Opinion: Looking forward at the Board of Education

By Mike Lyons, chairman

Norwalk Board of Education

NORWALK, Conn. – In September, I provided a status report on on-going matters at the Norwalk Public Schools. Here’s an update and a look forward.

Budgets: As promised, NPS’s first-ever 3-Year Budget Plan will be released at our Finance Committee meeting on Dec. 10. The plan is unique, not just because of its longer time frame but also because it incorporates long-term goals from the Strategic Plan the board is developing with Superintendent Dr. Manny Rivera. We are ending the yearly budget panic and replacing it with solid long-range thinking, with cost-saving measures and affordability an integral focus of our budgeting process.

Strategic Plan: At our board retreat on Nov. 22, we spent hours reviewing a new, high-level Strategic Plan with Dr. Rivera. Although board disagreements over trivia like “who’s swearing in whom” sometimes dominate the news, on the really important things there is a broad consensus on the board’s goals. Our plan is for the board, in cooperation with Dr. Rivera, to adopt an updated mission statement, vision, core values and goals in the January-February time frame. The pan will set forth six major focus areas to guide board policies and budgets over the next three years.

Common Core Curricula: We are actively implementing Common Core math curricula from K-12 and English curricula in grades 6-12. Dr. Rivera expects to make his recommendation on a K-5 English curriculum in December. Next up – Science.

Technology: We will have WiFi operational in all Norwalk schools by March. The WiFi installation will allow us to begin using the Common Core-based Smarter Balance Assessments testing system, replacing the old CMT tests. This will be computer adaptive testing, moving away from paper and using the new Chromebooks we are purchasing for all elementary schools.

Security: We have begun security improvements at our schools, adopting a new detailed safety plan, and our request for $500,000 in additional capital budget funding for more improvements has been approved by the Board of Estimate. Six full-time police officers are now dedicated to protecting our schools. We have also significantly upgraded our emergency communications system in the last two months. We have either email or text addresses for over 90 percent of the parents in our system, so in the event of any security issue, we will be able to notify parents within minutes. The small percentage of parents not on email or text can be reached through our reverse-911 telephone system.

School Management/Community Involvement: We are expanding our network of schools with School Governance Councils, bringing together principals, teachers and parents into close cooperation in the management of their schools, expanding our relationship with Norwalk ACTS (a support network of community leaders and organizations focused on early childhood education), and expanding programs with Norwalk Community College.

Communications: Major upgrades in our communications are nearly complete. We have just gone live with the Genesis system, which gives parents online access to all of their children’s school work and grades. Our web site is being upgraded with the assistance of General Electric, and the new version should be online soon. Board of Education meetings are now being videotaped and will be available on Cablevision Public Access: Also, Dr. Rivera will soon begin sending regular monthly electronic newsletters to all our parents and teachers to keep them updated on new initiatives and developments in our schools. We expect to appoint at our next board meeting a communications director who will manage all of these communications initiatives.

In the next few months, as our first multi-year budget, our new Strategic Plan, our curricula, new technology and improved communications roll out, and with the leadership of Superintendent Rivera, optimism will clearly be justified about the future of our public schools.


31 responses to “Opinion: Looking forward at the Board of Education”

  1. marjoriem

    I heard Daddona developed a three year budget plan before he left. Is this a different three year budget plan?

  2. bsmith

    Marjoriem, are you Tony Dadonna? If not, why do you keep promoting someone who was just an Interim?

    Who ever heard of Tony Dadonna before last year? I have heard he’s been in Norwalk for decades and is the Assistant Superintendent. I have heard he is what is called a ‘gatekeeper.’

    Is Tony Dadonna trying to undermine Dr. Rivera in his position as Assistant Superintendent and using you to do it?

