This is Jean McMillen. I am interviewing Val Bernadoni. Today’s date is January 6, 2015. This is file #89. (This interview took place in the conference Room at Geer in Canaan, Ct.) We will start with the genealogical stuff.
JM:What is your name?
VB:My name is Val Bernadoni.
JM: Your birth date?
VB: April 16th, 1933.
JM:Your birth place?
VB:I was born in Hamden. Ct.
JM:What is your educational background, starting with high school?
VB:Starting with Hamden High School where I met my wife Pat. When I left high school I went to the University of Connecticut, then I went to southern Connecticut where I got my Bachelor of Arts Degree and a Master of Science Degree.
JM:When did you graduate?
VB:1955 with my bachelor’s. After earning a Master’s degree part time because I was teaching at the time, I attended Fairfield University also where I received a 6th year certificate in Advanced General Studies. Subsequently to that I attended Indiana University on a National Science Foundation Grant. I studied geology and cartography because at that time I was teaching in the science department. After that I attended Fordham University for a while; I was doing my doctorate degree which I never completed. By then I had 5 kids, and I had to concentrate on work. I needed to concentrate on moving up the ranks in education.
JM:When you were teaching, what were some of the subjects that you taught?
VB:I started teaching in elementary school.
VB:I started teaching grade 6; while I was teaching grade 6, we were building the first junior high school in Hamden. The boss, the superintendent and the science department head came to see me and asked if I would be on that original staff when they opened the school in the science department. I did that for another 7 years. I was married and 3 kids; I went to see my boss and he said, “If you want to be an administrator, get back down into elementary schools. That’s where all the openings are going to be in the next four or five or six years.”
VB:So I did that. I went back to elementary school and the principal knew what my ambitions were and let me teach all the grades. I mean I even went down and taught science in kindergarten as part of my background training. When I finally did get promoted, I became a principal at the elementary level. A few years later I became Director of the Hamden-New Haven Cooperative Education Center which was a big multi-million dollar federal project joining an inner city school with a neighboring town. I directed that program, while doing that, I was also planning for the opening of a brand new elementary school which was going to be a state-of-the-art new kind of direction for education in Hamden. It was a school for 600 kids; and it had only 4 classrooms. It was a continuous progress, non -graded, team teaching program at the school. The school was being built to accommodate that which is rare.
JM:Something like what I saw when I was studying the British Education System in England.
VB:Well, there are many similarities to the British Infant Schools, but our program was teacher directed which is a little bit different than student directed activity. We had 4 classrooms; we named them after four, this was in the 1960’s, space flights-Apollo, Gemini, and Vanguard. There were 2 kindergarten classes; we named them Friendship 2. They were joined by a big amphitheater with a wood burning fireplace right in the middle. It was a marvelous school. When I said no classrooms, each learning center had 5 teachers and a full time aid and the space was yours.
VB:I loved that program. Well, I helped hire the staff; we weren’t looking for master teachers, we were looking for creative people that were willing to work together. It worked very well, but when I took the job, I told them that I would stay there for three years. I said, ”Then you need to put somebody else in to evaluate what we had done with this new concept.”
JM:It takes about 3 years for it to jell.
VB:When the three years came up and I was talking to the boss, he said, “Do you really want to leave?” I said, “No, but I think I should.” He said, “For what reason?” “You’ve got to really look at what the next step is going to be and where it is going to go from here.” He said, “Val, you have got the best attendance in town, students and teachers, you’ve got the best PTA in town. You have a PTA meeting, you get 200 people. It is amazing. You have no discipline problems in that school. (That’s what we were worried about, discipline with all these kids sitting on the floor.) And you’ve got the best test scores in town. What else do you need to evaluate?” I said, “Do it.” They moved me out and someone else came in. Shortly thereafter I applied for an Assistant superintendent’s job in New Britain which I got. So I moved out of Hamden.
JM:How long were you Assistant superintendent in New Britain?
VB.9 years When I went to New Britain in 1975 there were 4 Assistant Superintendents; I was one of them. There was one for budget, one for Federal and State programs and special grants, one for curriculum, and I handled personnel. Two year later, they eliminated the special grants person and they
gave it to me. So now I was doing 2 parts of that. Two years after that they eliminated the curriculum Assistant Superintendent and gave it to me. So now we had 2 Assistant Superintendents; one doing budget and I did everything else. It was during the years of declining enrollment, do you remember that?
