Norwalk parents vent, promise change at Board of Ed meeting

NORWALK, Conn. – It was all out in the open Tuesday night as parents swarmed a Norwalk Board of Education meeting in response to the resignation of Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Manny Rivera.

Two of the BoE members referred to as “The Terrible Trio” were under fire from multiple speakers in the packed Common Council chambers, but the tide turned when activist Lisa Thomson, who was ironically trying to make a supportive statement for the three, spurred racial indignation. Impassioned defenses followed, as well as equally impassioned condemnations. In response, Rivera told the parents that his two primary reasons for leaving are personal.  

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Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Manny Rivera listens to parents thank him for his work at Tuesday’s Norwalk Board of Education meeting.

The meeting ended with words of hope from BoE Chairman Mike Lyons who said he was “determined” to continue Rivera’s reforms and make Norwalk into a great school district. The board unanimously approved a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a superintendent search firm, saying time is of the essence.

Parents are angry and deeply disturbed by Rivera’s resignation, Parent Teacher Organization Council (PTOC) secretary Lauren Rosato said.

“Your resignation has also brought to light what many of us have known to be problematic for a very long time – Board micromanagement, hypercriticism of the superintendent, administrator insubordination, use of the race cards and lots of broken records like, ‘I am abstaining because the process wasn’t followed’ and, ‘it’s all for the kids, it’s all for the kids,’” Rosato said.

Parents are united, she said.

“Decades of leadership strangleholds by old gatekeepers and their current Board of Education members is known throughout the entire parent community and the community at large,” Rosato said. “…Remove insubordination administrators from their current positions. Put them in a rubber room if you can’t cut them off from their power base.”

Not only that, but the Board members who are “causing upheaval” should resign and the Democratic Town Committee should come up with better candidates, she said.

Former BoE member Sue Haynie said former Superintendent Susan Marks was “taken down by the Norwalk Federation of Teachers, the NASA (Norwalk Administration of School Administrators) administration, old Norwalk way folks and their friends on the Board of Ed.”

Rivera is a rock star, she said, urging the Board to hire an outside interim superintendent. “It was a mistake to do what we did last time, hire a consummate insider with an interest in the job,” she said.

Jodi Sattler, a Rowayton resident, said the wind was knocked out of her when she heard Rivera was resigning.

“I can’t blame him,” she said. “Attending these meetings and watching the showmanship and passive aggressive behavior was like watching an accident happen in slow motion.”

As an example, she cited the approval in March of a new English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum.

“Instead of trusting our superintendent, who has a Ph. D. in education and 30 years of experience, I watched three unprepared board members slow the ELA process almost to a complete stop. It was obvious that people were trying to make my children’s curriculum a politicized power play,” Sattler said.

Joanna Cooper, a mother of a special needs child, said she had little tolerance for the hatred that is discrimination. But she directly addressed BoE members Shirley Mosby and Rosa Murray and said her words were also for the absent Migdalia Rivas.

“Your claims of discrimination against the chairman of the Board, Mike Lyons, are extremely disturbing,” she said. “…I would be the first to back all of you ladies, however the fact that you will not offer proof to any of these claims you say you hold to an impartial agency to allow for an investigation, I question your motives. If you strongly believe that you are being discriminated against then why not follow through on your claims and attempt to resolve them through the proper channels. Only by doing so will there be a real resolution. It is disingenuous and selfish to let these ugly claims hang like an ominous cloud over Norwalk. It has been five months now.”

Cooper said she watched the recent Board meeting where Mosby and Rivas fought against a $25,000 bus contract for special education students.

You were completely misinformed,” she said, and Lyons banged the gavel to quiet some members of the crowd. “…You were arguing venomously with our superintendent and treating him like a school boy over a $20,000 special education busing contract.”

Jane Walters, a Norwalk realtor for 19 years, said she had come to the meeting to see the Board of Ed for herself.

She addressed Rivera. “You have implemented positive change and we were just beginning to hear the buzz of good things happening in Norwalk vs the flight from Norwalk because of our schools’ reputation,” she said.

Thomson said Norwalk is a “tough, tough place.” But she said, Norwalk Public Schools employees must bear some responsibility and she wasn’t holding the trio responsible.

