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Norwalk BoE adds another year to Estrella’s contract

Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella, at a recent Board of Education meeting.

NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella’s contract was extended another year Tuesday, minutes after Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon said most Norwalk teachers “do not feel that the district cares about providing excellent service to students.”

Norwalk Board of Education members voted unanimously to extend Estrella’s contract through the 2024-25 school year and give her a 2% raise. Some noted that continuity is important given the revolving door nature of superintendents in the previous years, while all who spoke lauded her performance.

Estrella began work here July 1, 2020. Her initial contract stated that her base salary will be negotiated annually, before the beginning of the new school year, and if no agreement is reached, she will receive a cost of living adjustment equal to the percentage change in the Consumer Price Index for the year.

Board of Education Chairman Colin Hosten said that would have been 8.5% this year. Board members appreciated Estrella’s “willingness to work with us” to reach a “fair compromise, both for her and for the Norwalk school district.”

Estrella was hired for the 2020-21 school year with a $275,000 base salary with a $15,000 annuity. Last year, the Board added a year to the contract and boosted the base salary to $284,625, with a $17,400 annuity. That jump represented a 4% increase.

Yordon began the meeting as a public speaker, elaborating on the union membership survey she mentioned two weeks earlier. She said 76% of respondents “agree that they are completely overwhelmed and that won’t change anytime soon,” down a bit from the 80% who said that in October.

“It has been intense, unforgiving, exhausting, and not like any other district,” she said. “There is very little praise given. Effective professional relationships are built on trust, collaboration, communication and appropriate goals. Such relationships allow for all members to grow and remain invested in the work. Instead, 73% of our members do not feel that the district cares about retaining capable employees.”

NFT First Vice President Joe Giandurco later quoted a teacher as saying, “It is well known within my building, that every teacher is replaceable. This is a repeated mantra from the administration.”

He said, “What this goes to show is this is not a national issue, as some people had mentioned at the last meeting. This is not just a Fairfield County issue about teacher retention. This is a local Norwalk issue, and we need central office and the Board of Education to do a better job of working with us to accomplish the goals that we need to for our students.”

Former BoE member Sarah LeMieux countered by citing her own experience as a teacher in another district.

“The problems that teachers are having are the same everywhere,” LeMieux said. “Teachers feeling replaceable, teachers feeling overworked, teachers feeling like they’re not having room to be creative. These are systemic issues, and they’re systemic issues all over America. But in Connecticut, also, because we have regulations, we have assessment metrics that are tied to the funding that we get. And there really is not as much room for people to make changes, even in positions of leadership, as like the common person would think.”

Estrella is “skilled and experienced in collaborative leadership,” exhibiting “a spirit of outreach, and identification of partnerships and outside funding sources,” LeMieux said. Norwalk is lucky to have her and given the “really silly amount of superintendents” in the past 12 years, the “stability” of a contract extension would “be really great.”

“I know for a fact that the things that are spoken of by the teachers from the Federation of Teachers are the exhaustion which we identify with,” said the Rev. Kevin Mullins. “We spend a lot of time as a church praying about exhaustion and the turnover are certainly systemic issues.”

He too wanted to keep Estrella longer because “amount of superintendents we’ve had in place is ridiculous.”

Among Estrella’s accomplishments are the new Family Welcome Center and translation services, according to Iliana Zuniga.

“As a Latina woman, it’s incredible to see a woman of color in a leadership position that has worked so hard to engage our community,” Zuniga said. “… A lot of our parents are very thankful for the efforts. Many of our parents don’t have the ability to speak up because of a language barrier, or maybe they’re just afraid of being in a public forum. But as a founder of Latinos Unidos Norwalk that has over 3000 members, I can tell you that the sentiment resonates along this group of people.”

Tyler Fairbairn noted that the agenda for the meeting said simply, “Approval of Superintendent’s revised Employment Agreement,” without providing any information about the revisions. He had emailed Board members but didn’t get a reply, and when he tried again he was told “there are contract negotiations, and they’re private.”

Transparency is important and “it becomes increasingly difficult” to fight for school funding when “there’s a perception that things are not being operated on level and things are not being made available to the public,” Fairbairn said. “I’ve had discussions with Council members who’ve not been supportive of funding the schools and that’s been their arguments.”

Hosten later said he agrees transparency is important but legally, contract negotiations are confidential. “Any part of the contract is completely theoretical until it is actually agreed upon.”

As the school year ends, the Board of Education “goes through and reviews the superintendent’s performance on every single goal that we have set,” Hosten said. In a three hour executive session last week, Board members “had a very rigorous discussion, we asked tough questions.”

The final evaluation will be a public document, as will a lengthy year-end report, he said.