JM:Yes, oh yes, I do.
VB:When the population was just going down and in addition in New Britain they built the Highway to Nowhere. It went right through the center of town and wiped out many homes and many factories and the population just plummeted. The Highway ended in an open field, literally, it was a pasture, and it just ended. We used to laugh at it all the time. They since have corrected it. But in that period of time for the 10 years that I was there, we closed 9 schools, including Pulaski High School in a town that had the largest Polish population east of Chicago. They closed Pulaski High School. It was a very interesting experience. I never worked harder in my life that in that 10 years as Assistant Superintendent. I learned more; I loved my boss, we would do anything for her. But it was a hard job.
JM:Well, it would be and anything that is worth doing well, takes a lot of hard work.
VB:After ten years I applied for the Superintendent job in Region One.
JM:Now why did you want to come to Region #1? It is out of your area completely. You have been in cities.
VB:Let me tell you a little bit about that. #1 Hamden was an intermediate bedroom community; it is a large town, but in intermediate bedroom community. I had done a lot in Hamden. I really ran a lot of schools and did a lot of different things. When I went to the Hamden Cooperative Education Center, I actually had to go to Washington to negotiate my contract the following year. It was very interesting work. When I opened Ridge Hills School it was such a novel program that I had over 1,000 visitors to that school over the three years I was there, including a contingency from Japan, 5 Japanese educators came and stayed a whole month in town. They came to school every morning at 8 o’clock and didn’t go home until I left the building. If I had a PTO meeting at night, they were there. They copied everything we did. They wrote meticulous ledgers and four or five years later I was invited to go to Japan, which I didn’t do, to witness the opening of the Kayto School in the foothills of Mt. Fuji which looked just like my Rich Hills School.
JM:What an accolade!
VB:They modeled it right after my school; open classrooms, non -graded, continuous progress, you moved when you were ready to move, great demand on the teachers for record keeping, as you can imagine. Then I went to New Britain which was an inner city school. It was a tough town. There were a lot of-I could write a book on the things I have to do that are out of the ordinary in education. But I did it. The first day I took the job, the Union Steward came in to see me, a big burly guy, and he leans over and he says, “Val, you ought to join one of the gangs!” I said, “Really? Why?” “So you will have
somebody on your side.” He turned out to be a very strong supporter of me as we went through the years. I really appreciated his help.
JM:We all need people like that.
VB:We had a lot of grievance; we had a lot of court cases. My boss always told me, “Val, you keep me out of court and you will always have your job.” I met with an attorney every Friday afternoon, every single Friday afternoon it was a standing meeting. We would go over grievances, unfair labor practices, negotiations; we would go through all those things. I did all the court work. Every time we appeared in court, I was testifying for the school district. It took a lot out of me.
VB:Region #1 looked awful good. Recognize now that I was in a town that had 20 schools when I went there in 26 square miles. When I came to Region #1 that had 7 schools in 257 square miles, I don’t know if those numbers are exactly right. But it was really culture shock! , When I got the job, one of the interview questions was “Do you think you can handle a school district with a budget of 2 million dollars?” I was taken a little aback by that and they said, “2 million; that is a big budget to handle.” I said, “Last week in New Britain I was the architect of a 2 million dollar budget cut.” We had a budget that was 30 million. Anyway why did I go to Region #1? When I got the job and was assigned to Region #1, the Commissioner of Education had a meeting of all the new superintendents. He was telling where each of us was going, and he said, “Val, he’s going to Heaven!”
VB:He said, “He’s going to Heaven!” I mean beautiful communities, country communities, laid back, money is not a problem, and kids behaved themselves, very great parental support. I am talking about when I was there. I don’t know how it is today because I haven’t followed it that closely. Those were the positive things.
JM:What year did you get the job?
VB:I applied in 1984. There are a lot of positive things about working in Region #1. I just loved it. Of course I loved every job that I ever had.
JM:Yeah, me too.
