Rivera lauds Rilling, says racism allegation hurt

Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Manny Rivera
Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Manny Rivera. (Archive photo)

NORWALK, Conn. – Harry Rilling is a “great education mayor,” Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Manny Rivera said Saturday, refusing to lay any blame at Rilling’s feet for the way a charge of racism was handled last summer.

Rivera said the allegation made by Board of Education member Shirley Mosby against BoE Chairman Mike Lyons was like “a dagger in the heart.”

“This was really, really incredibly hard for me,” Rivera said of his decision to resign a year and a half into a job he said he he expected would cap his career. “There’s some other overwhelming personal factors that I had to address – and this.”

The allegation was announced at the July 1 BoE meeting. Norwalk Branch NAACP Second Vice President Brenda Penn-Williams addressed the Board, saying, “She alleges that the African-American and Hispanic female board members are subject to continual intimidation, harassment, disrespect, exclusion, discrimination, lack of transparency and not being informed, and subject to disparate treatment.”

NAACP officers said they wanted to meet with Lyons, but Lyons refused. Deputy Corporation Counsel Jeffry Spahr called the email sent by the NAACP “vague in the extreme and totally devoid of factual content,” and said it did not contain the actual complaint. Spahr demanded evidence; NAACP President Darnell Crosland asked for more time.

NancyOnNorwalk is not aware of any evidence ever being produced. Rilling said Saturday that he had met last summer with Crosland, Penn-Williams and Carolyn Fuller to discuss the allegation. The end result was the intention to have a meeting with Mosby, but that has not been arranged, he said. “It’s been me asking several times,” he said. But there’s been a primary and then an election, and someone went on vacation, people are busy and the meeting has not been set up, he said.

He hasn’t met with Lyons because he hasn’t heard from Mosby what the problems might be, he said. “It was clearly one person against another. It was trying to do fact finding to find the basis of the complaints,” Rilling said. “You have to gather evidence before you can come out and make a finding of facts.”

Asked if Rilling should have been more hands-on in tackling the racism allegation and ensuing circus, Rivera said, “I am not going to put that on Harry’s feet. Again, when that occurred, just picking up the newspaper or watching on statewide news that Norwalk has been declared ground zero for race relations, my heart sank.”

Rivera said he would not comment on Lyons’ refusal to meet with the NAACP.

“The other observation I made was, ‘Boy, the stakes are really in the ground here.’ I guess part of my concern, which made me think that Norwalk would be a difficult place to be long term, was that I didn’t see things changing,” Rivera said.

“Again, that was secondary because obviously I have been through difficult situations and I probably could have handled it. It would have been stressful and difficult at times but that’s the nature of a superintendent in an urban school system. I guess I was just hoping for the ideal situation. I thought with what we were doing, the incredible investment we were making, people would have put aside the personal issues around power and control and perhaps all focus on children and what is best for our schools and our kids.”

Asked if he got enough support from Rilling, Rivera said, “I did. I think he’s a great education mayor. He’s been also one of my biggest cheerleaders out there. He tried like hell to talk me out of leaving. I have no ill will, nothing bad but only good to say about Harry Rilling.”

Rilling said this week that he still hoped to talk Rivera out of leaving, even if the New London Board of Education has appointed Rivera as its next superintendent.

“He is the optimist and he’s been incredibly wonderful and supportive of me,” Rivera said. “I appreciate that kind of comment, but the answer is no. At this stage … that’s not happening.”

Rivera, Norwalk’s first Hispanic superintendent, said he always stresses treating people respectfully. Having the racism charge go statewide when there was a profound commitment to closing the achievement gap made him think, “Oh my God,” he said.

“It’s not perfect. We’ve got things that need to be changed with some folks, but we are on the right track and when something like that happens it’s like a dagger in the heart,” Rivera said. “I’m just saying in general, as we try to move forward, again, the way to create a good school system and get people working together, you have to have people from different races, and different ethnicities, and different backgrounds, with that just people with different opinions who can come together and model the kinds of reform.”


13 responses to “Rivera lauds Rilling, says racism allegation hurt”

  1. Stephanie

    Well there it is! The terrible three played a part in Manny leaving. So now what? Do we continue to elect the same people to the BOE and the Council?

  2. Lisa Thomson

    Stephanie – it goes deeper than just those three BOE members. The voters need to get smarter about which BOE candidates do the bidding for the students and taxpayers and which BOE members due the bidding for the entrenched NPS establishment.

    Two of the BOE members are the same ones who helped run Marks out of town with the help of a Republican turned Independent. Back then it was the budget and insurance issues that did Marks in, despite the fact that the issues had been building well before she arrived in our fair city. Remember it was outsider, COO Elio Longo (who was hired by Marks) that found the budget irregularities in the first place.

    Bottom line, various time consuming distractions are engaged by BOE members and NPS employees to wear down and embarrass those who come from the outside world to help Norwalk.

    Now that the same thing has happened to two, very different but nationally recognized superintendents, Norwalk’s political leadership and voters need some serious soul searching to understand that the problem lies within Norwalk and not these two individuals who undoubtedly will never forget their time in NPS. Sadly, it will be for all the wrong reasons.

  3. Kay Anderson

    Disgraceful. While we all hope Norwalk will vote for committed, competent members of the Board (and council) the Democratic Party needs to take responsibility for those it nominates. Regarding the loss of Manny Rivera, the three obstructionist Board members need to resign now – and the Party leadership should demand no less.

