Norwalk superintendent choice approved by board

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Norwalk Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons uses a laptop computer as a support as new Norwalk Superintendent Manuel Rivera signs the contract agreement approved at Tuesday night’s meeting.

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.”

Peter Berman introduces himself to new Norwalk Superintendent Manuel Rivera Tuesday night as Lisa Thomson watches.

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.

A City Hall custodian greets new Norwalk Superintendent Manuel Rivera after Tuesday's Board of Education meeting.
A City Hall custodian greets new Norwalk Superintendent Manuel Rivera after Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting.

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.”


12 responses to “Norwalk superintendent choice approved by board”

  1. Lisa Thomson

    Nancy, a point of clarification for the readers. In the quote that you used in the conversation overheard between myself and Dr. Rivera. When I said, “bad place,” it was in the context of the political climate and the fisticuffs setting that takes place on many issues and on many levels. When Dr. Marks first appeared in public in Norwalk, just as Dr. Rivera did last night, I warned her that Norwalk was a ‘bad place” politically. Dr. Rivera’s experience as a parent and national educator, while also living in Norwalk, will likely yield few surprises.

    On another, separate but no less interesting note. I was surprised to walk out and see Rosa Murray standing in the parking lot talking to folks, while an Executive Session, that presumably all BOE members were supposed to be in was going on. Perhaps she would feel less ‘excluded’ from the “process” if she had been in attendance.

  2. Vigilant

    I am so saddened, embarassed, disappointed and angry about Ms. Rivas and Ms. Murray’s decision not to vote in favor of hiring Dr. Rivera. Shame on you.

  3. Piberman

    What a fabulous new day for Norwalk with a nationally recognized new Supt as good if not better recognized as any in the state. We are greatly indebted to the BOE, especially it’s untiring Chair Mike Lyons, for their enormous achievement. Dr Rivera is the “real deal” and his appointment heralds a “new day” for Norwalk. Despite all the criticisms over the past 18 on the the BOE did the impossible – a lesson to all of us that our system of governance really does work with enough grit and determination.

  4. marjoriem

    Lisa Thomson, leave it to the Queen of Red Apples to spin the Rosa Murray story. Rosa had a right to be concerned about the process of hiring a superintendent. IT REALLY WAS A FLAWED PROCESS. The five members of the Board were sending information to each other that was kept from the others. Someone should FOI those e-mails! Rosa Murray was brave to confront the secrecy and the lack of visibility coming from the others. The minorities are being treated differently on the Board. That does not surprise me when it involves Apples. As for Rosa not attending Executive Session, I guess it didn’t matter to you when Sue Haynie didn’t attend. What a double standard you have, Lisa.

  5. marjoriem

    Oh, just an added thought. Lisa, stop badmouthing Norwalk! The Real Estate agents must be furious with you. Who would want to buy a house in Norwalk with you criticizing the school system all the time!

  6. No information regarding the candidates was ‘shared among 5 Board members’ and “kept from the others”; this is utter nonsense, oft-repeated but never, ever verified. How about producing one piece of evidence to back up these claims? Can Ms. Murray produce one piece of information about Mr. Rivera that was communicated to other Board members but not her? No, she can’t, because it didn’t happen. The “flawed” process produced the best qualified superintendent in Norwalk’s history.

  7. Welcome to Dr. Rivera and a heartfelt thanks to all the BoE members.
    Looking (so very) forward to Dr. Rivera’s leadership, insights, and improvements from knowledge gained from experience and education!

  8. marjoriem

    “The “flawed” process produced the best qualified superintendent in Norwalk’s history.”

    Mike Lyons, while I hope you are right, are you being deliberately obtuse to make a statement like this? Or are you really that arrogant! This new superintendent hasn’t been properly vetted and you are stating that he is the best qualified candidate in Norwalk’s history? Are you so confident that the paperwork presented to the Board translates into a superintendent who fulfills Norwalk’s needs? By the way, were you (are you) aware of the background of other Norwalk superintendents? Ralph Sloan was a Harvard PhD, to name one.

  9. marjoriem, how do you know that “new superintendent hasn’t been properly vetted”? I didn’t notice you in the room when we did the multiple interviews, or reviewed reams of documents, or read criminal background checks, or the interviews of references, or our own extensive independent research into the candidates (both Internet-based and through personal contacts [for instance, one of our members talked to people in Boston and other locales with personal knowledge of Dr. Rivera]). And, yes, I am well aware of the qualifications of other Norwalk superintendents, having known many of them personally in the years since I started government service in Norwalk as a member of the Common Council in the 1980’s (I’ve personally known and socialized with Briggs, Rosenstein, Sloan, Herbert and Marks). I knew Ralph Sloan well (through my wife Elizabeth, who was a BoE member when Ralph was superintendent), and dined with him at his home. I know Ralph also was a Harvard Ph.D. And I also know that Ralph never managed a school system as big as Rochester’s, and was never named National Superintendent of the Year (as Dr. Rivera was). I didn’t say Ralph or the others weren’t qualified — I just said Dr. Rivera was the best qualified. I stand by that.

  10. marjoriem

    Mike Lyons, of course I wasn’t present during the interviews plus everything mentioned. They were kept very secretive. No one is even allowed to talk about them. But since you know so much about the appointed superintendent, how do you feel about the fact that he provided free tuitions for central office staff making $120,000 – $$150,000 to obtain their PhDs (or some form of higher education?) How do you feel that he raised salaries for staff without the approval of the Board of Ed? No red flags for you? Did you speak with teachers from Rochester? That’s where he was superintendent for many years. What about the fact that he was not a superintendent since 2007?
    Stand by your statement. That’s fine with me. I hope it doesn’t come back to haunt you. Truly, I hope this appointment is a good one.

  11. Lisa Thomson

    Marjoriem – Norwalk’s punchy reputation pre-dates my arrival in the city 16 years ago…as does the reputation of the school system. If you had read any of my opeds, you’d know that I’ve also praised parts of NPS, acknowledging many of the programs and nationally ranked universities our graduates from Norwalk and BMHS get into. However, NPSs failure, like most districts (with the exception of the leafiest zip codes) around the country, is that too many kids are not succeeding. Over the course of my 10 years in the school system, I’ve seen the achievement gap and middle class flight. You obviously have a right to your opinions, but your anonymous handle suggests that even you may not really believe your own superintendent anti vetting process spin. Dr. Rivera comes with excellent national credentials, and a lot of experience as an educator, superintendent and educational consultant. Norwalk is lucky to have his experience.

  12. marjoriem

    Lisa Thomson, yes, the paper credentials are there, and I agree they do sound very good. Then why was his behavior as superintendent questioned in Rochester? Why was his behavior as superintendent in Rochester not scrutinized in Norwalk?

    Lisa, one can remain anonymous and believe what s/he says. The vetting process in Norwalk was flawed. I stand by my statement.

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