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.
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.
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.
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.”