NORWALK, Conn. – The man who is in line to become Norwalk’s new superintendent of schools is no stranger to Norwalk. He is also no stranger to controversy and internal discord, having experienced his share of both during his 35-year career in education.
The Norwalk Board of Education is expected to confirm the contract to bring Manuel J. Rivera, 61, aboard to lead the school system at its July 9 meeting. BOE Chairman Mike Lyons announced Monday that Rivera and the board had come to a contract agreement and that Rivera would begin work on July 18. According to the board’s contract with the Norwalk Federation of Teachers, the union has four days from the time the board makes its choice to the actual contract signing to study the choice and raise any issues.
Based on reader comments left on NancyOnNorwalk’s story announcing his imminent hiring, Rivera is a popular choice. Other comments have come in as well, including from a Republican candidate for the Board of Education.
“I’m extremely pleased,” Lauren Rosato said Monday night. “I have known of him for several years through national networking with education foundations. He’s a forward thinker with national credibility, and he knows Norwalk. This is a game changer.”
Lisa Thomson, a founder of Norwalk’s Red Apples, concurred.
“I think the Board of Education has hit a home run,” she said. “He has national name recognition, which will help bring funds to Norwalk. He didn’t get frightened away by the Norwalk nonsense. He’s a reformer and he’s got ties to Norwalk. This is only be great things for Norwalk, it’s exactly what we need.”
The raves are similar to those expressed by many in Boston when Rivera was chosen to take over that system in 2007. Instead, five months after accepting the job but with a contract still not worked out, Rivera accepted another job, as deputy secretary of education for New York in the Eliot Spitzer administration. The move left Boston scrambling four months before Rivera was expected to start, and sent the system back to square one in its search.
A story on New York’s Capitol Confidential website announcing Rivera’s appointment said, “Rivera rejected reports that he rejected the Boston job due to the controlling leadership style of the woman who heads the Boston School Committee, and insisted he had decided to accept Spitzer’s offer “because of this unique, unexpected opportunity to impact the lives of 3 million children across the state of New York.”
Rivera outlasted Spitzer, who famously resigned amidst a scandal involving prostitutes, and continued to serve under Gov. David Paterson until Aug. 18, 2008, when he resigned and to take over the Rochester, N.Y., school system. Said Paterson in a press release, “Manny Rivera oversaw the largest infusion of state aid to education in the history of New York. Under his leadership, new education accountability legislation was developed which includes an unprecedented requirement that school districts with low performing schools must complete a Contract for Excellence detailing their investments in proven practices and programs. In addition, he provided oversight to the Commission on Higher Education which developed recommendations to build one of the premier systems of higher education in the nation.
“Manny has accomplished so much for the State of New York over the past eighteen months. In his role as Deputy Secretary of Education, Manny worked tirelessly to demand greater education accountability and provide meaningful reform. In the process, he oversaw the greatest infusion of education aid that our State has ever seen,” said Governor Paterson. “Manny has had a long and successful career serving New York State’s students. After devoting so much of his life to public service, I wish him the best in his future endeavors in the private sector.”
Rivera left his position with the Paterson administration, he said, “I considered going back to being a superintendent, but I had dinner with a colleague and was given the opportunity to start with a company that would focus on school transitions and turnaround services.”
The result was Education Learning Alliance, an umbrella company that includes GEMS Americas, Global Partnership Schools, GEMS Education Solutions and Little GEMS International-Lincoln Park. And while the company has been successful, Rivera said he needed a change of direction.
“After 4½, 5 years of being on the road six days a week, I was ready to settle in again,” he said Monday. “I wanted to find someplace, preferably in Connecticut, and heard Norwalk was looking for a superintendent.”
It’s familiar turf for the former Norwalk resident, who served as superintendent for the city of Rochester, N.Y., on to separate occasions. The first, from 1991 to 1994, came after working in the district as a teacher and administrator since 1975. He left to take a management position with Edison Schools, a company that managed public school systems. The company had gone through ups and downs prior to his arrival, and suffered through more before he left in 2002 to return to Rochester.
During his second run in Rochester, he gained accolades including state and national Superintendent of the Year awards.
Rivera comes to Norwalk with his eyes wide open, aware of the discord surrounding the BOE and the union.
“It’s not something I’m tremendously worried about,” he said.
“I did my homework,” he said. “I know about the sniping, the types of issues” that are on the table. “I come at this with the belief that we all need to work together … to do what’s right for the students and the schools.”
He also said it’s important to develop an atmosphere that is supportive of the teachers to allow them to do their jobs.
“When I started in Rochester, you wouldn’t believe the tension. There was not a lot of confidence and respect” in the city for the school system, he said. “You have to stay focused on doing the right thing for the students, finding the right ground rules,” so that everyone knows what to expect. “You need to have people working together, not only the teachers but the community and the government.”
To that end, he said, he has already had a “very good conversation” with NFT head Bruce Mellion and with other local leaders.
“Norwalk is a great city. … I loved it when I was there,” Rivera said.
“I’m really quite excited about it.”