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Budget Dominates Norwalk Superintendent's Year One

NORWALK, Conn.-- Susan Marks’ first year as Norwalk superintendent has been characterized by extremes.  She weathered one of the worst winters in recent years with nine back-to-back snowstorms.  But the weather problems turned out to be mild compared to passing next year’s  budget, which required $4 million in cuts.

On July 1, Marks celebrates her one-year anniversary as Norwalk’s superintendent. Before coming to Norwalk, she spent the bulk of her career in the Montgomery County, Maryland public schools, most recently as the assistant superintendent of human resources.

Marks points to several accomplishments during her inaugural year including:  more students taking honors and AP classes, creating 16 workgroups some of which have produced a revised school calendar, parent and staff surveys and a new pilot high school schedule at Brien McMahon.  She also says that schools are continuing their work of using data to inform instruction and narrow the achievement gap.

The budget process has, however, dominated much of Marks' first year. “Certainly the budget took a lot out of all of us," says Marks.  "I would have liked to have spent more time on instruction and student achievement.”

Board Chairman Jack Chiaramonte is, nonetheless, very pleased with Marks' performance throughout the year.  "She did an awesome job," he says. "Especially because it was a horrible budget and stressful year."

Not all board members are as glowing in their praise, however.  Board of Education Finance Committee Chair Steve Colarossi is critical of Marks' handling of the budget and her proposed, but ultimately rejected, cuts at the elementary level.  “Her list of cuts did not reflect the community's values,” he notes.

“She didn’t show the kind of leadership on the budget that I’d have liked,” says Colarossi.  “There were three different versions of cut's lists that became a menu of options. That's not what the public expects."

However, Marks has been widely praised by both school and city officials for her community engagement and her presence in the schools.

“She’s the only person who attends as many events as I do,” says Mayor Richard Moccia.

Chiaramonte especially appreciates that she lives in the city.  “She’s one of us,” he says.

Lauren Rosato, director of the Norwalk Education Foundation, says that her outreach in the community has been “tremendous”.  “And not only in the education groups, but also social service agencies.  She is perceived as a positive force.”

Marks herself rattles off the names of half a dozen foundations and corporations that she has been in regular contact with throughout the year. “We have to work on private-public partnerships, especially in tough budget times,” she says.

When the school year began, Marks traveled around the city to speak with different parent groups.  Armed with a Power Point presentation, she explained her vision of a district with a more rigorous curriculum, more consistency among schools and more accountability for the district’s employees.

PTO Council President Lisa Lenskold thinks this initiative got lost during the budget process but needs to be resurrected. “We need her to remind us about her vision for Norwalk and keep focused on the big picture.”

After her first year, Marks has yet to win over the teacher’s union.  “Teachers are disappointed by what was accomplished,” says Bruce Mellion, president of the Norwalk’s teachers.  In a Norwalk Federation of Teachers May 2011 survey (which is taken primarily by union stewards in the schools), Marks scored C or lower for her performance.

“One of the biggest concerns for teachers is that administrator evaluations did not get addressed this year,” says Mellion.  “Teachers want administrators to have a quality and fair evaluation tool.  Someone needs to do it and it should be done on a regular basis."

Marks responds that supervisory evaluations will be a priority for her next year.  As will the reorganization of the Central Office, which lost three senior level positions as well as secretarial and technical staff due to budget cuts.

Chiaramonte calls the Central Office a “wiry mess” as a result of these cuts.  “It’s like the fishing reel that’s all tangled,” he says.  “Her task now is to unscrew the reel and reorganize the central office.”

Mayor Moccia believes what Marks needs now is freedom. “It’s time now for her to blossom and run with the system.  The BOE should support her and let her do the administration."

Of the road ahead, Marks says, "I will continue to work to build relationships and trust, and consider the needs of children in my decisions."

How would you rate Superintendent Marks' first year in Norwalk?

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