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Norwalk’s ‘real world’ schools threatened by cronyism

By Lisa Brinton Thomson

NORWALK, Conn. –

cro·ny·ism (kr n-z m) n. Favoritism shown to old friends without regard for their qualifications, as in political appointments to office.

What attributes does Norwalk’s next superintendent need to possess? Should they be an administrator or leader, reformer or traditionalist, private sector darling or tax-and-spender? Should they be capable of leaping tall buildings in a single bound?  Just exactly, what kind of person does Norwalk need to run its Public School System? With 11,000 students and a 44 percent, excuse me, 47 percent and growing, free- and reduced-lunch student population.  Is this trend simply reflective of a weak economy or is Norwalk losing its middle class families to the leafy suburbs due to frustration and disappointment?

I’ve often shocked acquaintances from neighboring towns, when playing tennis or some such Fairfield County suburban activity, when asked, “Where do your children go to school?” To which, I have replied, “Norwalk Public Schools.” After shocked expressions, I’d graciously smile and inform them, that my kids were good students, tested well, were learning Japanese and Chinese, taking A.P. classes, playing sports, in the band, and enjoying the great teachers and broad mix of students.  After all, NPS is the real world, nestled in the middle of Fairfield County’s Gold Coast.

But somewhere along the way, in between the volunteering and fund-raising, I saw the under-belly of Norwalk.  You know, the more discrete and disturbing aspects that ail NPS and, as it would seem, many of our other public agencies; and it’s called cronyism.  It’s sad when you think about the impact that malaise and status quo can create, when it possesses such a stronghold on a city or school district. All too often, Norwalk loses due to the prevailing attitude of “this is the way things have always been done,” especially when it results in poor management; think Oak Hills, the YMCA, NEON, and the Norwalk Museum, just to name a few. Planning and Zoning seems caught in the same mire, when considering the state of the Wall Street area, the handling of the mosque, and the holes in the ground along MLK and West Avenue.

Almost all of these scenarios appear self-serving and self-inflicted, as Old Norwalk struggles with Old Norwalk both within NPS and the City.  I consider myself to be New Norwalk, after all, I’ve only lived here 15 years, not the generations, others can boast.  And, in all likelihood, unless things change, I won’t be staying, once my kids finish school.

While I’ve personally found NPS to have fantastic, dedicated staff, we also have the mediocre; like every school district. But in socio-economically diverse cities such as ours, we can least afford to have mediocrity or cronyism in our administration and management. It is scaring families away or worse, the death knell of any community, causing young families to skip Norwalk altogether. Until the cronyism equation is acknowledged and addressed – we’ll continue to struggle.

I liked the last superintendent.  She was a professional, honorable woman and did something no other public employee in Norwalk has done – bring in $5 million in outside funding for new STUDENT PROGRAMS in our cash-strapped district. That, in itself, says something! But one thing she never had – the support of the good ole boy network either within NPS or the city.  Once she realized that cronyism WAS the culture in Norwalk, where personal agendas are put above those of the children, staff and taxpayers, she had to go.  Think about it. What other city could pin a multi-year, post retirement fiasco on an unsuspecting new comer – who incidentally hired the outside financial guy who found it in the first place?  Sadly, there’s been a host of superintendents since Ralph Sloane retired in 1996. That was a long time ago and the same people have been plotting and fighting with one another, ever since.

Every student in NPS learns about the 1779 Burning of Norwalk in their social studies class.  I’d argue that we’re experiencing the second slow burning of Norwalk; one where middle class parents have been quietly pulling their kids out of the system for the past 20 years and neither the district nor city elders have ever asked why? Where educational foundations have historically skipped Norwalk and chosen other cities to donate funds to and finally, where property values have continued to stagnate as Old Norwalk dies off and young families exiting Manhattan move to towns other than ours.

Strong, diverse school districts need

  1. superintendents and principals who are leaders in their own right,
  2. are supported by the community,
  3. add value to the town and
  4. have the confidence of new families looking to educate their kids.

