is being made in a number of areas. As a Dad, I especially appreciate the focus on school security. From my Board of Estimate position, this year has to rank the best in terms of professionalism and constructive results.

  3. Mike P

    Then it follows common sense that we reelect all incumbent board members if we finally have a chemistry that works. Not being sarcastic….as a parent of a Nathan Hale and Naramake student that’s been considering private school or moving (as a number of friends have), I’m encouraged by what I hear.

  4. jlightfield

    Thanks Mike, I appreciate your taking time to communicate what has been accomplished and what goals met. Open communication about policy direction and actions taken is much appreciated.

  5. piberman

    The larger story here is the unusual efforts of 3 Board members – Lyons, Chiaramonte and Hanie – seeking Arbtiatration for the first time in decades and appointing a new attorney – Tom Mooney – to secure an unprecedented victory over our long hostile public school teachers union. Followed by putting the financial house in order with the appointment of a CFO. And, then building on those successes by conducting far and away the most professional Supt. search in modern Norwalk history. And, eventually securing a nationally prominent Hispanic Supt. familiar with Norwalk. All in all this is an example of fine leadership that really has no precedent in modern Norwalk. From an oft criticized and ridiculed BOE under vigorous leadership (Republican) the BOE now stands heads and shoulders proudly as our most important and most respected elected body. Attorney Mike Lyons has demonstrated what capable leadership can achieve in our City and we owe him a great debt of gratitutde. For the first time recent decades education is now largely off the mayoral election as a “hot and divisive” topic.
    There is still unfinished business within the BOE. Two Democratic members voted against hiring Dr. Riviera but failed to explain their reasons. Lets hope and encourage them to fully and enthusiastically participate. And lets encourage the BOE to continue to engage in union contract negotiations that reflect the City’s affordability. Past BOE’s and the BET are responsible for negotiating “honey contracts” whereby our school teachers are paid more than in any other City in CT. So clearly there is work to due. At day’s end the newly reinvogorated BOE has given hope that Norwalk has better days ahead. Two years ago not even the Tooth Fairy would have ventured such an impossible outcome. Now lets encourage the Common Council to similarly take the “high ground” for our City.

  6. Bill

    Great job, keep it up, lets keep getting more with less and put the focus on the children as always.

  7. RU4REEL

    Thanks for keeping us in the loop Mike.

  8. Thanks for the positive comments. I know we have plenty of problems still to deal with, but I’ve gotten tired of reading comments about our “failing school system”. It ISN’T failing; student disciplinary issues have been dropping, we’ve adopted policies to address bullying in the schools, student achievement measured on standardized tests has been improving for several years — and the improvements listed above are real. Dr. Rivera has solid plans to move forward with more improvements still. I am particularly pleased that the community (including both of our mayoral candidates!) have rallied behind him. There are real reasons to be hopeful.

  9. David

    Mike, thank you for your update, as a parent of public school children I am so incredibly happy I chose Norwalk Public schools when other choices were available. I’m very excited for the future of our schools.
    .
    In the wake of the bullying/suicide in Greenwich, I’d like to hear more about NPS initiatives on civility within schools, particularly shifting responsibility of actions to the perpetrators of bullying. It appears, of the face of it, there were no actions taken against those that bullied the victim in that case. It’s too late to take action after a child has died.
    .
    Thank you again for your update Mike, please make these kinds of updates a regular fixture on this site.

  10. Jim Anderson

    As the Nathan Hale PTO President may I say thank you for bring us Mr. Joe Rodriguez as the interim principal. Joe has already rally the staff, has great ideas based on his experience and has shown us parents that he is whole hearty involved with the success of Nathan Hale students. As we wait for a permanent Principal, know that we are positively charged with Joe at the helm. My Board and I will express that to the incoming parents as well.

  11. Mike Lyons

    David, we agree on the seriousness of bullying. Last year the Board adopted an anti-bullying policy and last month updated it to cover adult bullying. Most staff have received training on dealing with bullying (apparently some people missed the training and Dr. Rivera is following up to make sure everyone has received it). We have reporting procedures in place. Also, our extensive implementation of PBIS has significantly reduced violent behavior in our student body, which should also help with control of bullying. We won’t completely eliminate it, but we are working to minimize it.

  12. Mike Lyons

    Jim, I’m glad Mr. Rodriguez is doing so well at NHMS; we knew you guys needed a lifeline. Dr. Rivera is going to manage the search for a top-quality permanent principal there over the winter / spring.

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