After 35 years as an educator — the last 13 as an administrator for the Easton, Redding and Region 9 Schools — Superintendent Dr. Thomas McMorran, 56, is ready for a change.
Last week he informed the chairs of the Triboard of Education, composed of the boards of education for the ER9 schools, that he planned to retire at the end of the 2019-20 school year. On May 18, he announced his plans to parents and the public in an email.
“This is a fantastic school system and a wonderful place to work, with great teachers,” McMorran said. “It’s been an honor to work in the ER9 schools. But I don’t love it so much I want to work myself into a heart attack.”
With a history of heart disease in his family and having worked as school superintendent for five solid years in a state of high stress, it’s time to take a break, he said. He’s not in any immediate threat and wants to keep it that way.
Dr. McMorran talks openly about a disability he copes with, a muscular dystrophy condition called Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease, in which the nerves in his forearms and legs below the knees atrophy, which is why he wears leg braces.
“I’m OK, but at my age and with the sedentary but highly stressful reality of the job, it’s a broader question of health,” he said.
The Triboard of Education will discuss a process for appointing a replacement at its regularly scheduled joint meeting on May 26.
Prior to his time as superintendent, Dr. McMorran served as head of school and assistant superintendent for Joel Barlow High School in Redding, serving students from Easton and Redding, for eight years.
His 35-year career in public education included three years teaching English at Barlow, 10 years in his native Ridgefield as a teacher, department chair, dean of students, and assistant principal; and time teaching in New Fairfield and Newtown along with one year in Maryland.
Jeff Parker, Easton Board of Eduction chair, said McMorran’s leadership skills have been in full display during the COVID-19 pandemic. “He moved us from the classroom to distance learning in less than two weeks and has continued to direct his faculty forward with the professional development needed to improve and expand their delivery of subject content,” Parker said.
“I have been the board chair with Tom his entire five years as superintendent. I have seen him grow and expand from a caring, tireless and visionary educator to the CEO of a complex, difficult and occasionally unruly Tridistrict with three boards of education vying for his time and attention. Tom’s vision for the education and personal growth of children is as brilliant as it is practical. Although he came to us as a ‘high school guy,’ his naturally nurturing personality made him an instant success with our K-8 students, teachers and administrators. “
McMorran said he cares deeply about the boys and girls in Easton and Redding but has reached a stage in life where “I’ve got my own family to care for.” He wants to spend more time with “the people I love,” he said.
Those people include his wife, Colleen, who is a librarian at Naugatuck High school; two grown daughters, and his parents, Phil and Monica McMorran, who are in their 80s. He is their main point of contact for the foreseeable future. “I want to make sure I’m there to take care of them,” he said.
Due to the demands of the job, he missed his daughter’s track meets when she was in high school and was only able to attend four of 12 performances when she was on the dance team at the University of Connecticut. It pains him to have missed them. Going forward, “I want to put my family in front of my career,” he said.
“I honestly don’t have any go-to plan that starts the day after I’m done,” he said. “I’m going to rest and recover for a period of time. I’m not going to plunge into some other task that’s equally demanding right away. Perhaps when I’m feeling more recomposed I might be interested in working at the college level. For now I want to protect myself and my family.”
McMorran said he expects the Triboard will form a search committee to engage in the process of finding attributes they want in the new superintendent and will conduct interviews. He doesn’t know if existing ER9 staff will be tapped to succeed him. “They will have to make their own decision,” he said.
The superintendent works in the office and attends meetings but has little contact with the students, aside from those who are in big trouble or win an award, but not day to day, he said. Part of what the community needs to think about in finding his replacement is the extraordinarily long hours and stressful demands of the job. Being superintendent requires working from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. at least one day a week, week in and week out, he said. “It takes a toll.”
“It seems to me that history would say a person can do this job for three, four, five years,” he said. That has been the trend over the past couple of decades, he said. McMorran suggests changing the system so the next superintendent might last eight or nine years in the job.
“Relief pitchers can’t go all nine innings,” he said. “I’m happy to have done it as Barlow head of school and superintendent. But when you’re in budget season in January, all the budget meetings keep you up till 11 and you have to get up at 4 to see if you have to cancel school. “
McMorran emphasizes that no one can do that on a long term basis. “The Triboard will need to find a person who’s well versed not only in instruction and the budget for all ER9 schools but also in distance learning.”
A significant challenge during the pandemic has been responding to the immediate crisis while also developing longterm strategic plans. “While we’re two months into social distancing, some people are asking why we haven’t fully articulated the long range strategy,” he said. “As the person in charge you’re leading others to set up a system so ordinary people can do extraordinary things. But if the system requires you to be extraordinary all the time, you have to realize we’re just ordinary people.”
Another challenge that comes with being the superintendent is that ER9 represents three separate school districts with three different boards of education from two different towns. “There are lots of good people and conscientious people on the three boards. Everyone is there for the right reason, but 21 people have a lot of opinions,“ McMorran said.
