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.
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.