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The party’s just beginning as Colarossi bids for Board of Education re-election

Steven A. Colarossi is running for re-election to the Board of Education under the Community Values Party banner.
Steven A. Colarossi is running for re-election to the Board of Education under the Community Values Party banner.

NORWALK, Conn – When Attorney Steven A. Colarossi was first elected to the Norwalk Board of Education in 2009, he ran unaffiliated on the Republican ticket. Since then he has served as a Republican. But not this time.

Colarossi has had his differences with fellow BOE members and his political party.

So this time around, Colarossi has joined with Andres Roman to form the Community Values Party.

Colarossi will try to hold his seat and Roman will try to win one against a field that includes four Republicans and four Democrats.

NancyOnNorwalk asked each BOE candidate a set of questions to help readers get to know something about them. Here are Colarossi’s responses:

NoN: Why are you running for the Board of Education?

SAC: Norwalk is my community — it’s where I chose to raise my family. And, the families who entrust their children to our schools — and the taxpayers who fund our school system — are my neighbors and friends, they are the parents and grandparents of my daughters’ school friends — they are the families of the kids I’ve coached in soccer. I’ve shown that I can make a difference in improving our schools and have an obligation to the people I serve to continue that work. And with the election of Andres Roman and me, we can build upon that work for the next four years.

There is a need for someone (and hopefully a majority on the Board of the Education) to balance the needs of Norwalk’s families, students and taxpayers. Since my election in 2009, I have served that role, undertaking a comprehensive review of the school department budget (which rooted out misappropriations, erroneous assumptions and wasteful spending), fighting to preserve the educational programs that serve the interests of often-overlooked and under-served students (such as my efforts to save the Transportation Technology program at Norwalk High School and to preserve the middle school team-teaching program which helps identify struggling students), and rewriting school department policies to protect students (such as the policies I wrote to cut red tape for families in need of service animals for at-risk students and to improve child abuse reporting procedures).

There is a need for someone (and hopefully a majority on the Board of Education) to serve Norwalk’s community values and not make decisions based upon the whims of unelected political party leaders. That means holding public officials, administrators and all involved in the education of our children accountable for the decisions they make and the consequences of those decisions. Asking tough questions isn’t always easy (as I learned in 2010 when trying to determine how a central office human resources department had allowed two teachers accused of wrongdoing to remain in classrooms despite the concerns raised by principals (www.yourct.com/2010/05/school-administrator-cover-up-begins). And it certainly didn’t get any easier in 2012 when I proposed a kids-first alternative budget in response to the deep and unfair cuts to the programs affecting Norwalk’s most vulnerable students. But, the stakes are much too high, and the will of the community for change is much too strong, for me to stop advocating for accountability in our school department.

NoN: What are your qualifications?

SAC: My record serving the needs of our families, students and taxpayers, and standing up to political influences in the process, is the reason I would vote for me on Row D, on the Norwalk Community Values party line.

As a member of Norwalk’s Board of Education, I make every effort to respond to emails and telephone calls from concerned citizens. I also review the blogs so that I can respond to questions that are raised. The openness of my service is reflected in the openness of the campaign I’ve been running with Andres Roman for the Board of Education – our positions are clearly laid out on our website (www.NorwalkCommunityValues.com).

I have experience in education. I have served as pro bono counsel to two pre-school programs and was a career-change high school social studies teacher in the Boston area. Also, in my legal career, I have served as a guardian ad litem, court investigator for child abuse and neglect cases, juvenile public defender and educational advocate for my young clients and their families. I’m also an active school volunteer, and a former co-president of the Naramake PTO, coach in the Norwalk Junior Soccer Association and Norwalk Hospital volunteer.

The breadth of my experience and community involvement (which is similar to Andres Roman’s broad community commitment) provides me insight into the practical needs of our families and children, and the challenges of implementing changes on the school and classroom level.

But, no amount of practical experience can take the place of having a fundamental belief that all of the citizens of Norwalk deserve to have a voice in the decisions that are made affecting our schools, and that the Norwalk community values improving education for every child in Norwalk.

NoN: What are your plans if you get elected?

SAC: My goal will be to continue the on-going work in which I’ve been involved since 2009:

continuing to work on making the Board of Education responsive to the needs of our families and respectful of the sacrifices of the taxpayers, and

continuing to hold all who are involved in the education of our children accountable for their decisions.

NoN: Priorities?

SAC: The top three priorities are:

Improving the education we provide all of our children to better prepare them for college and career;

Improving the transparency and efficiency of the budget process so that the budget which is produced reflects the true needs of our public schools; and

Improving the responsiveness of the Board of Education so that parent and taxpayer concerns are addressed.