First Selectman Dr. David Bindelglass acknowledges that the three-district structures of Easton and Redding make being superintendent almost unmanageable, as evidenced by the fact that none of McMorran’s predecessors have stayed for more than five years. The system puts management demands on an individual that are “unsustainable,” he said. “It’s equally unrealistic to believe we will ever reach a single board for both towns.”
The Community Responds
Dr. Gina-Marie Pin, Barlow head of school and assistant superintendent, has worked with McMorran for more than 25 years, since their days together in the Ridgefield Public Schools.
“I have so many things I can share about my 25-years-plus working relationship with Tom,” Pin said. “It is important to note that he is one year older than I (at least that is important to me) … Let’s see, we began teaching together at Ridgefield High School in the late ’80’s. We used to brainstorm about our professional goals. We asked each other what our plan ‘for 30’ would be … then we had a ‘for 40 plan’ … and a ‘for 50 plan’ … I’ll stop right there!
‘We shared similar goals for the teenagers we taught. He taught English and I taught English for students with special needs. We knew these students were bright and capable of learning — we just needed to figure out the best ways to reach them. One class we were team teaching took place during the lunch period. The students would be in class for a bit, then break for lunch and return for the second half of class. That ‘return to class for part two’ was always a challenge. So Tom had an idea — we would start a novel and begin reading the book aloud five minutes before part two of class began.
“Tom has a fondness for science fiction so we read works by Alfred Bester, but my favorite was the Stephen King short story “The Jaunt” about teleportation — thinking hard enough and being transported to a different place. “Jaunting” became our code word in every long faculty meeting, late board meeting, or anytime we found ourselves in a situation where teleportation would have come in handy. Anyway, between the two of us narrating, students were lined up at the door early just to hear us read to them.” Read more of Pin’s comments about working with McMorran here.
First Selectman David Bindelglass also has a long history working with McMorran. “I’ve known Tom as head of school for my kids, [and in my role] as a member of the Easton Board of Education, and now as first selectman,” Bindelglass said. “I think he’s done an outstanding job in both capacities as head of school and superintendent. He’s managed to combine fiscal responsibility with always putting the complete needs of the kids first. He’s always had a particular focus on the entire life of the child, not just their academic performance, which I think is laudable.”
Former First Selectman Adam Dunsby, who also served for a time as Easton Board of Education chair, had occasion to work with and get to know McMorran well. Dunsby and his wife, Cathy, are also the parents of four children who have attended or are attending ER9 schools. “Tom is a caring and smart educator,” Dunsby said. “I always valued working with him, and he will be greatly missed.”
Anne Kipp, former director of counseling and later as assistant principal at Joel Barlow High School, said McMorran’s tenure “was marked by his abundant enthusiasm for all things ‘education.'” She said he was “entirely supportive of the work of student services, believing as he did that students often need help in order to learn and grow.”
“I never saw him as less than fully engaged in every aspect of the school, from student life to building maintenance, but most of all, to our direction going forward. He read and shared hundreds of pages of thoughts on American education. Every car ride to a conference or meeting meant exuberant conversation about possibilities.
“Tom wanted us to be a school for the future, with students who were as engaged in the world as they were in the classroom. At the same time, he recognized the importance of maintaining the high academic standards of the present. In the service of both current high expectations and his vision for the future, he continually coached and encouraged his outstanding faculty, in order to make Barlow’s excellence a reality,” Kipp said.
Jen Wastrom, a longtime active volunteer at Joel Barlow High School and Redding’s Mark Twain Library, said she worked with and admired McMorran since he took on the head of school role at Joel Barlow High School in 2007.
“When we first met, I was the president of Redding’s local library. I approached Tom to brainstorm ways to engage teens at our library — turns out, he was on a mission to do just that at the school. Joel Barlow High School had just finished a very long and turbulent building project which had taken an understandable but overarching negative toll. Tom knew what was necessary to bring the school back to life: spirit. If the students and staff cared about their school, they’d want to be there … and hopefully be happy there. And with happiness comes success in the classroom.
Tom’s theory was right, and it worked. And it showed. Because of his exuberant leadership, he was chosen as the Principal of the Year — one of only 50 in the country. “And Barlow rose in the national rankings, standing tall beside its affluent and competitive neighbors,” Wastrom said.
“My sons witnessed the transition firsthand; they entered the ‘old’ Barlow as freshmen and graduated from a school in which they and their peers took tremendous pride. I observed the transition, too — as their mom, and as the president of Joel Barlow’s PTA. Parents increasingly came to PTA meetings, flocked to sporting events, concerts and plays, volunteered.
‘Tom and I have continued to work together on community-related initiatives for the past several years. I am ever-impressed by, ever-inspired by and ever-grateful for his imaginative and dedicated approach to education in general, and to the well-being of the children he minds.”
Board of Education Chair Jeff Parker summed up the sentiments of many about McMorran’s tenure: “He will be sorely missed by all of us who are a part of the educational community. We wish him the health and happiness he richly deserves.”