In­terim school chief an ‘ac­tivist not a chair­warmer’

Pas­sion­ate about kids, so­cial jus­tice

Stamford Advocate (Sunday) - - Front Page - NEWS

When a school dis­trict is faced with scan­dal, dis­cord, in­com­pe­tence — or a rou­tine, un­filled va­cancy that re­quires a tem­po­rary school su­per­in­ten­dent, James A. Con­nelly of­ten is the go-to guy.

Con­nelly, who served as su­per­in­ten­dent of Bridge­port schools for 17 years un­til his re­tire­ment in 2000, has the dis­tinc­tion of hav­ing held the most in­terim su­per­in­ten­dent gigs of any­one in the state.

Since re­tir­ing in 2000, Con­nelly has served as in­terim su­per­in­ten­dent 13 times in 10 dis­tricts — three of them twice. His ed­u­ca­tion ca­reer spans more than five decades. He cur­rently is the in­terim su­per­in­ten­dent at Amity Re­gional schools.

“I see my­self as an ac­tivist, not a chair­warmer,” Con­nelly said. “I’m not leav­ing a pile of to-dos for the next su­per­in­ten­dent.”

His stints as in­terim in­clude: Nor­walk, Stam­ford, Wood­bridge, Killingly, Montville, Ox­ford, Put­nam, Nau­gatuck and Re­gional School Dis­trict 16. He took the helm at Amity tem­po­rar­ily in July and will leave in Novem­ber, when a new su­per­in­ten­dent comes on­board.

“He brings a wealth of ex­pe­ri­ences. … He’s seen it from both sides,” Amity school board Chair­man Christo­pher Browe said. “For some­thing as sim­ple as hir­ing teach­ers, it was an ex­tra opin­ion. It gives a lit­tle ex­tra cred­i­bil­ity and depth to the process.”

Con­nelly said Amity was left in great shape by for­mer su­per­in­ten­dent Charles Du­mais — he worked with the Board of Ed­u­ca­tion on am­bi­tious ini­tia­tives in­clud­ing se­cu­rity, grade tran­si­tions and new hire poli­cies.

But some­times Con­nelly steps into a hot­bed of dis­ar­ray and con­tro­versy, as was the case when he served in Stam­ford, be­gin­ning in Jan­uary 2016, when em­bat­tled for­mer Su­per­in­ten­dent of Schools Winifred Hamil­ton re­tired amid crit­i­cism of her han­dling of teacher sex­ual mis­con­duct.

Hamil­ton came un­der fire for her han­dling of the case of teacher Danielle Watkins, who was sen­tenced to five years in prison for hav­ing a sex­ual re­la­tion­ship with a stu­dent — and a De­part­ment of Jus­tice in­ves­ti­ga­tion into pro­grams for non-na­tive Eng­lish speak­ers.

Go­ing into Stam­ford on the heels of scan­dal, Con­nelly said he had to do a lot of hu­man re­sources work, re­mov­ing teach­ers who were on paid leave for hav­ing in­ap­pro­pri­ate con­tact with kids, and was charged with bring­ing sta­bil­ity to the dis­trict.

A Shel­ton res­i­dent, Con­nelly said he keeps work­ing be­cause “I have a pas­sion for kids and so­cial jus­tice.”

Art Bet­ten­court, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of New Eng­land School De­vel­op­ment Coun­cil, said Con­nelly keeps serv­ing be­cause he’s in such de­mand. Bet­ten­court said Con­nelly has in­tegrity, deals well with peo­ple and keeps dis­tricts mov­ing for­ward.

“He’s a gift to any dis­trict,” and the best in­terim in the state, Bet­ten­court said.

Aside from his in­terim su­per­in­ten­dent gigs, Con­nelly has done a lot of con­sult­ing work for school sys­tems as part of the New Eng­land School De­vel­op­ment Coun­cil, par­tic­u­larly in the field of su­per­in­ten­dent searches.