To improve education, the Board of Education must consider educational needs and affordability, and not political needs. One way to improve the process is by directing that the superintendent of schools serve as the chief negotiating officer, with advice and consent from the Board of Education, on all staff contracts. That way, issues which could improve education (such as longer school days and a longer school year) are considered along with critical financial concerns, rather than the bumper-sticker issues which will have long-term costs (such as paying for a one-year zero percent teacher wage freeze with a more than 4 percent increase for 2014-2015 which will put serious fiscal pressure on the entire school budget).

Another way to improve the educational offerings of our students is to recognize that all of our students deserve a quality education that will prepare them for the life they will lead. This means remaining committed to the alternative program at Briggs High School and to maintaining the vocational programs we have (such as the culinary arts program and the Transportation Technology program at Norwalk High School).

Further, to improve education, we must improve how we teach our children to read. That is why it was critical, after a panel of experts provided a detailed analysis of needed changes to our English Language Arts curriculum, that political considerations should not have kept that report from review by the entire Board of Education (and pressured key administrators from adopting the experts’ proposal). The fact that over 5,000 elementary school students have lost a year of an improved reading program cannot be justified (regardless of whether or not some ultimate goal was to improve their educations by 2013 or 2014), for the goal should be to improve our children’s educations every day of every year.

Finally, the built environments in which our children are taught have a significant impact on their ability to learn. This is why, in order to improve education, we must undertake an on-going comprehensive review of school use (such as the one I initiated as chairperson of the Finance Committee in 2010) and evaluate how to reduce overcrowding in classrooms.

NoN: A lot of people think the professional staff salaries are too high. Do you concur? If so, what can be done about that?

SAC: Many administrative salaries are high, particularly when compared to the average salary of Norwalk residents. In tough economic times, that leads to tremendous frustration among the taxpayers, especially when the public sees poor evaluation procedures for top administrative officials. Our newly appointed superintendent has promised to improve this process, and his experience gives every indication that he will do so. Another concern for many citizens is the practice of extending staff contracts for an extra year so that they always have a three-year contract. I have tried to encourage my colleagues to end that practice, in large part because I believe that contracts should only be re-evaluated in their final year.

As a board, we need to do a much better job in establishing objective evaluation criteria in the contracts of the employees we hire and tying compensation to performance-based standards. Also, we must evaluate our payscale (particularly for key administrative personnel in the Central Office) with comparable positions in comparable cities and towns.

NoN: Jack Chiaramonte said recently that he would be in favor of armed guards in the schools. What is your opinion on this topic?

SAC: Student safety needs to be on on-going concern and priority. And, although the goal cannot change, how we achieve that goal must be subject to constant reflection and improvement in light of developing an understanding of potential threats and the most effective means of addressing them. As a part of that process, there must be continued cooperation between school and public safety officials, and there must be a community-wide commitment to fund necessary safety improvements. Based upon the advice of those with far more experience in this area than I have, I do not believe that we need to arm school security guards.

We also need to concern ourselves with student safety in other areas. First, we need to improve how we train our staff to identify and report bullying among students. Second, we need to educate children about the ramifications of posting personal details and sharing personal pictures on social media sites. These have been areas in which the Policy Committee (of which I am chairperson) has been involved, re-writing policies on bullying (both student-on-student and adult-on-student), drafting new Internet safety regulations (which provide sanctions for the distribution of demeaning images of staff or students) and helping to improve how we educate students about these safety issues.

NoN: Do you support the transition to Common Core State Standards?

SAC: State law requires that we transition our curriculum to the Common Core State Standards and I support our school district abiding by the law. That was one of the reasons why I felt so strongly that when the team of professional educators recommended changing our English Language Arts curriculum and textbooks for grades K-5 (so that we would be ready for the implementation of the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts), the Curriculum Committee should have moved that report to the entire Board of Education for a full discussion. Instead, there was tremendous political pressure by some members to force the review panel to consider a different program and to then “re-consider” that program when it received low grades (in particular because we needed a program for kindergarten to grade five and their program did not include the upper grades).

NoN: Are you in favor of education reform? What are your reasons for your opinion?

SAC: Norwalk needs to change how we manage our public schools and how we expect our Board of Education to exercise oversight over them. I have supported those changes since my election in 2009. A critical reform I have long-supported is that we must change the culture in which needs are assessed, debated and addressed.

The goal of educational reform should be improving education for all of our children — it shouldn’t be looking for a blame-agent or serving particular political goals at the expense of providing the best possible educational system that the community can support.

But, for any reform to be successful, those who initiate it must know that they will be held accountable for its success or failure. And, critical to the process must be that, when mistakes are made, those responsible work with the Board of Education to evaluate how those same mistakes can be avoided in the future.

