Long-time interim superintendent in Woodbridge passionate about kids, social justice

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

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

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,” said Amity school board Chairman Christopher Browe. “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 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 done a lot of working, Connelly has also traveled in retirement to Ireland, Scotland and England and plans in the future 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 socio-economic 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 shooting 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.