VB:But some of the negatives? 7 school boards, I was never home at night, they called me “The Night Rider”; the administrators used to call me the Night Rider. So there were some negatives as well. While I was Superintendent of Schools in Region #1, I was chairman of the Superintendent’s Association in Litchfield County so I handled that as well. The towns became a Priority School District which was unheard of; it was always the inner city schools that got things like that, New Britain, New Haven.
JM:Oh yeah we are always the forgotten ones.
VB:I was able to negotiate with the commissioner and with the State board of Education so that we became the Priority School district. I hung my hat on the fact that we had no K through 12 continuous curriculum at that time. I was concerned about that. I said, “There is no articulation grade to grade fight up through, so they gave me about $300,000 as a part of that grant to begin that process. Of course we had the teachers that got paid to do all that work. I was very pleased that we were able to get that. I also started, as you know, to allocate a sabbatical leaves.
JM:Now I understand why I got mine. Because I figured when this was when foster and I were batting it around, I am teaching fourth grade, I am a woman, I am not going to get a degree, and I want to go out of the country; there is no way this will fly! It flew. (1987-1988 I went to England to study the British Education System. Ed.)
VB:You did the sabbatical.
JM:I did that in 1987-88 so you had only been here a short amount of time.
VB:We did that and we gave more than one. We unified all the teacher contracts when I was there. Instead of having to negotiate 7 or 8 different contracts, I convinced the teachers that there is strength in numbers in joining together.
JM:That was fun! Yes, there is.
VB:They did. It broke down after I left. I was pleased that while I was superintendent, I can’t recall having a budget cut.
VB:We sold our budget and they supported them.
JM:But you made a case for every budget that you presented.
VB:Yeah, I worked hard on that.
VB:I worked hard on making the presentation because we had the Tax Payers Association at that time. They were on my back a lot about spending. So when I made that budget presentation to the full board and the whole communities, I always tried to anticipate the questions that I knew they were going to ask me. I would give the answer in my presentation. Now somebody is going to say, how about this? Look at it this way? I did that. I can remember when an almost 2 hour presentation and the next day Jack Mahoney sent a message down to all the administrators that said, “Do you realize what happened last night? They didn’t ask one question!” I was very pleased with that. I am also pleased that we were able to convince all the boards that they should adopt the Teacher Enhance Act that came out at that time. I was very concerned that the teachers were grossly underpaid, very concerned about that. I was
concerned that the administrators were underpaid too, but they weren’t going to go anywhere unless the teachers did.
JM:Right because you set up a classroom and it is the teacher that is with the kids. It is not the administrator.
VB:So the Education Enhancement Act was passed and every town had to decide whether they were going to participate. We convinced our 7 boards that they should. There was a major increase in all teachers’ salaries in a two or three year period.
VB:I always said, “Our teachers are fairly paid.” They had been underpaid.
JM:But they are in a responsible position because who is training the future of this country if it isn’t the teachers in the classroom.
VB:There is nothing more important that training a child’s mind.
JM:Absolutely. That is such a treasure.
VB:I also was appointed by the Commissioner on the Permanent council on the Teaching Profession at that time. It was something new he was forming and it was going to be a permanent position which lasted as long as he was Commissioner. We had Teacher Coaches at that time.
JM:I trained for that.
VB:I loved that.
JM:Oh I did too.
VB:I thought that we had such great results from that and to see teachers working with teachers and evaluating their programs and asking for help. I just thought it was great.
JM:When I was doing my sabbatical, I mentioned that to several of the Heads of Schools that I was in. They thought it was a fantastic idea.
VB:I was a hard program to run. It was a hard program to implement. You had to do a lot of convincing to the classroom teachers to have another teacher sitting in your classroom to tell you how well you were doing.
JM:It is scary.
VB:A lot of people didn’t like that, but in Region #1 but they bought into it, mostly.
JM:There is always going to be a few.
VB:I resigned in 1991 for health reasons. I can remember going to the doctor and the doctor saying, “What the heck have you been doing? What has your life been like?” I said, “Well I go to 18 meetings a month at night. I get home at 1:00 o’clock in the morning or 12 o’clock. It is a steady diet of that.” He said, “Gee do you like it?” “ I love it.” He said, “You’ve got to stop doing that!”