When I began my service and was chairperson of the Finance Committee, I undertook a comprehensive review of every line item of the school department budget, and was shocked at the mismanagement, miscalculations and mistakes that riddled that first document. Over the years, with the service of our last two permanent chief operating officers, we have been able to create a more accurate budget and avoid the scare tactics that were once used to justify increasing school budgets rather than finding greater efficiencies (as I have advocated). Unfortunately, despite the progress that had been made, political considerations, rather than continuing the reform of the budget process, crept back into the process in 2012 when I was the lone dissenting vote on a budget that included cuts for which no adequate plans or impact statements had been prepared. My commitment to true reform- my commitment to serving all students and taxpayers- was no more evident than in my preparing a revenue-neutral Kids First Alternative Budget Plan that relied upon savings and cuts in less-critical areas than those which had been proposed and passed by the majority. To be an advocate of true reform means that you have to be willing to take a stand to advance the education of all our children, even if it is unpopular with political bosses and even when it subjects you to cheap attacks in the local press.

One area in which reform is critically needed is how we provide and manage the educational services of our special needs students. The new director who is ultimately hired must undertake the comprehensive review I have long called for to determine why so many families feel shut out of the process. We must continue with renewed energy a review of special education services that can be provided within our schools to provide more of our children with the appropriate, community-based education they deserve (and without subjecting them to lengthy bus rides to out of district placements). We must evaluate why monetary payments are being made directly to certain families (for services that should have been provided pursuant to approved educational plans) and why repeated calls for accountability have not been heeded. And, we must have a director who takes responsibility for the budget of the special education department (which was one of the most shocking revelations of a recent regional report of our former director). But, in any reform of special education services we must remember to treat all of our children and families with respect and compassion.

NoN: Is anyone in your family a teacher? Work for the schools?

SAC: My wife is the type of teacher I would have wanted to be when I taught public high school in the Boston area. Jen nurtures each and every one of her Brookside preschool students, guides them to develop their unique abilities and encourages them to have the confidence to take-on new areas and learn new skills. Her students are her first priority, and she doesn’t let any health concerns interfere in her care and teaching of her students. She has a dedication to her students that, as a husband, is one of the many reasons why I am very much in love with her and that, as a Board of Education member, makes me thankful that we have teachers like Jen in our school district.

Comments

8 responses to “The party’s just beginning as Colarossi bids for Board of Education re-election”

  1. LWitherspoon

    @Steve C
    “One way to improve the process is by directing that the superintendent of schools serve as the chief negotiating officer, with advice and consent from the Board of Education, on all staff contracts.”
    .
    How are negotiations handled now? What changes would your proposal entail?

  2. Presently, there is a subcommittee of the Board of Education which engages in negotiations with each of the bargaining units involved in our schools. Although reports are made to the BOE as to nature of the negotiations, there have tended to be no votes to authorize a particular course of conduct. So, with respect to the last teachers contract that went to arbitration, based upon what my colleagues have told me (and I recused myself from all of the discussions about the teachers’ negotiation), there was no vote of the BOE authorizing the last best offer that was extended and there was no BOE vote directing that the Negotiation Committee take the matter to binding arbitration.
    You see, once a matter goes to binding arbitration, the BOE has no vote on the matter (by some quirk, it is only the Common Council that can exercise some control by voting to not approve the arbitrated contract). So, a subcommittee of the BOE, without any vote approving their course of conduct, essentially began a process that bound the BOE.
    The difficulty in the matter is that part of negotiating with school-based labor groups is that we need to change contract language to initiate much needed reforms (such as at least considering longer school days or longer school calendars) that could improve learning for our children. By utilizing the superintendent to lead those negotiation efforts, we could benefit from his educational experience so that contracts which are negotiated meet educational, financial and management objectives.

  3. Great article my friend. You provided the people with a lot of insight. This is what I call transparency. I will be the first to VOTE for you on November 5th. Thank you for being an inspiration to many and having the Norwalk Community at heart.

  4. Piberman

    The first requirement of any citizen appointed or elected to serve on a City board or commission is to work within that organization. Not to use the post as a “bully pulpit” in the news media to go outside their appointed or elected post. Mr. Colarossi’s behavior did not earn him either the respect or confidence of BOE members. He remains outside the team criticizing the BOE and individual BOE members on occasion but never earning the wrath of the NFT. The great revitalization of our BOE, especially it’s highly successful search for an outstanding Supt reflects the “team” approach. Unfortunately for Mr Colarrosi its myway or highway. We need members who are committed towards serving within the BOE, not publicizing their own agendas in the press. No matter how strongly they hold their views.
    The BOE is a Board not a public bully post.

