School board approves vast restructuring of district management

School board officials approved a comprehensive reorganization of district management that includes cutting and creating various positions as part of a broader effort to improve accountability and streamline processes.

One of the key moves suggested by interim Superintendent Lynne Pierson and approved by the board was to eliminate one of the assistant superintendent positions. Currently the district has an assistant superintendent for elementary school and one for secondary school. The new position would oversee curriculum and instruction for kindergarten through 12th grade.

The new organization will also give assistant superintendent credentials to the currently unfilled position of special education director, for a title that will be called the assistant superintendent of special education and student services.

“This isn’t Hartford,” Pierson said at the May 13 meeting. “It isn’t Norwalk. It isn’t a large community that, in my opinion, would support an overabundance of management staff.”

Additionally, Darien’s principals will now report directly to the superintendent. Previously, they reported to the assistants. The district will retain the elementary assistant principals that were added with some controversy in 2006.

“Maximizing operational effectiveness was key,” Pierson said, adding that the new structure allows for “heightened accountability.”

“There’s been a lot of discussion about who is responsible for what,” Pierson said. “One of the greater concerns that came to me, was my observation that we need to improve and or develop systemic processes in order to accomplish the functions and the tasks that are necessary to ensure the organization runs smoothly.”

Two other positions are also being added: a new director of instructional technology and a teacher stipend position for health and physical education. Many have publicly expressed concern that Darien’s technology plan is not robust enough to meet the ever-changing field and its offerings.

It started with the “very simple suggestion” that Darien has “too few people that are focused on” technology, Pierson said.

Pierson also moved the athletic director from underneath the assistant superintendent. This position, currently held by Chris Manfredonia, would now report directly to the high school principal.

“In this community, there is even a larger number of very successful, highly developed athletic programs for students,” Pierson said. “The responsibility of someone to manage and oversee this is huge.”

The elimination and addition of various positions would be “budget neutral,” she said. The Board of Education previously voted to approve seven new positions to act as special education facilitators at each school, along with a program director to oversee these facilitators. The school board also previously approved a new director of human resources position to oversee the 700-plus employees, maintain legal compliance and handle recruiting.

Pierson’s suggestions came on the heels of work done by the district’s ombudsman, John Verre, who originally suggested cutting one of the assistant special education director positions and adding the facilitator jobs.

In the board’s resolution, it eliminated both the elementary and secondary assistant superintendent positions, held by Judith Pandolfo and Tim Canty, respectively, to make room for the K-12 assistant superintendent position. It remains unclear if Canty and Pandolfo would have to reapply for the single assistant job.

Pandolfo’s work fell under scrutiny when a former colleague and special education director, Robin Pavia, claimed that Pandolfo played a key role in last year’s special education crisis. Canty drew fire while a principal in Wilton when he opposed students’ desire to perform a play they had written about the Iraq war. Students claimed Canty was censoring their free speech rights, yet Canty countered he was worried about offending families, according to a 2007 article in The New York Times.

Darien is currently creating job descriptions for its various positions, including current and proposed ones. Some have wondered why the district never had job descriptions to begin with, and argued that Darien’s administration has long controlled the Board of Education and prevented scrutiny from having any real effects on how the district is managed. Many top level administrators resigned last year, and for the first time in at least 20 years, members of the administrators union will not be getting a raise this year.

Darien’s current structure more closely mirrors that of larger cities rather than similar-sized towns. Under the structure change, Darien will look more like its peer towns, Pierson said.

The town is currently searching for a new superintendent, along with a new special education director, human resources director, and student service facilitators. Now it will begin looking for a technology director, a new P.E. staff member and, possibly, a new assistant superintendent.

The school board also announced that it has not found a superintendent who they deemed worthy to be hired in Darien. Pierson has agreed to stay on until the end of next school year, or until the district finds a replacement.

Board member David Martens asked if the new structure would be an impediment to any possible superintendent interested in the Darien job. Pierson said the structure is “as vanilla as it gets.”

“Principals are principals, schools are schools,” she said. “Any candidate will agree that building principals must report directly to the superintendent of schools.”

In addition to improving accountability and efficiency, the new structure is also intended to enhance communication, Pierson said. Under the current system, with principals reporting to assistant superintendents, there is an additional layer between those on the ground and the top brass, Pierson said.

“Unfortunately, what I think in those systems, is we see a tremendous amount of distance between what is happening on the ground in the schools day-to-day, and the person who is” leading the district, she said.

Communication problems have been ongoing in the district, starting with Freedom of Information Act violations, an outdated website, and infrequent and incomplete communication with parents. This happened despite the district spending more than $50,000 for public relations help from McDowell Jewett Communications over the last year.

The flow chart [see below] provided to the board and audience at Tuesday’s meeting included the current and proposed structures. Pierson noted that typically these charts are included in budget presentations. However, this has not been the case during the last four budget seasons.

In response to a question from board member Sarah Schneider Zuro on how the new structure will affect implementation of the new Common Core State Standards, Pierson said it meshes with the model as created by lawmakers.

Heather Shea, the board’s vice chairman, thanked Pierson and noted that for the first time in her nine years on the board, she sees board goals finally reflected in the new structure.

Board Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross echoed her colleague.

“The things that the board, for the last eight years have been looking for, is addressed in some way,” she said, adding that she appreciated moving the athletic director to report to the principal, because “they’re students first and athletes second.”

“The things we have asked for, even before we had this special education issue come up, has been addressed here to make this a stronger school district,” she said.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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