“I think that we have started a really great program here in Norwalk,” Hosten said. “It’s really been built around this theme of equity, it’s something that we’ve been talking about for a long time, now we’re actually walking the walk. Now we’re actually putting things in place to make sure that we have a rising tide that lifts all the ships here in Norwalk, all of our scholars.”

“This administration is executing big, bold and comprehensive programs including curriculum updating, maximizing staff retention, and engaging families in a very deliberate manner with the opening of the Family Center,” Board of Education member Sheri McCready Brown said.

“Reflecting back on this year, the number of union contracts that were executed successfully is an example of just the growing collaboration and partnerships happening eternally,” Board Secretary Godfrey Azima said, also mentioning “the increased support provided by the philanthropic community.”

“I feel we’ve been in the shadow of the pandemic for the last two years. And I truly want to see Dr. Estrella’s visions and strategies bear fruit and show the impact in measurable ways,” BoE member Mary Ellen Flaherty-Ludwig said.  “… There are some communications with key stakeholders like teachers and parents that could improve. But my vote is to applaud the good and recommend work on certain areas, I am enthusiastically in favor of the contract and the extra year.”

BoE member Erica DePalma said the emails the Board received showed “misunderstanding in the community about the levers that Dr. Estrella can pull behind the scenes.”

“She is at the will of state requirements in many instances, City Health Department requirements,” DePalma said. “There’s differences between what we can do from an operating budget perspective and a capital budget perspective. There are initiatives that are funded specifically because they are backed by nonprofits who are funding them. And with that comes very specific guidelines of how they can be implemented.”

And then there are the restrictions in contracts, she continued. “Until you sit in this chair, I assure you that you do not appreciate what goes on behind the scenes in Central Office. I surely did not.”

“There is so much behind the scenes,” BoE Vice Chairwoman Diana Carpio said. “It’s every day, it’s 24/7. It’s all the time, we hear what we are told, but at the same time, we don’t hear what is not said to us.” Estrella came in strong and upheld her vision, and “put together this great, unbelievable team that has been working so hard.”

Estrella navigated the unprecedented pandemic “beautifully,” BoE member Kara Nelson Baekey said. “That’s a large part of the reason why I ran out for the Board of Ed, because I saw her vision. I saw what she was doing. I saw positive change happening in this school system. .. I am also fully in support and I’m grateful that Dr. Estrella is wanting to stay here in our community for another year on contract.”

16 comments

Ct. V June 29, 2022 at 7:00 am

I don’t say this lightly because I respect the work the volunteer BOE does, but everyone I talk to in Norwalk tells me Estrella is a disaster and teachers and students all feel like she’s a failure. And then I read this which seems to come down to 1. We have gone through too many superintendents 2. She’s built a welcome center. Not to say she should be fired, but there are real complaints and it seems like there are just a string of high fives from the BOE rather than a balanced assessment. Huh?

John O'Neill June 29, 2022 at 9:23 am

This is what I hear:
1) The Teachers are obviously being ignored by the Board of Ed. Considering Yordan is part of City Political Machine the next few months will be interesting.
2) US Common folk don’t really know what it takes to educate our kids. If there’s anything wrong with our schools it’s not Estrella’s fault. It’s the state or the pandemic or climate change or school starting times or Putin. Let’s call it the Putin effect. That has a nice ring to it
3) Nothing is the administration’s fault. AND we ignorant minions should never ever question anything done because we are ignorant.
4) The Family Center — Not sure what it’s costing, but again I apologize for bringing it up because I’m ignorant and money grows on trees.
5) Misunderstanding in the community? Students come home and discuss the disarray in the halls/classrooms. The lack of respect teachers get from disruptive students. But then again, parents and teachers are ignorant according to many quoted above. Seriously?

In my opinion, Anyone who thinks NPS is heading in the right direction is not in touch with reality. But then again, I’m just an average Norwalker who these people think doesn’t understand what goes on behind the scenes. Average Norwalkers should be appalled by this lack of respect. I know I am.

Ben G June 29, 2022 at 10:23 am

Multiple emails to the BOE citing while Estrella is wholly unfit to be the Superintendent of NPS and can anyone guess what I received in response? Silence, that’s what.

I have kids in NPS and what she has done in her short tenure is absolutely disgraceful. Throw into the mix her beyond absurd salary, continuous raises, and her utter lack of care for anyone who holds a different opinion than her and you get the current state of NPS. I have many friends who are teachers and they all state that she is unfit for her position.

But sure, lets give her another year with a $300k+ salary while the teachers do all the hard work.

Norwalk BOE, you are pathetic and should be ashamed of yourselves. If you listen to the residents of this town you would have voted unanimously against renewing her contract, not for.