  4. Bruce Kimmel

    Of course. I agree that voters need to be smart. However, anything can happen in an election. The real problem is that we are a city of over 85,000 and it’s extremely hard to find competent people to run for office. Plus, the first requirement for public officials in this city is not competence or civility. It’s the ability to withstand racebaiting, incivility, etc. Why should anyone bother?

  5. Oldtimer

    Mosby called Lyons racist and Rivera took that personal “like a knife to the heart” ? Mosby is entitled to her opinions, and Lyons is well able to defend himself, if necessary, but why would that conflict be “personal” for Rivera ? Nobody called him names.

    For all the effect Mosby and her cohorts had, they could stay home. No wonder they feel marginalized. Being treated as a minority, all the time, with nothing to contribute, could certainly feel like racism. Lyons probably feels he is better prepared and knows more. Could that come across in a BOE meeting as a very superior, possibly racist, attitude ?

    Rivera came to Norwalk expecting 100% support, and no interference, from the BOE. I doubt if any superintendent, anywhere, gets that. I doubt if the public would even approve. Rivera’s plans to improve the system and close the achievement gap will cost money and a lot of taxpayers are not prepared to spend much more.

    There is probably more to the “personal” part of his decision, but what he has shared is no surprise. Working with this BOE was not as satisfying as he expected.

  6. Kathleen Montgomery

    Oldtimer, I often agree with you and your insightful responses but this is not one of those times. Racism is ugly and hateful. Once it’s out there (even when it isn’t backed up with evidence) it diminishes us all and most of all the CEO of the school district. Yes, it was indeed personal. It was personal every single micromanaging minute.

    Mosby and her cohorts have marginalized themselves and, in this weird process, have caused a great deal of angst to forward-moving people as they did so. Lyons IS better prepared and knows more. He has proven that time and time again. The self-marginalized cohort has proven that they are not prepared time and time again. If one perceives that as racism then they need to read what racism is really about. And those who don’t own their behaviors and refuse to do so should be removed from the process. Our children deserve better.

  7. Piberman

    Ever the gentlemen Dr Rivera but a “great education mayor” would be expected to attended regularly BOE meetings in order to fully understand the inter-personal dynamics among BOE members.
    Not be generally absent. How can the Mayor possibly understand the environment within which the BOE operates without being present. We’ll never know if the Mayor’s attendence would have made a palpable difference. But it would have been a lasting impression of concern and involvement. Upon everyone. As ex-officio attendence was not required but it would have been appropriate.

  8. Corey Guilbault

    Racism is a touchy subject. Everyone will have an opinion and its a particularly tough one to approach from anything resembling an objective perspective. The ONLY way to make a difference is to get out and cast a vote when the time comes. If you want someone in office or out, vote to get them there. Voter apathy is the worst possible scenario and its impacted politics from the federal level on down. Elected officials serve the citizens that elect them. If they do a good job, they should keep their job. If they don’t, they should be ousted. No one should be in office because of the inertia of voter apathy. Solve that problem and the rest will fall into place.

  9. Don’t Panic

    Dr Rivera: “I guess I was just hoping for the ideal situation.”

    New London: Start the clock…Countdown 24 months.

  10. John Hamlin

    Hard to see how the hostile, obstructionist actions of a few could not be a huge challenge and distraction for the city, the Board, and the superintendent. The claims of racism have never been supported by any specific factual allegations, much less by any evidence. And clearly they were destructive. Republicans and Democrats alike should be outraged. Dr Rivera is probably right that little will change — all we can do is encourage the constructive, productive members of the Board to keep moving forward — and thank them for rising above petty politics to produce something beneficial for the community at large. And hope that slowly things will change, despite Dr Rivera’s prediction.

  11. Lisa Thomson

    John Hamlin – So long as public education in America (not just in Norwalk) has to wait for the obstructionist status quo to retire then there will always be those on the BOE that do their dirty work. Norwalk’s BOE trouble maker list is long and varied and not limited to those being identified at the moment. In the 10 years that I have had children in the system, I have seen it extend across the political aisle, across gender and race, be it black, white, brown or purple. I have long advocated for an appointed BOE – so as to take the partisanship piece out of the equation. For those that argue appointments aren’t democratic, I would counter with it not really mattering since the highest BOE vote getter – At Large candidate, Heidi Keys got +/- 7000 votes, out of a registered voter base of ~ 50,000. As I said in an earlier post, this city cannot expect to throw $230k at any superintendent and expect them to turn around a $160M ship. Teachers are frightened, parents are angry and students are getting short changed. The mayor and reasonable political leaders on both sides of the political aisle need to step up and put the reputation of the city and students first. As it stands now, it’s all about the grown-ups and it is very depressing.

  12. Kevin Di Mauro


    Let’s not forget snobbish arrogance.

  13. piberman

    To Lisa Thompson
    Were you satisfied with how the City’s Democratic leaders responded to the discrimination charge by 3 dissident BOE members ? It clearly affected Dr Rivera’s perception of his long term prospects. (See his interview). Not surprising since City leaders remained silent. Can you recall any similar display of utterly inappropriate public behaviors by BOE members ? I can’t and I go back 4 decades. It’s not new news that the BOE has oft been dysfunctional in the past. But the recent behaviors of the 3 dissidents have really changed the game. One obvious remedy is to have our Mayor begin to regularly attend BOE meetings to encourage more appropriate behaviors by the 3 dissident Democrat members. He is ex-officio. Another is to demand Party officials nominate candidates suited to the responsibility and capable of performing as public servants, not potential embarrassments.

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