NORWALK, Conn. — There’s no role in government more thankless than being on the Board of Education, Mike Lyons said Tuesday, going on to thank all the BoE members he thought helped achieve glowing headlines during his eight years on the Board, five years as Chairman.
The kudos came a little early, as Lyons won’t be attending this Board’s final meeting after the election. Lyons noted that somehow, even with a revolving door of Board members, there were always five votes to move reformist Norwalk Public Schools initiatives forward, resulting in improved assessment scores, a reportedly closing achievement gap and four schools recognized as schools of distinction.
He thanked Norwalk teachers, but said, “the reality is Norwalk had good teachers all through the preceding 25 years of stasis when nothing happened. I mean, the achievement gaps weren’t closed. We didn’t exceed state averages, we didn’t reach the position of number one of 10 urban school districts,” and “we really started to turn things around here” when Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski was chosen on a 5-4 vote.
Adamowski is the most successful superintendent in Norwalk history and other initiatives passed on one vote, including the K-5 literacy plan and the outsourcing of custodial services, he said. “The board members have passed those votes, without which we’d still be sitting treading water going nowhere, paid a heavy price for it. We were attacked constantly and sometimes personally. We had to fight off personal attacks, including false accusations of racism and even criminality, hostile media coverage, FOI complaints, Labor Board complaints, human rights complaints and abusive lawsuits. This board in the last six years was not a place for the faint of heart.”
Lyons did not answer an email asking what lawsuits and FOI complaints he was referring to. The Board has fended off multiple lawsuits filed by John Mosby and two from Alvin Mosby, both of whom did not have lawyers. However, Lyons’ term also featured a lawsuit filed against him by former Special Education Director Christina Fensore, which was settled for $150,000. Attorney’s fees were $221,980.
“In every single complaint against us, that went to a decision, we prevailed,” Lyons said. “Not once in eight years I’ve been on this Board has any agency or court ruled against us any issue that was filed against us. But being proven innocent of the charges doesn’t make it easy to live with the constant accusations, but those five votes held firm voted for all those strategic plans and superintendents, and the school system was turned around.”
BoE Chairman Mike Barbis kicked off the self-congratulations by noting that they both came on together, narrowly winning elections in 2011, and their turbulent eight years began shortly thereafter when Superintendent Susan Marks resigned. Lyons was elected Chairman in 2013, even though he was a Republican on a Democrat-dominated Board, and led the search that netted Superintendent Manny Rivera, only to have to search for a new super 18 months later when Rivera resigned. That brought Adamowski.
Lyons held up two NancyOnNorwalk articles – one on test scores and another listing the colleges recent graduates were headed to – and an Hour article on test scores, as well as the 2017-18 accountability report. The great results made the “outrageous slings and arrows” worth it, he said.
“This is real, even astonishing, progress particularly for a school system that has many impacted students as we have. We have over 50% of our student body now is on free or reduced lunch,” he said. “Most school systems that see rapid increases in challenged or impacted students see their scores and performance ratios go down. Ours have gone up as the impacts on the student body that increased. A lot of people work together to make this happen.”
The past two years have featured “very little of the rancor that was present in the first six years I was here,” he said, celebrating the “collegiality” of the all-white Board created when Rosa Murray, Shirley Mosby, Sherelle Harris and Yvel Crevecouer, each in their turn, departed, some by choice and some not. “During the last two years, we have had, to borrow a term from history, an era of good feeling on this board.”
He emphasized the bipartisan nature of the Board, with himself as the Republican member of a “core” trio that included Barbis and Heidi Keyes, and then shifting allies: Republicans Jack Chiaramonte and Sue Haynie, then Republican Artie Kassimiss, then Democrat Erik Anderson. “Take away any of them, any of them, and we don’t have Steven Adamowski. We don’t have a strategic plan. We don’t have a building plan or any of this… We have a lot to be proud of.”
He thanked the “unpaid volunteers” for “fighting the good fight and finishing the race. It has often been trying and difficult to serve on the board over these eight years. But given these results, it’s also been the most satisfying work I have done in Norwalk… I hope for continued forward momentum.”
Lyons will be “sorely missed,” Barbis said. Keyes said Lyons’ memory has been very helpful and that he worked tirelessly as Chairman of the Negotiations and Personnel Committee. He did much of his impressive work while commuting back and forth to Rhode Island and was “here always on time, if not early.”
“You’ve always been here for the right reasons,” Keyes said. “The right reasons have really been our students and all of our stakeholders.”