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
- superintendents and principals who are leaders in their own right,
- are supported by the community,
- add value to the town and
- 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
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