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Questions Remain Regarding Superintendent’s Choice for Bedford Principal

In a move that has left many in the Bedford Middle School community upset, Westport Public Schools Superintendent Elliott Landon recommended a district administrator for the permanent principal position at Bedford Middle School, instead of the current Bedford interim principal Cary Bell.

“I will deeply miss Dr. Bell’s wisdom and enthusiasm – everyone at Bedford will,” said Diane McCabe, a math teacher and team leader at Bedford. “He’s brought us together as a community; he’s invigorated us.”

“I love Dr. Bell, he’s so nice. It was great how he took the time to meet all the 8th graders,” said Andrea Svensden, an 8th grader at Bedford.

On May 3, the Westport Board of Education voted unanimously to appoint current Coleytown Elementary School principal Melissa Paolini-Kay as Bedford’s new principal. Paolini-Kay will be Bedford’s fourth new principal in four years, and the school’s current 7th and 8th graders have experienced a different principal in each of their years at the school. “Bedford will have to go through another year of administrative change,” said McCabe.

Bell was appointed Bedford interim principal in June of 2009. His appointment came after what many described as a stressful year for the school, which ended in the resignation of principal Carol Stephens-Klipp, who had replaced long-time principal Angela Wormser.

“Dr. Bell was a very positive influence on the Bedford community, as he came in after an extremely tumultuous year,” said Jennifer Freedman, parent of a Bedford student and the Past President of the Bedford Parent Teacher Association.

According to a number of Bedford teachers, Bell’s departure from the school has saddened many faculty members.

“He is the most compassionate administrator I’ve ever worked under. He works with soul, he teaches with kindness, and he gives students a reason to do better, to be more purposeful and mindful,” said Joanne Rogers, Bedford health teacher.

Another teacher felt that Bell’s departure is “an unfortunate way of ending the year.”

Some people have expressed discontent with the hiring process, and Landon’s recommendation of Paolini-Kay took many by surprise.

Several Bedford staff members stated that they did not know of any other contenders until Landon recommended Paolini-Kay.

“I think the process of choosing the new principal was faulty; it wasn’t transparent,” said McCabe. “I had believed the decision would be made by consensus, not solely by the administration. I was unaware that there was another candidate other than Dr. Bell, and the [Bedford] staff was unaware that Dr. Landon was seriously considering another internal candidate.”

A Bedford teacher who was granted anonymity said, “So many people had naturally assumed he would get the position next year and there didn’t appear to be any reason for him not to.”

Ed Hyudic, President of the Westport Education Association for the 2009-10 school year also said that he found Bell’s loss of the position to be unexpected. “It didn’t seem like [Paolini-Kay’s recommendation] was in the cards. When a group of us teachers found out Dr. Landon’s actual recommendation, we were very surprised.”

Landon said that the screening process has been in effect for hiring administrators for Westport schools for all of his 11 years as superintendent. “Our practice is that we interview everyone openly and honestly,” said Landon. “Nothing changed in this particular instance. We followed the procedure we always have followed, which has been used to select two principals for Staples High School, two for Bedford Middle School, one for Coleytown Middle School, one for Coleytown Elementary School, two for Long Lots Elementary School, two for Kings Highway Elementary School, and two for Greens Farms Elementary School.”

Dr. Bell Speaks About the Process
In an interview on June 4, Bell described his interpretation of meetings with Landon.

“When Dr. Landon began the search for next year’s principal around October or November [of 2009], we discussed whether or not I wanted to be the permanent principal. [Landon] told me that if I wanted to stay, I would have to be willing to stay for five years,” said Bell.

With his residence and family in New Jersey, Bell had been renting a house in Westport during the school week, and with his family, he discussed relocating. Bell and his family decided that the position would be a great opportunity for him, and he told Landon that he would be able to stay on board for five years.

Bell said that he and his wife began planning their move to Westport, and he said that he assumed the screening process he underwent in April was merely a formality.

After the screening process in early May, however, Bell was shocked to learn that Landon was recommending Paolini-Kay for the position instead of him.

“I was surprised and disappointed,” said Bell. “I had grown to really love this school and thought I would be continuing to work here for five years.”

Since the appointment of Paolini-Kay, Bell says Landon has ceased all communication with him.

“I always thought I had a very positive relationship with Dr. Landon until he told me he would not be hiring me,” said Bell. “Since the end of April, he has not been in touch with me.”

Landon issued the following written statement to Inklings: “Dr. Bell served Bedford Middle School very well as interim Principal throughout the 2009-10 school year. I am very appreciative of the fine work he did during this transition year.”

What Is The Screening Process?
Lisabeth Comm, the 6-12 English coordinator, and a member of the screening committee for the Bedford principal position explained the screening process.

In the screening process, there are approximately 10 to 15 interviewers—comprised of administrators, parents and teachers—who create approximately 18 questions for the candidates. The candidates are kept completely confidential, and the interviewers do not know the applicants are until they walk in the room.

When the applicants are interviewed, they are asked the same questions in the same order by the same people as every other contender. At the end of the day, the interviewers say what they thought of each of the applicants, and they come to a consensus on one applicant to recommend to the superintendent, based on a previously written description for the job position being filled. The superintendent can then decide to hire the recommended applicant or to continue looking for a replacement.

Though she is unable to disclose the decisions made by the screening committee in this particular instance, Comm thought that “the screening process was carried out very carefully; every person in the room had an opportunity to talk.”

Bell’s History and His Time at Bedford
Bell began his career in education as a French teacher. In 1975, he took his first job as principal at the Boys Town School in Neb. In 1980, he relocated to Long Island, where he served as principal at Shoreham-Wading River Middle School for 21 years until 2001, when he retired.

But for Bell, retirement did not last. In 2001, he moved to New Jersey, where he was the Unit Administrator at Benjamin Franklin Middle School until 2008. He then took the position as interim principal at Somerville Elementary School, and the following year, he accepted the one-year position as Bedford Middle School’s interim principal.

In his role as Bedford’s principal, Bell served as the direct administrator for the 8th grade student body. He said that he wanted to connect personally with all 300 8th graders at some point during the school year. In order to fulfill that goal, he met with all of the 8th graders in groups of six for breakfast.

“It was great how he took the time to meet all the 8th graders,” said Svensden.

Students also said that they admired Bell’s disciplinary strategy. “If you got in trouble, the first thing he thought of was not how to punish you, but to make sure you knew what you did was wrong,” said Andrew Felman, an 8th grader at Bedford. “He wanted to teach every kid a lesson.”

Though he says he will miss Westport, Bell has come to accept his departure from the community and foresees future professional opportunities.

“Bedford is an excellent school and Westport is an excellent community. It will always be one of the highlights of my career in education,” concluded Bell.

Special thanks to Petey Menz ’11 and Jake Landau ’13, who helped with some of the interviews.

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    RoseJun 19, 2010 at 12:03 am

    What does this have to do with Staples?