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Friday, April 20 News

Kolek called 'best superintendent'

At an emotional meeting Monday night, the Board of Education thanked and praised outgoing Superintendent of Schools Mary Kolek for her 10 years of service with the New Canaan school district.

"I think you're the best superintendent in the state, if not the Northeast," board member Penny Rashin told Kolek. "There's no one that can surpass you. I appreciate from the bottom of my heart, and on behalf of the students and teachers, all you've done for us."

Kolek announced last week that she will retire at the end of the school year and move to North Carolina, where her family lives.

At Monday's meeting, the board appointed itself as the search committee to find a new superintendent and/or interim superintendent of schools.

Kolek, who had served for eight years as the deputy superintendent, replaced David Abbey in July 2012. Since then, she has led various initiatives through the school system, including all-day kindergarten, Chinese language study, expansion of the visual and performing arts and Foreign Language in Elementary Schools.

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Her husband retired for two years and has been trying to convince her to do the same for a while, she said.

The board's vice chairman, Scott Gress, thanked Kolek for pushing the "journey" of the New Canaan school district forward.

"You've certainly come in and, what is a greatly shorter period of time than many of us would have liked, done more than your share of pushing that ball forward," Gress told her. "We understand that it's time to pass the job on to the next one. We appreciate what you did and rest assured we'll keep pushing the ball as hard and as quickly as we can."

Kolek seemed surprised and a bit emotional that the comments were being made three months before her retirement is effective.

"We still have a long way to go," she said. "We have a lot of work to do between now and June."

This is the third administrative retirement announced this year in the New Canaan Public Schools. East Elementary School Principal Alexandra "Bunny" Potts and West Elementary School acting Principal Joanne LaVista are also retiring in June.

The three women have each worked in education for more than 30 years. Kolek began her career as an educator in Connecticut 38 years ago.

She said regardless of who is her successor, the district has a strong team working together to reach new goals every day.

"This district values education and educators," she said. "And that combination is such a winning combination."

Board of Education Chairman Hazel Hobbs noted that seven of the board members were in place during the last search for a superintendent two years ago. Five of them were on the search committee that helped select Kolek, Hobbs said.

During that search process, the board surveyed the community to find out what it would like to see in a superintendent, as far as professional and personal qualities. Hobbs said more than 700 people responded and that information is available for the new search committee to review.

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"This is a short time frame for us, but this is a very experienced, thoughtful and caring board of education," Hobbs said.

Board members Sheri West and Sangeeta Appel both said they admire the high standards to which Kolek holds the New Canaan school district.

Appel said she always was impressed by Kolek's engagement with the community. She said she's never seen a superintendent attend as many theater plays, sports events and other school activities as Kolek.

When Abbey announced his retirement, Rashin said she asked him to make sure Kolek applied for the job.

"He said to me, `You know, every single day that Dr. Kolek works for this district is a blessing for New Canaan,'" Rashin said.

Though she agreed with Abbey, Rashin thought that was "a little over the top," she said.

"I have to say now," Rashin told Kolek, "I think that (what he said) is an understatement. You have done phenomenal things for New Canaan. You are a gracious leader."

Board member Dionna Carlson said she was impressed at how Kolek managed all the different facets of the school district.

"You got big shoes to fill," she told Kolek.

Hobbs agreed. "I would say, very stylish shoes to fill," she said, playfully.

"In fact, it's because ... Dr. Kolek looks so youthful that most people cannot believe that she began her educational career 38 years ago," Hobbs said. "And every step along the way, she has proven herself to be an outstanding educator ... She has the highest integrity, strong people skills, is a persuasive communicator, an unsurpassed advocate of the education profession, and a tremendous supporter of teachers, parents and students."

noliveira@bcnnew.com, 203-330-6582, @olivelson

Nelson Oliveira|Education/general assignment reporter