NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk’s new superintendent was welcomed by many and warned by a few Tuesday evening as the Norwalk Board of Education approved his appointment in a split vote.
Manuel Rivera, Ph. D., 61, a former resident of Norwalk, will earn $250,000 a year. He will begin work on July 18.
“I will be operating to foster and build a huge atmosphere of collaboration here,” he said. “Over next 90 days I will lay out my plan. My intent is to get out and meet with a number of leaders, many of whom I have met tonight, others that people will forward names and phone numbers to me, so I can become more and more familiar and here first hand some of the experiences, some of the desires and some of the hopes and aspirations of the Norwalk school system.”
(Story continues under video.)
Board members Migdalia Rivas and Rosa Murray refused to vote for Rivera.
Rivas, who protested the $250,000 figure at the last board meeting, said Norwalk cannot afford the salary, but her major complaint concerned the process by which the choice was made.
“There was a lot of uncivil behavior going on in the emails between the board members and, particularly, myself,” she said. “… It’s how the whole thing was done, the back and forth that was going on. There was a lot of emails that it seemed like it was conducting board meetings, in the email. I think the public was denied certain things that they requested.”
Murray said she had no problem with Rivera, but she felt excluded from the process. She said there were “many times” when information was not shared with all board members.
“We really do need to understand better how we can work as a nine member board,” she said. “Not to divide … to be able to respect, fully listen to each other, and also to evaluate what is being said as far as what’s in the best interest of all students.”
Rivas voted no; Murray abstained.
The vote was 5-1-1, with board members Artie Kassimis and Jack Chiaramonte absent. Chairman Mike Lyons read emails from the pair in support of Rivera. They both said they were out of town.
The appointment of a superintendent was delayed by Norwalk Federation of Teachers Bruce Mellion, who reminded the board that the union had the right to look over a new superintendent’s contract for four days before it could be approved.
Lyons said the board had differed about the candidates but, “It was clear that the one candidate that could generate the greatest degree of consensus on the board was Dr. Manny Rivera.”
No one had been excluded, he said, as he forwarded every document he got from Proact to every board member.
“I feel this is an opportunity for Norwalk to really turn a corner,” Lyons said. “We are bringing in a person who knows our city, knows our school system, certainly knows education. I am just very happy to be welcoming him back to Norwalk.”
Rivera fits the profile that was developed “almost perfectly,” Lyons said. The only exception was having a detailed knowledge of Connecticut school law, but the board has the “best education lawyer in the state” in Thomas Mooney to turn to, Lyons said.
Rivera said he decided about 1½ years ago, when he was chief executive officer of Education Learning Alliance, Inc., to seek a different professional opportunity, but did not apply for any superintendent positions until he saw the materials about Norwalk.
“I wasn’t either impressed or overwhelmed by the advertisement or the search firm’s work that they put out,” he said. “When I saw that Norwalk was seeking a superintendent – first of all, I’ve been from Norwalk and, knowing the system as a parent, I knew the potential of the Norwalk school system, it’s a good system.”
He said he was impressed again when he read the superintendent profile that was developed by the search firm Proact, which held 22 meetings with parents and community members to get opinions.
“It was very unique,” he said. “It was a profile that you could sense and feel the under-girding desires and the values of the community, in what the parents were saying. It was a call for diversity and it was really a call for excellence as well. I felt, ‘Yeah, I want to be part of building a school district of excellence, within a community of excellence, that supports the learning for children. A community where you work in collaboration with your board, you work in collaboration with your stakeholders, parents, teachers, principals, unions, college president, business people, people who are going to be part of that learning fabric for children, because education is 24/7.’”
Rivera said he chose to move his family to Norwalk in the mid 1990s because of the city’s diversity. His daughter graduated from Norwalk High School in 2004.
“I applied for the job because I wanted the job,” he said. “I gave it my best to make sure that I ended up your school superintendent. … You will never have to question my motives with recommendations that come to you because I’m about, very honestly and very truly, about doing what’s right for children and doing what’s right for improving the quality of teaching and learning, and really just doing what’s necessary to pursue the excellence that Norwalk can and should be as a school system.”
Lisa Thomson of Red Apples, was among those to speak at the meeting, thanking the board for its selection.
“His credentials are excellent and thankfully, our various, passionate and sometimes anonymous stakeholders didn’t frighten him away,” she said.
Rivera was approached by several community members after the meeting, including Patrica Palermo, Peter Berman and a Hispanic City Hall custodial worker, who he spoke to in Spanish.
Berman had cautionary words and promises to be of assistance, as did Thomson.
Thomson said her group had talked to former Superintendent Susan Marks when she began her ill-fated tenure here.
“We warned her, this is a really bad place, it’s fisticuffs,” she said. “We are here to help.”