As Published in the Record Journal Sunday June 13, 2010
By Samaia Hernandez
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WALLINGFORD — In his first year as superintendent of schools, Salvatore Menzo has found himself in a position many heads of school systems could only wish for: the ability to assemble, and not just inherit, his administration. Last June, former school superintendent Dale Wilson — a 36-year veteran of the system — was handing the baton over to the highly ambitious 38year-old Menzo, just one year removed from completing his doctorate in education at the University of Connecticut, who was hired by a then-Democrat- controlled Board of Education.
Wilson’s departure set in motion a wave of administrative retirements that have allowed Menzo to have a say in filling a total of nine management roles this school year, including the two in his three member Central Office team: assistant superintendents of personnel and instruction.
Though some internal candidates applied for several jobs, all but one were filled with professionals from outside the district, including Parker Farms Principal Michael O’Neill, who came all the way from Northern California. Cindy Lavallette, chairwoman of the English department at Lyman Hall High School, was the only district employee to be promoted in the process to assistant principal of a high school.
The turnover of management roles and out-of-town appointments speak to the district’s new direction. All of the leaders have some, if not ample, experience in a host of initiatives that Menzo charted this year, including federally mandated models for struggling students, assessing student performance and new technology for collecting and analyzing student performance data — all of which will be easier to set in place this fall under the new elementary school reconfiguration, according to school officials.
“All the positions we are filling are from retirements,” Menzo said. “We wanted to replace them with people that definitely have an understanding of where we’d like to go as a district, in terms of professional development, curriculum, instruction. We wanted people who had a breadth of experience.”
Wallingford, being a large suburban school district, has often appealed to seasoned out-of-towners, making it hard for some internal candidates to beat out the competition. And aligning a team of people who share the vision of the top leader is nothing new in the world of public education.
“I found as superintendent, and I think this is still the case, it’s a very attractive school system, so you tend to get people who have done a good job elsewhere,” said town-resident Joseph Cirasuolo, who served a 12-year term as Wallingford’s superintendent and hired more than a handful of administrators during that time. Cirasuolo is the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.
“Superintendents are trying to find the best people they can find,” he added. “Most of the people I hired were from out of town.”
Ellen Cohn wasn’t even in the market for a new position, let alone working for any single district; she was content consulting with systems across the state, including Wallingford, as they adopted new models such as Scientific Research- Based Interventions, which she helped pioneer in the state. But when Cohn, a consultant with the Capitol Region Education Council in Hartford and a trained social worker, learned that Martin Taylor, the assistant superintendent for instruction, was retiring, she jumped at the opportunity.
“I was a consultant in the district this year and I was very impressed with the open-mindedness of the staff. You don’t find that everywhere,” said Cohn, who was been working with teachers and principals on data team training across Wallingford’s 12 schools this year. “The other big appeal,” she said, “is Sal Menzo. I really like his vision. As an action-oriented person myself, I really like strategic planning.”
Board secretary Michael Votto, who was chairman when Menzo was hired, knows turnover is not uncommon at all in town. It just doesn’t usually happen as quickly as it did this year, he said. “I think a little bit of it is just plain coincidence,” Votto said. Since there were few internal applicants, the board and Menzo focused on finding people who were in line with new initiatives and district goals.
“There are two schools of thought,” said Chet Miller, a Republican member of the board. “Like a lot of people, I’d like to think that we’d promote from within, but there’s another school of thought that bringing outside ideas, perspectives, experiences can be good for a school system. I kind of go along with that latter school of thought.”
With pressure from the federal government and mandates including No Child Left Behind, it only makes sense for superintendents to assemble administrations of people who understand their goals and objectives, said Roch Girard, president of the Connecticut Federation of School Administrators, a roughly 1,000-member union of department and school heads. In the end, keeping up with all of the mandates will fall on administrators, he said. “Nothing is simple in education anymore,” Girard said. Menzo admits that with the retirement of almost 10 administrators, the district will not be able to replace the history it is losing, not to mention the rapport with parents, students and teachers, but he’s confident about taking the school system to the next level.
“It’s about the best fit for the school district,” Menzo said, “and moving the district forward.”