MERIDEN — Today’s school superintendents face a different set of realities than their counterparts did 20 years ago.
Keeping students and teachers safe while dealing with budget cutbacks has added to the responsibility of overseeing a school district.
Despite the added problems, effective leadership can help turn a struggling school district into a thriving community, Wallingford School Superintendent Salvatore Menzo told a group of young business leaders Friday.
“When we look back, I never could have pictured this,” Menzo said. “That was a quick ride. I think I would have slowed down the road.”
Menzo and Meriden School Superintendent Mark Benigni reached their top administrative posts at roughly the same age. The two shared tips on leadership with the local business leaders during a gathering at the Record-Journal’s offices as part of the Midstate Chamber of Commerce Leadership Academy.
The program includes weekly meetings at locations across Meriden and Wallingford when enrollees share what they’ve learned from required reading. They also get to hear from local business leaders and public officials about public speaking, organization, and other leadership tools.
Past speakers have included HUBCAP President Joe Mirra, MEDCO Business Concierge David Cooley, Thom Knowlton of Knowlton Communications, Meriden Mayor Kevin Scarpati and Wallingford Mayor William W. Dickinson, Jr. Prior to the conversation with Menzo and Benigni, Record-Journal editor Mike Savino gave a presentation on media literacy.
The program is funded with support from the James H. Napier Foundation and the CUNO Foundation. Sean Moore, chamber president, said program participants are chosen at random, and materials include John C. Maxwell’s “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.”
“If a community is truly interested in cultivating leadership, this is a proven program that works,” he said.
Menzo and Benigni also talked about the need to work with with the rest of the community.
Benigni grew up in the city, leaving to attend college. He became principal of Cromwell High School before returning to run his childhood school district.
“There is no place I would rather come back to,” Benigni said. “But leaving and going somewhere helped define me as a leader.”
He told the group part of being a leader is building a team.
“Surround yourself with great people who have different strengths, skill sets,” Benigni said. “My core leadership team makes me a better leader.”
Menzo’s family struggled economically, but he learned the value of an education because several extended family members worked in schools.
As the top administrator in Wallingford, he’s also learned that schools in suburban districts need to build partnerships to reduce the burden on tax payers because they don’t receive as much help in the form of federal funding and private foundation grants.
“We’ve had to come at it from a private standpoint,” Menzo said. “In three years we’ve raised $3 million in private money. We had to be creative. It’s not me, it’s my team.”
Menzo established Wallingford as a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) district and visits town businesses regularly, to gauge what is needed in the curriculum and to find possible partnerships. He has established partnerships with schools in China and Australia, and is working on a program in Iceland for vocational agriculture students.
“Leadership is recognizing that you have to check your ego at the door,” Menzo said. “That’s just a title. You have to be a collaborative leader. Educators do have big egos. Teaching is an incredible opportunity to capture an audience and you have to keep it.”
By Mary Ellen Godin, Record-Journal staff