  3. M Allen

    @Marjorie – who cares who came up with idea of a 3-year budget? Option A) assume the 3-year budget was the brainchild of Dadonna; thank you for getting the wheels rolling. Option B) it was someone else’s brainchild. So what? I’m quote certain it isn’t the same budget. It is now In the hands of Rivera and the BOE. Moving on…

  4. Mike Lyons

    I initiated the push for three-year budgeting when I became a Board member (having campaigned on upgrading the atrocious financial management that had characterized school budgets in prior years). When insisting that we hire a CFO even though we were in the 2012 budget crisis, I publicly stated that we needed to get away from annual budget crises and into long-range planning. When Rich Rudl came on as CFO, I met with him, Tony Daddona and Elio Longo and pushed for 3-year budgeting. It was agreed that last year’s budget cycle didn’t give us enough lead time to prepare a three-year plan, so we would do so for the first time this year. The draft budget will be presented on December 10. Mr. Daddona did not develop a three-year budget; this is the first time it’s been done.

  5. M Allen

    A lot of good stuff here and updates like this are greatly appreciated. What is important is the strategic nature of a 3-year budget. What is really important is how much the budget costs and how it factors in costs related to future contract negotiations. It is a lot easier to budget for those areas of the budget that are fixed, but there will always be those times like now where the contracts out in years 2 and 3 are unknown.
    On a broader city perspective, should the city adopt a cap on education spending like 60% or 65% of total budget in order to keep the education budget from becoming a bigger and bigger piece of, and eventually consuming, the pie? Taxes don’t have to be increased every year. The budget doesn’t have to grow every year. And cuts in other services don’t have to occur simply because one department decides it has to grow every year.

  6. Jlightfield

    Thank you Mike Lyons by staying true to the spirit of open and transparent communication to all and keeping the public informed of policy decisions at the BOE. The 3 year budgeting cycle is a smart solution to a complex problem that has stifled innovation in education policy in the past.

  7. Mike Lyons

    Thanks, Jackie. You’ll see in the budget how Dr. Rivera is parceling out projects over time to make steady progress without overwhelming the budget in any given year. MAllen, you’re right that future contract negotiations are always be a variable with some unpredictability. Of course, this will be the first of annual ROLLING three-year budget projections, so they can be adjusted for unexpected developments as we move forward.

  8. Farhan Memon

    Thanks for the update Mike. I think that the implementation of a three year budget plan is very important and necessary development.

    I am however concerned about the increased expenditure on security. I recognize that none of us ever want to experience the sort of tragedy that occurred in Newtown. However the notion that our kids need a policemen or armed guards to go to school is an unnecessary over reaction to a horrible event. School shootings whether by outsiders or by students are random aberrations and they should be treated as such rather than being incorporated into the daily workings of education.

    I’m sure you and your colleagues could think of myriad uses for $500K that would improve the quality of our programs. Building security certainly should be review but could be adequate met through more stringent entry procedures.

  9. M Allen

    Couldn’t agree more Mr. Memon. A lot of the spend seems reactionary and potentially unnecessary. The problem is that IF something were to ever happen that could have even potentially been prevented by the 500 thousandth dollar, the outcry for not having spent that dollar would be deafening. But it does seem like there may be a high level of CYA spending that is occurring here and elsewhere. We can’t afford to turn every school into Fort Knox. Security spending needs to have some relation to probabilities and threat assessments. It can’t just be to say we spent money.

  10. marjoriem

    From what I heard, the process started before July 1st. Rich Rhidl and Elio Longo developed the three year plan with Mike Lyon’s recommendation.

  11. M Allen

    Great. And… what?

  12. marjoriem

    To answer your question, bSmith, I am not Daddona, nor am I told what to do by him. Why would Daddona be on here criticizing what I hear is a great team? Daddona and Rivera work together and Rivera respects him. This might even be the best Superintendent/ Deputy Superintendent team in the last twenty or so year history in Norwalk. I am simply holding Lyons accountable for a time line and transparency that he seems to confuse with his efforts to get on Rivera’s good side. BTW, I am not criticizing Rivera at all. I think he is doing a great job.

  13. LWitherspoon

    “Six full-time police officers are now dedicated to protecting our schools.”
    How many were dedicated to protecting the schools prior to Newtown?

  14. M Allen

    Marj – Mike didn’t speak to a timeline of who and when a three-year budget was invented. He just let us all know they are preparing one. He only referenced timeline after you raised the issue. What is your purpose in making sure everyone knows what the timeline was/is? Does it matter in any way or are you trying to prove a point?

