After almost 12 years on the school board, you might think John Lendrum has accomplished everything he wants to. Not so.
That’s at least partly a result of the fact that education, as he sees it, has changed dramatically over the last 10 years and it will change just as dramatically over the next 10 years.
Among the accomplishments that he and the rest of the board can take at least some credit for are the schools’ strong financial position and some extraordinary facilities.
Lendrum spoke with the Reflector just one day after he attended a dinner that brought together school board members from all over the area. Norwalk is the envy of surrounding districts, he said, because of its strong bank account. Obviously, that is the result of strong residential and commercial growth in the city, Lendrum said, but it’s also a result of the board and the administration’s careful management of the taxpayer’s money.
For example, he said, when they built the new high school, the district got the levy immediately, giving it almost a year to earn interest on the money. That allowed the district to pay for all the construction overages without dipping into any other funds. What money was left over was not frittered away. Instead, he said, the $400,000 was saved to grow and be ready to pay for maintenance and upkeep.
Similarly, reopening Main Street School was a very big deal for the district. Having the sixth grade in their own building with the fifth grade and not lumped together with the seventh and eighth grades is very beneficial to those students and the teaming style of education that goes on there has been a great success.
Also among the district’s accomplishments on his watch are the improvement in test scores, with four of the six schools in the district now rated “excellent” by the state.
But Lendrum sees much still to be done. In terms of test scores, he said, “once you get there, it’s really hard to keep it.”
While the schools must worry about test scores, Lendrum said he’s not sure that “teaching to the test” is what education is all about. Blasting through all of history because it’s going to be on the test doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for discussion and essay writing — for developing the kind of critical thinking that is going to be necessary for people who may change jobs over and over again.
That kind of thinking about the future is what being on the school board is all about, Lendrum said.
He would also like to see the facilities at the new high school, which are already a key community resource, used for college courses for both his students and the community at large. “The taxpayers are paying for those buildings 365 days a year,” he said, “we should use them.” Indeed, a gifted student should be able to test out of core classes and take a college class, he said.
Otherwise, Lendrum said the school does a good job for the strong students going on to college or other professional training. The school also does well with students requiring special attention, he said, explaining he has a daughter on an Individual Education Plan.
However, the district could do a better job for the 20 percent of students going straight into the labor force. As a producer of concrete products, Lendrum said he knows how to get these students a leg up. He wants them to graduate with CPR training, power tools certifications, OSHA training, and basic first aid.
The district has been accused of being unresponsive to the concerns raised by parents. Lendrum responded by saying, “There’s a difference between being unresponsive and disagreeing with you deal with a problem.” Specifically, this year’s new entrant in the school board race, Steve Linder, has repeatedly said the board hasn’t listened to his grievance over his daughter’s inability to receive a transcript.
Lendrum contended that the board has listened and responded, but that “it’s obvious that the reply he received was not the reply he was looking for.”
Lendrum also responded to the accusation that the school system is a “good old boy’s” network. The fact of the matter is, Lendrum said, that the district doesn’t pay enough that it’s going to attract people from elsewhere with top qualifications.
Usually, it’s actually someone already in the district who is most qualified. Nearly all the administrators in the district started as teachers in the district, he said. Lendrum defied anyone to point to another district of 3,000 students where the superintendent has a Ph.D. — and that superintendent started as a teacher in Norwalk.
The only way this district is going to get such top quality people is by getting people to commit to the community young and then promote from within. That does not make it a good-old-boy network, he said.
Lendrum himself has some ties to the district, he said. His wife and a sister-in-law are both substitute teachers. He said he is always careful to recuse himself from any votes involving either of them, as all board members do when the district’s decisions affect a family member.
Before running first 12 years ago, Lendrum served as the campaign chairman in several levy campaigns. He’s not someone who got mad and decided to run, he said.
The schools are the heart of any community, he said, adding a community with good schools is going to be a successful community.