We need a superintendent with fresh eyes and ideas, with a proven track record of working in politically charged environments and economically distressed budgets, who can inspire a new culture and address the decades of cronyism, at least in NPS.

So, what’s it going to be Norwalk?   What type of superintendent do parents and the community want going forward?

I applaud BoE Chairman Mike Lyons for his political courage to create a community-based superintendent search committee. Hopefully, the committee will represent Norwalk’s future and not it’s past.

But as we enter another election year in Norwalk, we need to ask ourselves, what kind of public servants do we want? They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different result.  Residents need to expect and demand better results, administration and management from our public servants regardless of political party. Let’s see if we can begin anew with the superintendent search? After all, they will be charged with nothing less than managing nearly two-thirds of our city budget and encouraging families back to Norwalk.

Lisa Brinton Thomson

REd Apples

Comments

3 responses to “Norwalk’s ‘real world’ schools threatened by cronyism”

  1. 4Change

    You can start packing Lisa but before you do keep in mind that nepotism, er, (cronyism) is found everywhere, both in small town’s and big cities. We tend to have tunnel vision and focus on one event or one person but we ignore the big picture. What if we zoom out the frame a bit?

    Well if we look close, can we see old school profit generating strategies in play locally? There are a few local developers with big plans for the golden location of Faifield County coastlines communities. Depressing property values can and often times is a viable profit generating strategy. There are a variety of tactics that can be employed to accomplish the goal. Look around, now, really look around. Is that strategy in play in locally?

    That said there is also the whole deal of how we choose elected officials. Lets face it elections whether local, state or federal are carnivals with lots of money exchanged, hand shakes and winks.

    Oftentimes candidates have no understanding of issues no less solutions or knowledge of the intricacies and responsibilities of day to day management of the office which they are elected. More often than not electabilty is based on the ability to raise cash, NOT on the candidates abilities to govern and legislate.

    Its no way to run an advanced society. There must be serious election reform to remove the profit motive and there must be some sort of litmus tests for candidates to respond to in an open web forum that allows for civilized rational instant feedback from constituents of incumbent representatives or perspective constituents for new candidates. Reevaluation of the merits and detriments of a two party system and the entire funding of campaigns desperately needs to be addressed.

    Nothing, nothing will ever be accomplished with the continued graft driven campaigning and irrational demands of a corrupted two party system. We all know it. When we will actually do something about it?
    What you see now, is what all, we all will continue to struggle with until these
    structural foundation issues are fully addressed and reforms implemented..

    Just when one figures out whats wrong, what needs fixin and how to fix it and get it running smoothly. Clock runs out. Life is short people. Two choices in life.
    1) Turn your back and ignore, in essence choose to be ignorant,
    guided only by self serving interests,stepping over and on the fallen.
    Some term this as zombie’n out and surrendering free thought all together.

    Or choice number two.

    2) Devote what time you have left to continue the journey of learning and sharing your wisdom and knowledge, awakening the sleeping, (granted that’s a tough one), and working hard to make the system more equitable, more just, more compassionate. The way good governance should work. Some call this naivete. The ones awake call it living life fully, helping others, ie (public service), not only on the political front but more importantly selfless acts of compassion in what ever way that presents itself to us all.

    Its not intellectually challenging to attack an intellectually challenged elected official, cant believe I am writing this but nor is it challenging to attack a crooked official. It’s the way things are done. It’s our system. It truly is the status quo, that is holding us all back.

    We can run but we cannot hide.

    Change the system, improve it, innovate it, make it work, (better). The foundation is present to build a better system. A modern model to reflect upon lessons learned and operating

    for the best interests of the people, all the people, not just the few at the top of the food chain. Until that is tackled and conquered, its around and round we go on the merry go round called status quo.The riders change but they always dismount where they mounted.

