Report: New Milford superintendent’s resignation comes after praise, criticism from school board

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox
New Milford Superintendent Alisha DiCorpo

New Milford Superintendent Alisha DiCorpo

New Milford Public Schools/ Contributed Photo

NEW MILFORD — In the weeks before her resignation as schools superintendent, Alisha DiCorpo received a mixed evaluation of her performance that praised the way she led the district through COVID-19, but raised concerns with how she communicated with staff, the public and the board.

In reviewing her performance for the 2021-22 school year, the board found “Ms. DiCorpo’s leadership has at times been one-sided and that she does not always understand all sides of an issue.

“It was stated she can be brusque, shutting down naysayers rather than displaying reflective listening,” states the written evaluation, signed June 15 and obtained by Hearst Connecticut Media through a Freedom of Information Act request. “She must also accept constructive criticism without becoming defensive and realize that others may perceive her and her comments differently than she may perceive them.”

The evaluation included detailed comments from board members in regard to specific performance and district goals and expectations. No individual board members were named in the review.

DiCorpo said she wished she had received that feedback throughout the year, her first full school year as New Milford’s superintendent.

In a letter sent on June 17 to the education board, DiCorpo said the review “contains many subjective comments, all of which were mentioned for the first time in the end-of-year summation.”

She added the nature of an evaluation process is to promote growth and support, and said there needed to be “clarity of expectations and ongoing feedback for the duration of the school year.”

She said the ongoing feedback would have allowed her to “make adjustments in real-time before year-end, helping us to obtain success as a governance board. The feedback also would have allowed me to better understand the Board’s perspectives. Moreover, the governance board has an obligation to work with the Superintendent collaboratively to support effective ongoing communication and collaboration. It is this support that will enable us to work together to create the best possible educational experience for the children of New Milford.”

DiCorpo announced to the board on Wednesday that she intends to resign in October for a job with EdAdvance, an organization that supports school districts in western Connecticut. She had initially asked the board vote on whether to offer her a new three-year agreement, but withdrew that request prior to her resignation announcement.

School board Chair Wendy Faulenbach said the board’s evaluation of DiCorpo was the product of “considerable time and effort,” and was completed using guidelines and criteria that were mutually agreed to by the board and DiCorpo in accordance with her contract. School boards typically evaluate superintendents at the end of the academic year.

“As the evaluation shows, the Board felt that Superintendent DiCorpo met the majority of her goals for the prior year but that there was room for growth in some areas,” Faulenbach said in a statement prior to DiCorpo’s resignation.

Faulenbach said board district has faced “unprecedented challenges” in the past few years, and the board “appreciates” DiCorpo’s “hard work and dedication on behalf of the District.”

DiCorpo’s performance has been in the spotlight since April when New Milford High School Principal Raymond Manka announced his resignation, which he later rescinded following a walk-out from students who supported him. The resignation prompted a petition calling for the superintendent to be ousted, with close to 2,000 signers blaming her for the departure of 10 staff members since she became school chief.

In her June 17 letter to the board, DiCorpo wrote she appreciates the recognition of all “that was accomplished” by her leadership over the past year and the acknowledgment of “how difficult it was to lead through a global pandemic while taking on four executive leadership positions in the Central Office simultaneously for months.”

Communication

Multiple board members gave DiCorpo “high marks” for enhancing parent and community engagement, but others said that area needs improvement, according to the review.

One board member said she increased communication to stakeholders, but another stated DiCorpo “lacks an awareness of what the community wants from the school district and that more respect needs to be shown for the members of the community.”

Another said DiCorpo needs to be more “visible” in the schools, while another said she “at times had a lack of engagement with members of the community as evident by a lack of collaboration with the town officials.”

“It was stated that Ms. DiCorpo's perception of what community engagement should be is different from what it needs to be in reality,” the evaluation says.

The board suggested DiCorpo “should find a way to establish two-way communication opportunities for families and community members” that aren’t specific to individual topics but allow the public to ask questions about issues related to the district.

In the category pertaining to enhancing teacher leadership effectiveness, the responses were also mixed.

Some board members said DiCorpo was “very dedicated” to this responsibility and that she “has made efforts to increase her visibility in the school.” However, others expressed concerns including “a perceived lack of morale and staff turnover” and that she “does not make herself available to meet with teachers, nor does she visit classrooms.”

The review noted concerns over her “lack of active involvement during the teacher negotiations this past year and that the negotiations were awkwardly negative.”

Board members suggested DiCorpo “be more visible and available to staff in all schools.” This includes making herself available at times that are more convenient for staff and faculty, the review states.

In one part of the review, a board member addressed a concern parents and community members previously raised in regard to the high turnover of staff in the district.

“I appreciate and recognize the intent to cross train and organize departments,” the board member said. “After years of revolving leadership this is a must. We have had several key positions and new hires leave during this past year and my concern is where are we failing in those plans? Are they obtainable and when and how do we support those not meeting the expectation? New hires have come and gone — why?”

Relationship with board, town

The board agreed DiCorpo “fell short” of the goal to “work collaboratively with members of the Board of Education and the town to enhance practices and align resources.”

Some board members argued she “does an excellent job” in this category, but the review notes members said she talks “down” to them and “does not communicate with them in a respectful manner.”

Additionally, the review said her communications with board members have created “an unnecessary level of tension that has increased over time.”

Some also expressed concerns about communicating with her because they’re worried about her reaction, “which may include getting emotionally defensive.”

The evaluation states she has difficulties taking constructive criticism from board members and others.

One board member said DiCorpo “must be able to be open-minded and increase her self-awareness, as well as realize that others may perceive her differently than she perceives herself, so that she can have a better impact on staff, members of the Board, and the community.”

Board members stated during their discussion that DiCorpo will sometimes “defensively state that issues that arise are not her fault, even when no blame was being placed on her.”

Additionally, her review said she doesn’t engage in enough “meaningful dialogue” or “communications with town officials” such as members of the Town Council and Board of Finance.

‘She puts her all into this job’

DiCorpo received positive comments in categories that tend to involve preparation, knowledge of the budget, hard work and effectiveness on the opening of the schools during COVID-19.

The review stated she held budget workshops for the board so members could understand the budget process and provide input, and she accessed the budgetary needs of the district brought on by the pandemic.

The review said board members agreed that "Nobody can deny that she puts her all into this job.”

Other kudos given to DiCorpo include she “worked diligently to support student achievement by establishing district-wide data and intervention teams in order to implement teaching and learning supports to improve student academic outcomes.”

DiCorpo was also evaluated on a set of superintendent's competency framework-leadership performance standards.

For a category called “Develops and implements vision that inspires action and commitment,” DiCorpo received favorable comments.

Board members said she handled the challenges from COVID-19 well, has an excellent work ethic, and understands the needs of students and available curricula and academic resources.

“Alisha effectively led the district through a deadly pandemic by creating successful plans for Chromebook distribution for all students, distance learning, reopening of schools, mitigating strategies, staff absences due to positive testing, outbreaks, returning from school breaks and quarantine guidelines,” one board member said. “She effectively communicated with stakeholders on all plans and changes to plans throughout the pandemic and collaborated with health officials on school safety strategies, vaccination clinics, distribution of testing kits.”

On Tuesday, the Board of Education will meet Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at Schaghitcoke Middle School to discuss the next steps on Dicorpo’s resignation.