JM:You did pay attention.
VB:I resigned in 1991; I had a lot of years in education starting in 1955. I did resign and I relaxed for a couple of years and then I began getting calls Will you do this assignment? Will you do that assignment? I said, “I am not doing anything permanent.” “No, OK.” I ran schools in Winsted a couple of times. I went back into New Britain and ran the Central Office there for a period of time. I was the acting superintendent to New Fairfield for several months while they were searching for a new Superintendent. Then I said, “Hey it is over 40 years in education; I don’t want to do this anymore so I just stopped doing that. During a couple of years’ hiatus I began probing whether or not I would be interested in politics. Well I was on the (Democratic) Town Committee, and I was interested in politics that way, but no wanting to do anything else. They convinced me to run for First Selectman.
JM:I know they did.
VB:I told them that I was too old for that; you need a young man in that position. Bob Smithwick was First Selectman at the time. He finished his term and wasn’t running again. I decided that I would run.
JM:That was when?
VB:That was in 1999. I ran for office for the first time. I served three terms. I can remember when I was first running, Peter Oliver came into to see me and he said, “Val, I am going to run against you, for no other reason that I don’t think anybody ought to walk into a position who has never served in that position before.” “Peter, I respect that.”
JM:He thinks very highly of you.
VB:He ran against me. We had a couple of debates, one at Twin Lakes and one at the Hotchkiss School which was just packed- a big crowd.
JM:Oh it would be.
VB:Peter and I debated. He ran a very ethical above board campaign as I did. I was fortunate enough to win as a Democrat in a very Republican town.
JM:It was Republican at that time.
VB: It was. So I served for 3 terms. Then my wife became quite ill while I was in my third term. I decided that I shouldn’t run again and that I should spend more time at Noble Horizons where she was.
JM:Who were your colleagues when you were First Selectman?
VB: I had a great team. Peter became one of my selectmen, Curtis Rand was the other selectman and I was First Selectman. Not only did we have a great board of selectmen that worked very well together; Peter and Curtis did anything I asked them to do. They did it well. They challenged me when I needed to be challenged, but they did it in a very ethical way.
JM:I have done oral histories on Curtis and Peter; I am now the official Town Historian which is a plus. They all spoke very highly of you.
VB:Well I am speaking very highly of them.
JM:It was a good team and you worked together. That is so important.
VB:We didn’t always agree, but we always found a way. Not only was the board of selectmen team an excellent team for the three terms that I was there, but the Central Office staff was excellent. I really had good people helping to run the town.
VB:Mark Laurentano was my trooper. I really enjoyed working with him. When I left the selectman’s office in Salisbury I am very proud to say that the mill rate was 9. We had everything we needed. We did marvelous things in the town.
VB:When I say it was a 9 mill rate that was probably the second or third lowest in the state of Connecticut which I was very pleased with. We brought in money through writing state grants, federal grants. We fixed the roads; we fixed the cemeteries which hadn’t been touched in years.
JM:I am on that. I am doing that now.
VB:It needs to be done again. Those are old stones, but we finally got some money and we fixed them. We rebuilt the three major bridges in town and it didn’t cost the taxpayers a dime, all through grants.
JM:What are the three major bridges that you considered?
VB:The big one that goes across Salmon Kill in Lime Rock, the one right in the center of town, there were three major bridges, 3 big bridges. It was a total of about 2 ½ to 3 million dollars to rebuild them.
JM:The one coming across the Housatonic by the High school?
VB:No, that still isn’t rebuilt. (Yes, it was done later. Ed.) But there is one up behind the Town Hall a big bridge up there. (Curtis Rand confirmed the three bridges were Farnam Road Bridge near the Belters, Salmon Kill Bridge, and the Selleck Hill Bridge. Ed.)
JM:Oh right going up toward Mt. Riga.9.
VB:Yeah, there is a 3rd one I can’t even recall where it was; it was so many years ago. We built sidewalks in Lakeville which never had any sidewalks. We designed and built the cross walk for the Salisbury Central School with a traffic light. It was so hard to get out of Lincoln City.
JM:Tell me about it.
VB:Teachers used to say to me, “Oh what a dream it is to go out of school at 4:00 and be able to wait for the light to turn green.”