  5. Kid Cupcake

    Vote for Steve. Our kids deserve to have twinkie free learning environments.

  6. Perhaps some entrusted with assuring a quality public school system for all of Norwalk’s children would heed Mr. Berman’s advice and “go along to get along” rather than fighting to stop waste and mismanagement that robs precious dollars from children’s classrooms. But, I was elected to advocate for the best interests of our families, children and taxpayers and not to play politics as Mr. Berman would suggest.

    Sorry—but I’m an advocate for the people I serve and not an aspiring diplomat.

    As for his general critique that I am this eternal combative flame scorching the good work of the BOE, I would suggest Mr. Berman actually examine my voting record. Now, admittedly, he won’t find it in the seminal Arbitration Report he often cites (you know the one that cost us tens of thousands of dollars in over-budget legal fees and is imposing several million dollars of raises for teachers next year). Perhaps, if he had looked at the meeting minutes on the BOE website, Mr. Berman would have assessed the many policies I have written, most of which pass by nearly unanimous margins.

    In my work as Policy Committee chairperson, I involve all who come to the meetings to work collaboratively to address the issues that are confronting our schools. Working with student leaders and teacher union leaders, I drafted a policy that identified adult-on-student bullying and adult-on-adult bullying. This policy passed and is now an integral part of our efforts to stop bullying of all sorts. I drafted a service animal policy, not in response to any immediate problem, but rather to be certain that the families of children in need of service animals would not need to suffer through needless redtape. I drafted the policy that improved our ability to protect children from suspected abuse and neglect- and, in that policy, gave the superintendent greater authority to immediately place staff on administrative leave when suspicions arose (something which had not been undertaken in 2010 when teachers who would later be convicted of child abuse were allowed to remain in classrooms pending investigations).

    As for Mr. Berman’s subtext that Board of Education members should, somehow shy away from debate, I question where his rebuke was when a series of editorials erupted from the pen of a single member who had been on the losing side of the votes on the 2011-2012 budget (http://www.yourct.com/2011/07/guest-view-haynie-decries-rogue-norwalk-boe-budget-actions/).

    Whether he applies a single- or double-standard to evaluating my service on the Norwalk Board of Education, Mr. Berman must start with my four-year record of advocating for the best interests of our students, families and taxpayers, of supporting school administration officials when they have earned support, and of refusing to buckle to political pressures in advocating for the best interests of my constituents. Notwithstanding the critique of the cupcake-lobby, I am proud of my record of advocacy. If Mr. Berman really examined my record, who knows, maybe his ire would shift from what he presumes to be my channeling of my inner Teddy Roosevelt to my alleged antagonistic relationship with Twinkie the Kid.

  7. Ante Litteram BOE

    One must question how one as strident as “Piberman” could find fault with an elected official who has the strength of his convictions.
    Unfortunately, as is his forte, “Piberman” provides no facts for his preternaturally unfounded opinions.
    Unlike Ms. Haynie who voted against one of Supt. Rivera’s cabinet officers, Mr. Colarossi has supported the new superintendent. Mr. Colarossi after a valiant effort allowed Chairman Lyons to be chosen unanimously by supporting him. Compare that spirit of cooperation to Ms. Haynie. She voted against Artie Kassimis for vice-chairman.
    Really, how does one justify voting against someone running unopposed for vice-chairman?

  8. Piberman

    Attorney Colarrosi believes he was voted to advocate “publicly in the press on behalf of education. Most of us expect BOE members to exchange views within BOE meetings and work within the BOE format. That means accepting majority views and the elected leadership. Basic civic practice.
    BOE members earning the respect of the community do not criticize fellow BOE members in the public media. They are courteous. And polite.

    Attorney Colarrosi’s repeated criticism of the BOE’s decision to hire CT’s most highly regarded public education legal counsel – Tom Mooney – is pretty strange in view of the $2.6 million savings secured for the BOE and the City. Surely Attorney Colarosi must know that you get what you pay for. The NFT has never criticized Mr Colarossi in its monthly Vanguard but has not hesitated to criticize vigorously other BOE members, the BOE and Supts. Repeatedly criticizing BOE members for hiring the best legal counsel that secured favorable outcomes against our hostile NFT is not in the public interest. The NFT should not have a seat on the BOE real or imagined.

    At day’s end Attorney Colarossi was not be elected to one of the 3 principal leadership positions within the BOE – Chair, Vice-Chair and Negotiations and Personnel. But he has been the most visible BOE member in the public press. Maybe there’s a connection here. Had Mr Colarrosi kept his contributions within the BOE his election prospects might be brighter. That’s the real story here.

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