Thursday, December 02, 2021

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Praise for School Special Ed Staff Change

By Jarret Liotta

Parents gave high praise to the new choice for special education leadership in Westport tonight when the Board of Education (BOE) unanimously approved appointment of Michael Rizzo to the post of assistant superintendent for pupil personnel services.

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Michael Rizzo: special ed expert. Contributed photo

The BOE also opened its honeymoon period with the new Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice during a short discussion on how he hopes to approach his new job, which officially begins July 1.

The BOE — and the co-chairs of the PTA’s special education committee in particular — fervently welcomed back Rizzo, a former Westport administrator, to the post that was suddenly vacated by Tina Mannarino over the winter.

Mannarino reportedly was on extended sick leave for several months, then on April 1, Interim Superintendent of Schools David Abbey announced that she was leaving “at the end of this school year to pursue other opportunities,” with Ann Leffert, interim director of special education, taking her duties.

Last June, Mannarino, John Bayers, director of human resources & general administration, and former Superintendent of Schools Colleen Palmer were accused by a parent of abusing their roles, using retaliatory tactics against the family and sharing private privileged information about their child with special needs with a consulting firm.

Abbey said last year the matter would be investigated, but no details were ever forthcoming and neither Abbey nor Chair Candice Savin ever responded to follow-up inquiries on the matter.

Last June, Kate Grijns, co-chair of the PTA’s Special Education Committee, told the BOE that those accusations were a highlight of various concerns also shared by other parents regarding information security, communication, and staff departures.

“Our parents are worried about the relationship between the SPED staff in our schools and the administration,” she said last year.

Grijns, however, who served on the search committee that recommended Rizzo, wholeheartedly endorsed his appointment.

“This truly is a dream come true,” she said.

“We are over the moon to welcome him back … Mike is a hero and a mentor to parents and colleagues alike,” she said.

“I can’t tell you, Mike, how many times your name has come up these last few years,” said Sivan Hong, the other PTA SPED committee co-chair who also served on the search committee, which considered four different finalists for the role.

“As we’re sitting here right now my phone is going crazy … Our parent group could not be happier to work with you in the future,” she said.

“I am very, very excited to rejoin the Westport public schools in this role,” said Rizzo, who left his role as director of pupil services in 2018 in Westport to take a role as Weston’s first assistant superintendent of pupil personnel services.

Rizzo also spent several years as assistant principal at Coleytown Middle School during his first 12-year tenure in Westport.

Abbey called him “a top-rated professional and a terrific guy.”

“I couldn’t be more pleased with the anticipated appointment of Mike Rizzo,” said Scarice, who praised his “character, his integrity, and his ability to develop deep, trusting relationships with parents and colleagues.”

Meanwhile, Scarice floated a “Strategic Entry Plan Concept” to board members in which he said he hopes to devote ample time to studying the district and establishing relationships before starting to implement any changes.

He said that while transition periods can be exciting and interesting, there is a questionable temptation for a new leader to plunge in too quickly and try to solve too many problems.

“I think you have to step back,” he said, and get the lay of the land first, including forging relationships with staff and the community, ironing out interactions with the BOE, and understanding what the short-term promises and long-term objectives are at this time.

He said this process should be inclusive and transparent, “so folks think we aren’t just sitting and waiting here,” but intentionally working to craft a sound approach.

Scarice said he would revise his plan based on some early feedback from BOE members and return to its June 1 meeting with more details.

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