At one time Con­nelly had a run­ning joke with for­mer New Haven Su­per­in­ten­dent of Schools Regi­nald Mayo over who spent the long­est serv­ing in some ca­pac­ity as a su­per­in­ten­dent. Mayo wins in to­tal time with 21 years as su­per­in­ten­dent and two as in­terim in that city, Con­nelly con­cedes, while claim­ing the in­terim record.

While he’s worked quite a bit, Con­nelly has also trav­eled in re­tire­ment to Ire­land, Scot­land and Eng­land and plans to take longer blocks of time off and more “ex­otic trips,” such as Ice­land.

School dis­tricts in need usu­ally hire Con­nelly by word of mouth. Some­times su­per­in­ten­dents re­tire, leave for other jobs, or are asked by boards to leave.

Con­nelly said he won’t go into a dis­trict where board mem­bers are di­vided on hir­ing him — such as a 5-4 vote — and these days he won’t travel more than an hour, whereas at one time he’d go to the op­po­site end of the state. He also doesn’t rel­ish win­ter­time gigs where he gets up at 4:30 a.m. to make snow day de­ter­mi­na­tions.

“I still believe I have some­thing to of­fer,” he said.

He has ex­pe­ri­ence with unions, re­la­tion­ships with mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, and skills at strate­gic plan­ning. He’s han­dled the most ur­ban dis­tricts, sub­ur­ban dis­tricts and those where there is a so­cioe­co­nomic mix.

Browe said one of Con­nelly’s big­gest as­sets is that he knows how to talk to stake­hold­ers and how to time the in­tro­duc­tion of new is­sues.

“He does a nice job of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and we wanted to hit the ground run­ning,” on the bud­get — and Con­nelly was a good per­son to have on board for that, Browe said.

A lot has changed since Con­nelly be­came su­per­in­ten­dent in Bridge­port in the early 1980s, par­tic­u­larly around school safety, he said.

When the Columbine High School shoot­ings hap­pened in 1999, Con­nelly brought metal de­tec­tors to Bridge­port schools and it be­gan the era of get­ting buzzed into schools.

With the shoot­ings at Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary School in New­town, the call for greater safety sky­rock­eted and mak­ing build­ings safer is the trend, he said.

When Con­nelly thinks about safety, it’s not just phys­i­cal safety.

“Most im­por­tant to me is emo­tional safety,” he said, mean­ing no bul­ly­ing and cre­at­ing a cul­ture that makes school an en­vi­ron­men­tally safe place.

He said schools to­day have the task of pro­vid­ing and teach­ing ci­vil­ity to con­trast what is go­ing on in the gen­eral cul­ture, such as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s tweets and the kind of ugly stuff viewed at the con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing for Supreme Court Jus­tice Brett Ka­vanaugh.

“We have to agree to dis­agree with­out be­ing de­grad­ing,” Con­nelly said. “We need to get along and be sen­si­tive to each other. We need to be role mod­els.”

Con­nelly is big on in­clu­sion of peo­ple of all cul­tures and abil­i­ties and works to see that all stu­dents are well in­te­grated.

“The high-need kids, if they don’t have a po­lit­i­cal voice, peo­ple for­get about them,” he said.

While serv­ing as in­terim su­per­in­ten­dent in Montville, near the casino, and with a pop­u­la­tion that was about 25 per­cent Asian be­cause of casino em­ploy­ment, he re­al­ized kids were show­ing up to school on snow days be­cause all the tele­vi­sion can­cel­la­tion no­tices were in Eng­lish or Span­ish, but not avail­able to Man­darin speak­ers. He in­sti­tuted a sys­tem in which no­tices went on the dis­trict web­site in Man­darin and also worked out com­mu­ni­ca­tion on can­cel­la­tions with the casino’s Hu­man Re­sources De­part­ment.

Peter Hviz­dak / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

James A. Con­nelly, in­terim su­per­in­ten­dent of schools of Amity Re­gional, in his Wood­bridge of­fice.

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