    What is that definition of insanity again?
    Maybe that’s it, maybe we are all insane, maybe its all just a dream, well a nightmare.Yes indeed, we are all gonna be so relieved when we wake up. Wont we? OK, lets try this. On the count of 3 everyone reading this will awaken
    at the writing of fingers snapping.
    One…
    Two…
    THREE.
    ( Finger Snap!!! )
    OK, who opened Pandora’s box?

    It’s really up to you and you and you and you and yes, you reading this, all of us.
    What are we gonna do. Ignore it all? Jump up and down and throw a tantrum screaming it ain’t fair? Go for the cash and try and barricade and insulate ourselves in mansions in Greenwich made of gold?

    Or..

    Or. Acknowledge and accept the challenges to make it better
    for generations coming up and not yet arrived?

    Tick tock, time’s moving on, and our time, our chance to make it better is passing. Can we leave a better legacy, of a less violent, more compassionate society behind than what we have inherited?
    I believe resoundingly and wholeheartedly,
    YES WE CAN.

    And if you think our challenges are enormous, gaze east to Europe and beyond to the Muslim world, Africa and the far east..
    The challenges we face here are minuscule to the challenges others are facing
    in many parts of our world.

    Yes certainly and with out doubt we CAN do better. We MUST do better.
    The path forward is through communication and education.
    The path forward can only be traveled with much effort, perspiration, often times tearsbut most importantly, the courage of open minds.

    “One candle losses nothing liting another, yet together
    with each candle lite’ed, the light becomes brighter
    for more to see the way forward.”
    The way forward to a better way, a better life, a better, more compassionate educated world.
    Freedom is not free.
    ____________________________________________________________

  2. LWitherspoon

    Lisa,

    Interesting piece but it seems to raise more questions than answers. What specific steps do you think need to be taken to move NPS forward?

    I agree that the former superintendent probably did more good for NPS than most people are willing to acknowledge. The nasty comments from Teachers Union President Bruce Mellion after she resigned were evidence of some of the good she did.

  3. Suzanne

    Lisa, I get it. I moved here years ago from a place that is not New England. I began to earn a living then have my own business and was surprised at the “status quo” of both business and politics. At first, I thought I was imagining the kick backs, the winks, the “good ol’ boys” system (my business is dominated by the male gender), the, yes, cronyism.

    Because I did not recognize that culture (kind of like the proverbial Inuit in the Sahara), I made a lot of mistakes being honest (clients cheated by contractors, contractors beat up by competitors, etc.) then realized I could stay that way if I was very, very careful to do business with like-minded, honest people. (And that, 4Change, is how the world changes for the better.)

    What I find so interesting is how small-minded this two-party system is that seems to control what really matters in our community. It is like everyone has jumped on the bandwagon of divisiveness. It is encouraged from the very top and that in and of itself is very disheartening.

    So, L Witherspoon, I would say the solution lies in cleaning house from the very top. Ensure that there are candidates for public office who really represent concern and potential change for the issues that face the City of Norwalk rather than for self-aggrandizement. Make sure they represent themselves as public servants, that is, elected officials who are in their respective places because the constituency, who wants a nice, honest, safe, clean and well-educated town, put them there. Ensure that appointments to Councils are likewise vetted for intent and resume responsibility, not because they are best friends or golfing partners with the Mayor.

    Every issue I see arrive on these pages seem to be divided between “At Large Democrats”, “Democrats” or “Republicans.” Everyone is at each other’s throat and this is what seems to be important. It’s like all of these people are in a playpen called Norwalk with not enough toys so they fight, fight and fight some more and wonder why developers then slip in with unbelieveable plans, make them, make a mess, go forward, make money then leave town. They do this because they can get away with it.

    So, we now have segregated Work Force Housing, a Lowes going into a location that is in direct conflict with a new, very large fire station, a 2 million dollar piece of land being sold to a developer, woods being destroyed for a driving range, etc., etc., etc. I guess you can add to that “No Superintendent of Schools.”

    Lisa, I appreciate your letter very much and thank you for writing it. I learned a lot and I think others will too.

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