Some members of audience applauded and Thomson told them not to. “I am not trying to get the black vote here,” she said.

From left,
From left, Norwalk Branch NAACP assistant treasurer Carolyn Fuller, Councilwoman Sharon Stewart (D-At Large) and Councilwoman Phaedrel “Faye” Bowman (D-District B) react to a comment made by Lisa Thomson at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting.

That caused an outcry. Some people looked on with jaws dropped. Carolyn Fuller, who was sitting behind BoE members, shook her head and said repeatedly, “Are you kidding?”

Thomson, a founder of Red Apples, cited several recent studies that said the schools’ culture needs to change.

“So long as public education, and not just in Norwalk, has to wait for the obstructionists and tenured the status quo to retire, supported by complacent politicians or Board of Ed members over the years, who have favored adults over our students, we will suffer and our tax dollars will fund mediocrity,” Thomson said. “… Norwalk seeking to be so ungovernable that the state takes us over?”

She got applause.

Brenda Penn Williams then turned her time over to Brenda Tyson.

Angela Harrison, center, and Brenda Tyson
Angela Harrison, center, and Brenda Tyson react to a comment made by Lisa Thomson at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting.

Tyson was recently the moderator at a town hall, and admonished people for not turning out.

“I am really appalled at what has happened to my city. I really am,” Tyson said. “I don’t know what happened here but I am sorry, the day that you gave up on your own town? I’m sorry, that says something right there alone. The issue just didn’t start here. It’s been brewing for a while.”

Children follow in their parents footsteps, she said.

“You say it’s not about color but something was mentioned. Therefore something is not right,” she said. “…This is not a lynching mob.”

Martha Dumas stressed that she is from South Norwalk. The people who had been speaking don’t live there, she said.

“I was shocked, not really surprised at the resignation but shocked at some people who made comments that three people is the cause of Dr. Rivera’s decision,” Dumas said. “As a leader you have to lead, run across many obstacles with parents, community leaders, Board members, and for some to think that three people would be the cause of this to me is people thinking small because I am sure it is not the 3 that is running him out of Norwalk. He might have his own agenda. Board members are elected from their community to work for our community … We are not stupid in our community we elect people we know will fight for us and try to get things across for us because our children are the ones that are lacking.”

Drew Todd took exception to some of these comments.

“One speaker said we need to wake up,” Todd said. “She’s right, we do need to wake up, we need to wake up to the fact that unfortunately the majority of speakers every other word was about race. ‘We’re separate. We’re different. Come down to South Norwalk.’ I come down to the South Norwalk train station all the time. I bring food to the shelter.

Todd said it was wrong to separate people. Everyone needs to take a break from the oversensitivity and relax, he said.

“Yeah, the three people caused a lot of turmoil,” Todd said. “Calling probably the best asset the city has seen in years a racist is unacceptable.”

Things started to change in the school district under Marks and the children he coaches have, for the last two years, said they are happy with their schools. Rivera is Norwalk’s “best asset,” he said.

“He has put swagger back in this city,” Todd said. “We are not Westport with all the bells and whistles but it’s good to dream and we can’t let our dreams die.”


15 responses to “Norwalk parents vent, promise change at Board of Ed meeting”

  1. piberman

    Fine reporting by NON. Citizens and parents have spoken clearly. Will Norwalk’s politicial leaders now listen to demands to nominate BOE members up to the task ? Or will they continue to play the same old games ?

  2. LWitherspoon

    Did Lisa Thompson explain what she meant when she said that she was “not trying to get the black vote here”?

  3. Sara Sikes

    Dear Nancy and Mark,
    Thanks for this reporting on meetings that I can no longer bear to attend. This “playing the race card” has gone on for way too long and was one of the reasons I have taken a break from the Democratic party, which has a proud history of multicultural diversity. People will stop using this tactic only when it stops working for them and it looks like that time has finally arrived.

  4. Norwalk Education

    The Board of Education is a reflection of the horrible education system Norwalk offers. This isn’t surprising at all.

    If Norwalk wants to be placed on the map for a great place to purchase a home, CLEAN HOUSE. Bring executives in from well rounded/well respected communities known for their education system and TURN THIS CITY AROUND.

    Mark my words, if this continues, we will be another Bridgeport – except we have golf courses.

