NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk's teachers were told to redefine themselves Monday as they begin a "tough" and "challenging" school year after a bruising budget battle in the spring and summer.
"Let us not be defined by what people have said about us or the last comments that were made about the Norwalk Public School system. But let us redefine who we are and move forward," Board of Education Vice Chairman Artie Kassimiss told the packed auditorium at Brien McMahon High School during the annual convocation ceremony, the traditional beginning of the school year.
"I believe that our best days are yet to come, no matter what happened," he added, referring in part to the $5.8 million cut from former Superintendent Susan Marks' budget request. That was a smaller cut than it might have been because the city found ways to delay the Board of Education's repayment of a $4 million budget shortfall uncovered in April.
"From obstacles come opportunities, and Norwalk has a lot of opportunities," said interim Superintendent Tony Dadonna, whose remark failed to draw a response from the subdued crowd.
"Our students are at the center of this district, and everything we do has to be for the students," he said. "We have to repower the district with positive energy. We can generate this."
Kassimiss said he was impressed by the "very positive attitude" of the teachers. "They were here to make the best of it," he said.
"I'm always excited," said Carol Burgess, a seventh-grade teacher at Nathan Hale Middle School. "This is my 31st year. I love the kids, and I love what I do. I'm excited. Every year brings a new challenge."
This year's challenges include "lots of teachers moving around," she said. The staff at Nathan Hale now includes many teachers who are middle school-certified but new to the school.
Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Bruce Mellion said he didn't think any teachers have lost their livelihoods. Some who were laid off have been made long-term substitutes, he said.
"I think it's going to be difficult because we've lost a lot of people that we really cared about," Ponus Ridge Middle School language arts teacher Keesha Sullivan said. "But as our superintendent said, we have to focus on the kids who are coming back. We really need to rally together and support each other."
She predicted a great year as teachers rise to the challenge.
Other teachers refused to comment, saying they "wouldn't lie" with a pretty statement made for public consumption.
Mellion thought the mood was "good and upbeat" but expects things to be "very challenging" with the staff reductions, which include layoffs of support personnel such as security guards.
"I think it's going to really hit after a few days in terms of that," he said. "As events unfold I think it's going to be revealing."