  15. bsmith

    Marjoriem, Dadonna, the story goes, wanted the job as Superintendent. The union bosses wanted Dadonna too since, it has been said, he doesn’t accomplish much.

    Could this be why they have people like you bring up Tony Dadonna at every opportunity? Who cares and what is your point?

  16. Mike Lyons

    On Security, the $500,000 is for capital improvements, not staff. The six police officers are spread among 19 schools. I agree with your comments — we can’t turn our schools into forts. But adding enhanced security measures (‘target hardening’) to buy time for police to arrive before catastrophe strikes is, I think, a reasonable middle ground.

    As for this comment from Majoriem – “I am simply holding Lyons accountable for a time line and transparency that he seems to confuse with his efforts to get on Rivera’s good side” – I have no idea what that even means. I have emails in which I was pushing three-year budgeting starting in February, 2012. Since that was well over a year before we ever heard of Manny Rivera, how does pointing that fact out amount to my “trying to get on Rivera’s good side”? We (Longo, Rudl and I) were working on three year budgeting long before Manny was hired, and I’m glad that Manny’s he’s taken that concept and worked it into a strategic planning process.

  17. You may want to check your facts

    LWitherspoon: To answer your question, there were 3 full time, one for each high school. The additional 3 were added to the middle schools, etc and spread out to offer as much coverage and exposure as possible.

  18. Lifelong Teacher

    You are incorrect. One officer was added to cover all twelve elementary schools. One officer = twelve schools, so they see him 1/2 day every other week. Basically no coverage or exposure, Whew! We all feel so much safer now. I guess if there was a problem at Cranbury School and he was at Brookside or Rowayton, he’d drive over. It would only take :20 or so.

    Elementary schools, the most vulnerable with young children and mostly female staff, get the least support.

  19. M Allen

    We’ll you can’t blame it on female teachers. Last I heard a 15-year old took down two male elementary school teachers. And in the wake of Sandy Hook, how does the ability of a teenager to get into a school during hours still exist? Never did here how that kid got in or who was responsible for ensuring doors are locked.
    By the way, what are we doing to keep the parents from showing up at the school during a lockdown or trying to circumvent the perimeter, as they did at Cranbury? In the event of an actual event, we cant have parents thinking they need to rush to the school.

  20. You may want to check your facts

    What’s your solution then Lifelong Teacher?

  21. How to protect our kids?
    An undercover marshal in every school (meaning teacher or administrator). One who has been trained professionally and continuously on the use of firearms and emergency situations.
    ONLY solution.

  22. TG

    Great update, thank you. The idea of a three year budget seems so wise, it kind of makes everyone wonder why no one thought if it sooner. I’m looking forward to seeing it. But I agree with MAllen regarding a cap on the percentage of the total budget that can be put towards education. A case can always be made that NPS needs more of this and more of that, but our city has need of money in many areas in order to become a modern and sustainable city attractive to live and work in. It seems we have in Dr. Rivera a leader who is willing to look for creative solutions to augment the budget with additional outside funding. It is my hope that the new BOE will work hand in hand with our new superintendent to find innovative ways to save money while keeping quality high. I taught in NPS for years. My suggestion is talk to the principals, and parents, and get the names of teachers who are positive, effective, forward thinking, and resourceful, and tap them for ideas. I don’t think there is anyone more qualified to tell you exactly what is needed and with suggestions on how to make it happen than them. Some of it may require thinking WAY outside of the box, but it’s time.

  23. TG, I can tell you that Dr. Rivera has been identifying high-energy people (teachers and others) in NPS and tapping them for lead roles in two dozen areas he’d targeted for improvements or new initiatives. These rolls will be important in advancing the new Strategic Plan in early 2014. I am very impressed by his ability to both bring in outside talent and find inside talent and get ideas from both.

