The superintendent merry-go-round continues
This week, let’s start with a little TV game show action. Borrowing the format from “Jeopardy,” I am going to give you the answer, and you have to identify the question.
Ready? Thrilled? I thought so. This week’s answer is, “This Town of Greenwich elected board can best be described as cowardly, incompetent, unscrupulous, capricious and feckless.”
There are no prizes on the line, but if it took you more than a nanosecond to come up with the correct question, “What is the Board of Education,” then you just don’t pay attention to local news. And you were one of the few people in town not to be asked to sign an online petition calling for the school board to reverse its decision to dump interim School Superintendent Ralph Mayo.
The school board knew there would be hell to pay for its decision to name current Fairfield Superintendent Toni Jones as Mayo’s replacement. That is why the board released the news late on a Friday afternoon before the three-day holiday weekend. (That checks the cowardly box.) This trick of timing used to effectively mute stories, but it hasn’t worked really since the advent of social media and the ubiquitous 24/7 news cycle, where someone is always listening or reading, and news spreads like fire through dry tinder.
People have spent the last week trying to figure out what happened to Mayo’s supposedly sure appointment. Seven months ago, the school board was left reeling and embarrassed by then Superintendent Jill Gildea’s sudden departure for Park City, Utah, after less than a year in Greenwich. The board needed a quick fix, and found it at Eastern Middle School, where Mayo was the well-respected and popular principal. He was the right man at the right time, everyone agreed; everyone, that is, except for school board member Barbara O’Neill, a retired Greenwich teacher and former school board chairman. O’Neill voiced concerns that Mayo did not have “central office” experience. That seemed a weak complaint and the school board wisely paid it no attention.
By all accounts, Mayo had been doing an excellent job. Teachers felt they had someone who knew Greenwich and understood the unique challenges teachers face here. Administrators, at least those who had worked in town for any length of time, appreciated someone who did not need directions to Glenville or Parkway schools and already knew everyone in town. And the parents? Well, several hundred have already signed the online petition, and comments on local news sites are almost universally pro-Mayo. So, what was behind Mayo’s demise?
The final vote for Jones was 7-1, with the lone dissenter being Republican Peter Sherr of North Mianus. He told this newspaper last week that he thought the board had made a “mistake” in not making Mayo’s appointment permanent.
This week, I asked Sherr for more details about how the board went about picking a new superintendent.
“I was disappointed that the rest of the board did not pay attention to our agreed upon criteria for the new superintendent,” Sherr said late Friday. “We agreed on three basic criteria. First, we needed someone to stabilize the system. We had to close the revolving door in the superintendent’s office. We needed someone who could manage the relationship with the finance board, the RTM and the selectman. And, we needed a professional who could follow through on our strategic plan for the schools and implement personalized learning.”
Sherr said Jones had an impressive resume, but it was no more impressive than Mayo’s. “I felt if we were going to replace Ralph, especially after he gave up his permanent position as a principal, we had to make sure it was someone better. We did not do that.”
Sherr said he was also very concerned over the board’s discussion of Mayo and Jones’s candidacy. In the first search committee meeting after Mayo’s and Jones’s interviews, the board took a “straw vote.” It came out 5-3 for Jones, Sherr said.
In the discussion that followed, Sherr said he was afraid the board was making a mistake. “I am an Eastern Middle School parent, and I’ve been on this board for almost 10 years. I have never heard a bad word about Ralph Mayo,” Sherr told the rest of the board, according to our conversation.
At that point, Sherr said, Barbara O’Neill answered him by saying she had “heard some things” about Mayo. “I asked Barbara what did she hear,” but she refused to say, he said. (School board member) Jennifer Dayton then said she had heard things, too, according to Sherr. But, like O’Neill, Dayton would not be at all specific about these “things,” he reported.
O’Neill did not return my request for comment, but Dayton said in an email that all conversations were “confidential” because they were held in executive session. She added, “To address solely the question posed by you and without disclosing any information from said executive session — I am not aware that any ‘allegations’ were made in the manner you describe.”
I have no reason to doubt Sherr’s account. But it is particularly unfair to Mayo that the board conducted a background check on Jones, but not on Mayo. So, Mayo, a professional who has devoted his entire career to Greenwich, does not even get the courtesy of a background check that would have answered whatever might have been said or heard about Mayo?
In the end, Greenwich chose to continue the musical chairs at the Havemeyer Building rather than grab the chance to let a well-known professional continue in the job. They chose a resume over a proven local track record and stability. A new superintendent will take over, inheriting senior staff that she did not hire and with whom she has never worked. She will need at least a year to learn how Greenwich works. But by then, the recruiters will be luring her with offers from other districts. I am not one that always wants the local guy to get the job. But in this case, he should have.
Bob Horton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.