Piberman June 29, 2022 at 12:20 pm

Reward for overseeing a public school system that continues failing to meet CT Edu Dept graduation guidelines for most of our students. While surrounding towns have some of the nation’s best public school systems. What a travesty and indifference for the welfare of our public school students and City residents. CT Dem leaders apparently have other concerns.

Tysen Canevari June 29, 2022 at 2:35 pm

Thanks for reminding me why I would never send my kids to school in Norwalk. The BOE constantly does not get it. Estrella stands for disaster! How many lawsuits have we settled so far out of court on her behalf. Our teachers break their ass and have to sit back and listen to the garbage that is passed down by this administration. $300,000 is a bargain? In the private sector she would have been booted a long time ago based on results. SHe moves people around likes pawns and even had the audacity to appoint Dr. Moore to be principal at West Rocks because we need stability there. Excuse me but she is over 80 plus years old. How many years is she gonna hang around? By the way she just settled a lawsuit too. Good job rewarding her. Teachers are now told how to teach and what part of history to teach but Dr Moore hangs a black Abraham Lincoln on the wall. How many teachers will defect from Kendall before Estrella makes a good move there. What about the young people that have worked their way up the ladder in the system? Reward them for a change. Estrella has hired all her buddies from NYC now. Complete joke But then again our great mayor says that people move to Norwalk for our schools. Now thats a politician if you ever want to see one. I think I saw him on his boat the other day. It had a new name, “Developers Dream!” LOL

Seriously? June 29, 2022 at 4:47 pm

And did the superintendent and the board negotiate goals for her for 2021-22? Did the board measure her performance, based upon those goals? That was the board’s legal responsibility. The evaluation, by the way, is public information.

People with good memories will recall that the board gave the superintendent a raise last year without evaluating her. The chairperson offered the excuse that they had to give her a raise, even without the evaluation because her contract — yes, the contract that the board negotiated — would have required at least a cost of living increase. He offered this excuse as though the board had had no role in that provision of the contract.

They eventually developed a weak imitation of an evaluation after the board’s failure to evaluate her became public. There wasn’t an ounce of critical brainpower that went into writing it.

Let’s see what her goals are for 2022-23.

Just Joe June 29, 2022 at 8:38 pm

I am happy we just finished with NPS. Our kids are out, off into college. Not criticizing – NPS has been good to our kids, and there were many great teachers along the way we owe and have expressed our thanks to. However, things the last few years have been headed in a bad direction. I dont think this is the right superintendent. Many have expressed their concerns. For those who are still in the system, take a stance. This is what you get when you have one party rule across the board in Norwalk. Careful what you wish for right? now live with it.

George June 30, 2022 at 12:43 am

With the amount of money these folks already make..do they really need a “cost of living adjustment”.

The utter greed…

Justataxpayer June 30, 2022 at 5:52 am

Folks complain that a Superintendent makes $300k a year. We have cops making just a bit shy of that. Do we really believe that Darien has a better set of teachers or that neighboring towns have better superintendents?

DryAsABone June 30, 2022 at 8:09 am

Good news from Scamford…Lucero is not getting an extension (for now) because she is tone-deaf and basically was a bad hire. Perhaps at $400K folks actually begin to ask questions about what they get for their money.

Seriously? June 30, 2022 at 2:42 pm

Justataxpayer – Do I really believe that neighboring towns have better superintendents? Yes, I firmly believe that most area towns have superintendents of schools that are superior to Norwalk’s.

As for teachers, take a look at the alarming number of Norwalk Public Schools teachers who have resigned or retired this year. I know of no other area district that has experienced anything like it. Contrary to what Sheri McCready Brown said, Norwalk has been an abject failure with regard to staff retention. All she and other board of education members have to do is look at the resignations and retirements that appear on their business meeting agendas. Never before has Norwalk experienced such staff attrition, and it will continue because the reasons for much of the attrition are still in NPS.

Too often, people don’t recognize a problem because they don’t want to admit that it exists. It does in Norwalk, whether the board wants to admit it or not.

CT-Patriot June 30, 2022 at 9:09 pm

I wonder how many attend BOE meetings and discuss the direction of school systems in Norwalk?

Those of you with children have a duty to attend.

Without the voices of parents, thing will never change and this administration will throw as much money as they wish for a superintendent. But it’s up to parents to direct the way things go.

Frustrated July 4, 2022 at 9:05 am

said. “… There are some communications with key stakeholders like teachers and parents that could improve

Improve by having round table discussions in which no one is allowed to disagree or question with administration?

Transparency? Like the agenda of the June 14 board meeting? Every item under action plan has a document attached except change in job description and title? What is that about? Most people will probably not watch the video to find out. I will. If the minutes were already posted we wouldn’t have to watch.

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