  24. TG

    Regarding school security- yes, tragedies like Newtown do not happen everyday, but it is naive to believe it will never happen again. This is the new world we live in. When Columbine happened, maybe we could call it an aberration, but now, with a wake of a number of these mass shootings, well, we have a bit of a tragic blueprint to follow. And it’s not just disturbed violent shooter types- nowadays, there are parents in bitter custody battles that want access tobtheir kids, etc. Unless they are homeschooled, every kid will end up in a school building somewhere, five days a week, ten months a year. They, their families, and the staff, have a right to feel safe. I agree with Mr. Memon that the problems could be solved with better entry systems, but I disagree in that $500,000 is too much for security, in that what I propose would cost substantially more, so much that it could probably only be done in phases- BUT when completed, it is far more effective than running around trying to plug up holes.

    People need to go in and out of schools all day. It is unreasonable that office staff can look through a camera, often from an office down the hall, and determine whether a person should enter. There are just too many holes in that system. In a truly secure building, there needs to be a security vestibule area, where a staff member checks ID, and can follow up with contact to other staff if need be. In an ideal situation, this vestibule would lead first through the main office, but that would involve even a greater remodel for schools with office down the hall. In any case, this type of entrance would provide a secure and professional environment without it feeling like Fort Knox.

  25. TG

    Thanks Mike, good to know! 🙂

  26. M Allen

    I agree TG, that $500k is a relative pittance in the grand scheme of things. The question comes when we ask: what exactly are we getting for $500k? Will it result in properly securing the exterior of all schools before worrying about the interiors themselves i.e. first line of defense versus secondary? And what are the proposed follow-on expenses? Is $500k stage one? And if so then what is stage two?

  27. Without going into details that could compromise safety efforts, I can definitely confirm (i) the current funding is concentrated on ‘target hardening’, not secondary defenses, and (ii) yes, $500K is stage one. We asked for this as a special appropriation so we could continue work during this school year, but will be requesting additional funding in the capital budget for 2014-2015 (funds which would be available after July 1, 2014). As noted, we can’t turn our schools into fortresses; the idea is to make them tougher targets, which can buy precious minutes for police to arrive. The police response to the Cranbury false alarm was fast and massive.

  28. Cluetrain Manifesto

    Every school should have a few people trained and equipped with stun guns. Everyone should be able to agree this is better than nothing without scaring the anti-gun crowd. As tragic as Newtown was, the NPD would never be prepared for a Beslan type incident. That is the bar we
    should be raising to.

    There was a similar incident to Beslan just this past year where 30 children were massacred by Islamist extremists in Nigeria which has some of the most strict gun laws in the world. It ran a small paragraph in the Hour.


  29. M Allen

    Beslan? Good God, lets not get carried away. Beslan is beyond any local police. It’s beyond FBI HRT. I don’t think that is remotely the threat we are or should be preparing for.

  30. M Allen

    And thanks Mike. That is plenty of detail without compromising security.

  31. We can have all the security cameras in the world, steel doors and bullet proof windows but someone will ALWAYS be able to breach that “security’ – why?
    Because the perpetrator who opens fire on students is usually a student himself and isn’t subject to being “buzzed” in.
    Or the staff gets “comfortable” and may forget about security protocol or something will break and won’t get fixed.
    All the gadgets and gizmos in the world will not protect our kids unless there is SOMEONE willing to be the first person to take up arms and have a chance of stopping the gunman INSIDE the building in real time (not 10 minutes from the first call in).
    A stun gun won’t be of any use – you have to be extremely close to the gunman to be effective. This will allow the gunman will have the advantage of that distance to shoot at the person with the stun gun before he could get close enough.
    How about using a tranquilizer gun if everyone is so horrified at killing a mass murderer? That way we can spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on the following; 1) medical bills for the murderer because he has to be taken to the hospital to recover and doctors/nurses/hospitals etc.. need to be paid; 2) lawyers and trials because that is our system and you know the murderer will need a public assistant; 3) jail time because IF he is convicted then we will need to house, feed, and cover all his medical and dental care over the course of his lifetime and if he is underage – then it is a pysch hospital, which is more expensive than jail; and then there will be the reality that the murderer will find some way to sue the city because of some loophole or he thinks because he was tranquilized, he was treated like an animal and his human rights were violated.
    Yup, that will be the scenario if the gunman is left standing.

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