Preparing to retire: Dr. Feser brought ‘sensibility and stability’

The Milford public school system had been through more than several years of relative instability in 2011 when school Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Feser took the helm.

More than $200,000 had been spent buying out contracts of former Superintendent of Schools Gregory A. Firn and outgoing Superintendent Harvey B. Polansky, and the district was ready for calm and continuity.

It chose Feser.

Last week, seven years later, Feser announced she will be retiring July 31.

Her message to school staff started with, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose …” Ecclesiastes 3.1

She said her season as leader of the Milford Public Schools is coming to an end.

“I am ready for a new beginning and new opportunities,” Feser said in her letter. “Seven years ago I was privileged and honored to be hired in Milford. Over the last seven years, we have collectively grown and strengthened the Milford Public Schools across all grade levels and programs.

“There is no question in my mind that today our children are engaged in deeper and more purposeful learning and that our educational system is stronger,” she continued. “We are better at helping students grow intellectually, socially, emotionally and spiritually.”

She thanked the people who work in the school system for being part of a team that led to success.

“I truly believe we are stronger because we have worked collectively in service to the children of Milford,” she wrote. “I cannot begin to express the pride I feel in what we have achieved together, and how blessed I have been to work with and among you.”

When she first arrived, Feser impressed the community with her calm, yet commanding demeanor.

“I have no desire to turn the system upside down,” Feser told the Board of Education in 2011 upon being hired. “I don’t have any desire to make a myriad of changes, but to build on the fine, fine curriculum and programs that exist here and also participate in the good work going on by staff.”

She didn’t turn the school system upside down, but she did usher in changes, leading the elementary school redistricting, reconfiguring the elementary schools back to K-5, implementing career pathways, supporting expansion of Advanced Placement offerings and increasing the number of students taking these rigorous courses, and supporting the implementation of the school resource officer (SRO) program.

And while she faced good times and bad times here, including the stabbing death of Maren Sanchez at Jonathan Law High School in 2014, she kept the school community together, often calming, consoling, moving forward.

She brought “sensibility and stability,” said Mayor Ben Blake.

“And a real push toward good education,” the mayor added. “So I think it’s going to be a really big loss, just because she worked so hard at it and cared about the students and the community.

“She was at everything,” the mayor continued. “She was at the office doing the school system work, and in the wee hours of the night was at this school event or that event, and then she’d go back and work.”

Indeed, Feser was a regular at many events, even those that bordered her responsibility as school superintendent, from the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life to the annual Martin Luther King tribute at Milford City Hall.

“She’s going to be difficult to replace,” Blake said.

Resident Chris Thomas commented at last week’s city budget hearing that replacing Feser is a big deal.

He said she brought “calming and judicious guidance to the district,” and “smoothly addressed once controversial redistricting.”

Jessica DeYoung also mentioned Feser during the budget hearing, saying, “She led us through difficult times.”

Jim Richetelli Jr., school chief operations officer and former mayor, has been in a birds-eye seat to see what Feser has meant to Milford.

“Dr. Feser came to Milford after a period of instability and unrest,” Richetelli said. “She was exactly what Milford needed at the time. Her calming demeanor brought healing. Her straightforward, no-nonsense approach brought focus and direction. Her deeply held conviction that all decisions that are made must be measured by what is best for students set the climate and framework for the advances that the Milford Public Schools have made.”

He said she gained the respect and admiration of a very appreciative community.

“Her work on behalf of our children will have a long-lasting impact on the district and our community,” Richetelli said. “We are going to miss her, but we wish her all the very best that life can bring. She is one very special person, and we are very fortunate to have had her for the past seven years.”

Feser was noticed not just here in Milford. The Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents named her Superintendent of the Year for 2015, noting her integrity, knowledge, vision, collaboration, communication skills, work ethic, human goodness, and passion for the welfare of children.

Calling these hallmarks for very effective superintendents of schools, Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said, “Her leadership of a school system, therefore, is a model for how superintendents can and should lead.”

Shortly after, Dr. Feser was named grand marshal of the Milford St. Patrick’s Day parade. Parade organizer Martin Hardiman said she was a natural choice, not only because she had just been named a school superintendent of the year, but because she worked hard for Milford’s children, and she is half Irish.

School Board Chairman Susan Glennon said Feser has left her mark on Milford’s schools.

“Dr. Feser has had a long and devoted career in public education, including 16 years as a superintendent, seven of those in Milford,” Glennon said. “She came to us during a time of flux. She steadied the ship and has continuously moved us forward, becoming an integral part of the community and always keeping the students front and center. She would be the first to say our successes are the result of our hard-working staff, but we are indebted to her for her contribution to the district. Milford Public Schools is certainly in a better place than it was when she arrived.”

Starting this next chapter in her life, Feser isn’t sure exactly what retirement will look like.

“I don’t have a well-defined picture,” she said. “I know I would like to spend more time with family and friends, traveling, reading, and regularly exercising. I would also like to continue to work in some capacity in support of schools, and working for equity for all students in public education.”

At its Feb. 12 business meeting, the Board of Education will formally begin the task of finding a successor. Glennon expects the board will follow a process similar to that used by most boards of education, which will include the selection of an executive search firm and the opportunity for public input.