  5. EveT

    Brenda Tyson’s rant is perplexing. Obviously she is angry, but at whom and why?
    She says angrily that you have no right to speak if you don’t have all the facts. But don’t people learn the facts by communicating with others? If you can’t have a dialogue because your opponents will jump all over you for “not having all the facts,” nothing will EVER get resolved. People scolding each other and spouting generalities like “if you are without sin then you can cast the first stone” is beyond counterproductive.
    Plus, the purpose of BOE meetings is not for airing personal grievances along the lines of “you don’t know what it’s like to walk a mile in my shoes,” they are supposed to be about the school system.
    The message “wake up, Norwalk!” similarly is open to a zillion interpretations. Everyone with an ax to grind thinks people should “wake up!” and agree with their particular viewpoint. It is so frustrating to sit through all of these emotional, pointless rants and vague accusations. How about identifying the problems, as you see them, and proposing some constructive solutions to those problems?

  6. jlightfield

    Right on! @EveT

  7. Carlos Rodriguez

    How can the truth begin to be told? Norwalk’s minority community needs new leadership. The active members are doing a disservice to their community. When will Mr. Burgess and Mr. Morris understand that they are not the answer and as long as they are involved in Norwalk politics, the divide among race will always exist because it is fueled by the them. It is sad to see District B representation, they do not represent anyone but themselves. It is a shame that more people from all walks of life do not get together to take over this District and finally put an end to the Burgess Morris reign of terror.

  8. Suzanne

    NE, Fairchild/Wheeler Golf Course is technically in Bridgeport with resident permits allowed to Bridgeport residents only. The difference between Bridgeport’s and Norwalk’s educational systems (at least its current negative, downstream impression) would be no different without change.

  9. Pete Repeat

    Lauren Rosato, Nora King and Sue Haynie should heed the advice of the esteemed Mike Barbis: “You lost your last election … the public does not support your twisted plans. Give it a break!”

  10. Bill

    Mike Lyons has my vote for eternity, I will never vote for Mosby and her conflict of interest family.

  11. Susan Wallerstein

    Perhaps helpful to get mental health professionals involved, moderating public discourse and helping people find ways to focus their energies toward solutions, building rather than tearing down. As former Greenwich superintendent Larry Leverett used to say “hard on issues but soft on people.” Easier said than done but so necessary if we are to find even a small patch of common ground.

  12. piberman

    As long as the 3 dissident Democrat BOE members continue to enjoy the full support of the Democrat Town Committee and Democrat Mayor Rilling there’s no reason to expect substantial improvement in the proper functioning of the BOE. Nor have the DTC nor Mayor Rilling publicly objected to the “discrimination” charge by the 3 dissident Democrat BOE members against the BOE and Supt. Before pointing fingers at unions and administrators City residents ought to question the City’s Democratic leadership on why they support sub-par participation by Democrat BOE members. Its long past time for Norwalk Democrats to ask the DTC to only nominate well qualified BOE and to ask the DTC to disassociate itself from the discrimination claims by the 3 dissident Democratic BOE members. The silence of the DTC and Mayor Rilling to these discrimination claims made nearly 6 months ago without any supporting evidence is downright embarrassing to the City of Norwalk. And especially to Democrats. Time for some old fashioned backbone in Norwalk.

  13. Hobbes the Calvinist

    Poor Mr. Berman- how can he reconcile that Supt. Rivera resigned under the watchful eye of the unprecedented leadership of Mike Lyons?

  14. Ms Ruby McPherson

    Its a shame, Mr Rivera had no plans to stay, he applied for New London position 8 mos.ago he had no intention. Continued with his business and left his new wife in New London. He accomplished certain agendas for particular districts and became a Rock Star!!! So why try to blame 3 people because the other side also had an agenda for there district, But its okay because the Whites are Right, but is not as divers as South Norwalk. So where is the concern that Black and Latinos and others are getting the help in school when needed. What works well for one cultural doesn’t work well for another cultural as Martha Dumas stated Tuesday night. We have to also work with Teachers so they can be able to teach and deal with all children.

  15. Watts for the Board!

    I think we need Mr. Watts to be placed on the Board of Ed!

    He’s incredibly knowledgeable and has the ability to unite his party.

    Or perhaps Israel Navarro!

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