JM:24 years I did that!
VB:I can imagine; it was terrible. It is one of the few traffic lights in town, but it was for safety reasons. I am delighted we did it. We did the first bump out in Salisbury in the business district to help safety. We formed the first ever pension plan for the fire department and the for the ambulance squad. It was a hard sell. A lot of them didn’t want it; they did not want the town to give them anything. They were volunteers!
JM:They are very independent.
VB:I am saying but I want to have a reason for people to stay in these organizations. If we give them a pension that grows and grows with years of service they will stay in longer. We did it. They finally agreed.
JM:That is interesting because I have done 4 oral histories on the ambulance and I have done at least 3 on the fire department. I haven’t been asking the right questions because nobody has mentioned pensions. They mention service and training and people, but they haven’t mentioned themselves.
VB;I was trying to figure out a way for retention. How do you keep these groups all volunteer? It is hard work and a lot of training. How do you reward them so that they will want to stay a little bit longer? They may not have it any more; I don’t know if they still have it but we put it through. We built the first cell tower in town. We wrote the first and formed the first ethics committee, the first ethics plan, policy for the town which would also deal with conflict of interest things. I wrote that plan. It was approved by the board of selectmen. It was approved and when I left town, it was put in a drawer somewhere. I have never been able to… I didn’t have time before I left to develop a plan of appeals so that if somebody didn’t like it when I said, “That’s a conflict of interest. You can’t do that.” There was no way to appeal it and have an appeals body. I hadn’t been able to finish that, so it was filed. 10 years later it was resurrected and they finally pulled it out of the drawer.
JM:It was still in the drawer. That is progress!10.
VB:So we did the first one of those. We also were escrowing money all the time for the future which was…A lot of towns didn’t do that, but we escrowed money for town trucks and for plows and for things that might be needed in the future. We knew exactly when a dump truck needed to be replaced because it is not worth fixing it any more. We had the money. We did that religiously. I also started the first newsletter and called it “The Connection”. I wrote a monthly newsletter for all towns’ people. It was distributed to all citizens, all teachers and all employees.
JM:Now we have “The Salisbury Sampler” that is a newsletter that is put out by the Town Hall.
VB:I started the sampler, but I don’t know if you still have it.
JM:Yes, we do.
VB:Who writes it? I know Curtis didn’t want to write it.
JM:He doesn’t write it but various other organizations put in tidbits like from the library and I do a bit.
VB:I used to write it and then I would ask the various people to submit an articles and things for it. Curtis was very helpful with me when I started that, but it was a lot of work to do that every single month. So maybe he had it developed so that somebody else does it and he can contribute. We started it anyway. We also started the ball rolling for Long Pond Dam. I can remember the time that the state was doing an investigation and saying, “The Long Pond Dam is in critical condition and it needs to be repaired.” I said, “Well, bring in the Army Corp of Engineers and fix it.” Well, they couldn’t do that. It is up to you. “Well,” I said,” with state money maybe we can do it. We need some help. How critical is it?” “Well it is eminent. If that dam gives, there is going to be some destruction down below.” So we started the process and we began the work. I went to every property owner around the lake and said, “You all have to buy into this, and according to the square footage that you have on the lake, I want you to agree to an assessment that will help pay to rebuild this dam because it is the only way we are going to get it rebuilt.” 100% of the property owners agreed. I had all the money in escrow to repair the dam. The town owned a small portion on the lake too so we had our own contribution. It sat and it sat and it sat. I finally called the state and I said, “Either you retract your statement that this dam is in precarious condition or fix it! We’ve got the money. I left office and Curtis got it done. The only other thing I can think of that I was chairman of the Council of Governance for the Northwest Corner. It went all the way down to the town of Washington so it was a big group. The only other thing I can think of that I am very pleased with is we started with the discussions for the state of the art transfer station. We decided that recycling was important and we were doing so well and the environment is critically important, but we also said that we would like this transfer station to be an educational facility for kids to learn.
JM:Brian Bartram, I had him in 6th grade; I taught him recycling. He’s now Manager of the Transfer Station. He is doing such a fabulous job with the recycling, with educating the kids at Salisbury Central and he is really passionate about it.
VB:Yup. We did well. We got a lot accomplished in three terms. I resigned in 2005 and went to be with my wife more closely. She died two years later.
JM:You did the right thing.
VB:I am glad I did.
JM:Yes, because you regret the things you don’t do. I left teaching early because Foster turned 80. I thought we should have some quality time. As I said to my friends, if I had known he was going to last another 14 years, I would have stayed teaching.
VB:You might not have done it so quickly. Foster was a great guy. I really liked him. You know a question that everybody asks me is, “What was the more difficult job that you had?” I have been a teacher, a principal, a director, I have run federal projects, I have opened new schools. When we did the Ridge Hill School which was the school with only 4 classrooms, as I told you, we named the classrooms after space flights. When we were going to dedicate the school, we were sitting in my office with the superintendent and some others and the town council was there. “Who’s going to do the dedication of the school? Who is going to give the main speech? How about the governor, he’d be willing to do it? How about one of our Senators?” I said, “How about an astronaut? Look at this school -Gemini, Vanguard, Apollo, and Friendship 2. What about an astronaut?” They laughed! I said, “If you don’t ask, you will never know.” Alan Shepard dedicated our school. Alan Shepard, the astronaut, spent the whole day with me on dedication day.
JM:I bet he was proud.
VB:He walked through the halls and said, “What a marvelous school! Who ever thought! My God I wish I were back in elementary school!” We gave him a golf club, our gift to him, to commemorate his gold shot on the moon. So I have done a lot; I have loved every job I have ever had.
VB:I found it more difficult being a superintendent than being a First Selectman. If was more trying and more taxing; the issues were no more profound than they might be when you are running a town, but it takes a lot out of you.
JM:Oh yes, with the schedule that you had, with the 7 different boards and the meetings every night. Yes, it would.
VB:It wasn’t always easy. There was a time back then where boards wanted to do more that they should be doing. In fact some of that they are doing now where I used to get my back up a little bit and say, “That is my responsibility, not yours. I run this school district. You make policy.” Some of them didn’t like that. I hire the staff because once they are hired, they are working for me. They didn’t like that. I stood my ground. Today the boards are interviewing teachers, they are interviewing
administrators. The law prohibits that, but they do it. I remember at one point I had to call our attorney into a board meeting and say, “We have been having this controversy all along; state law says that I need to recommend to you a teacher to fill a vacancy. You can either accept it or reject it. If you reject it, I’ll give you another candidate. But you do not interview and hire teachers, I do. “With regards to administrators, because they were looking for a principal, I said, “The law says you can require that I give you multiple candidates, 2 or3. If you don’t like them, I give your 2 or 3 more, but you don’t go out and look for your own principal. Because once that principal is hired, he works for me. If you have any criticism of him, you tell me because he is doing what I am telling him to do. Today they do all that. It has really changed so that boards do much more that policy today.
JM:Oh a lot more. Before we close, is there anything that you would like to add to this interview? You have given me a tremendous amount of information.
VB:I have gotten old very fast.
JM:I think we all do.
VB:I am I think almost as much involved in my present community as I was when I was up here. When I was in Salisbury and not a superintendent and not a First Selectman, I was on the library board, I was on the Salisbury Association, I was on the Mental Health Commission, and I was on the Ambulance Board of Directors. I did lots and lots and lots of things and I can’t even remember them all. I thought I wrote them down, but I don’t thing I did.
JM:We appreciate all that you did.
VB:But I was on a lot of committees and commissions. Oh I was twice Chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission. I was on the Salisbury Central Board of Education. I was Treasurer of the Region #1 Board of Education; those are things I did in between when I wasn’t in an official capacity that would preclude my doing.
JM:But they are all volunteer positions and they are all necessary.
VB:That’s how I learned about a town and how I learned the things that interest people and the citizens. I always tried to remember those things. Now in Wolcott I do lots of things, not the same but…
JM:Things that keep you active and out of mischief.
VB:I ran the Red Cross blood drive; I have some things like that.
JM:You have affected many people and in many different ways positively. I thank you very much for your time and all the things that you have done for Salisbury.
VB:Thank you for inviting me. It was my pleasure.
JM:You were so good to do it.