Q&A: Saying goodbye to Elliott Landon
WESTPORT— Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon has not had a summer off since he was a teenager selling hot dogs at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, the former home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. That will change come July 1 when he retires from his post to make way for Colleen Palmer, his successor.
As a student at James Madison High School, Landon said he liked chemistry and thought he would become an engineer. After studying engineering for three years at Brooklyn College, he found the curriculum “unfulfilling” and switched his focus to education and graduated with a chemistry degree with the intention of teaching chemistry and becoming a high school principal.
Upon graduating from college, Landon taught at his high school alma mater and later at a local middle school while taking night classes at Columbia University, where he earned a masters in educational administration and a doctorate, also in educational administration.
During his studies at Columbia, Landon realized he could make a larger impact if he aspired to be a superintendent as opposed to a principal. This led
him to take an administrative internship after graduation, where he worked directly under then Port Washington Superintendent James Hall, whom Landon described as one of his “mentors.”
At the culmination of his one year internship in Port Washington, the school district was faced with public employment negotiations for the first time. Because of Landon’s experience as a teaching assistant at Columbia under a renown legal authority in public education, Hall kept Landon on as an administrative assistant.
Hall then urged Landon to apply to be an assistant to the superintendent for personnel in Oceanside, which he held for three years, garnering even more collective bargaining experience. Landon then went back to Port Washington as assistant superintendent for human resources, which he held for five years. During his second stint in Port Washington Landon helped settle a deal the night before the teachers were set to go on strike. He helped orchestrate the first five-year teacher’s contract in U.S. history (the normal length was three years at the time).
He was contacted by Ridgefield Public Schools to be their superintendent, the first of four stops as superintendent: Ridgefield for nine years, Garden City for three years, Long Beach for 10 years, and finally, Westport for 17 years.
Landon sat down with the Westport News to reflect on his time in Westport:
Q: What spurred your interest in making education your livelihood?
A: For some reason or another the high school principal at James Madison High School (Max Newfield) had a tremendous impact on me. I didn’t think about teaching actually. I liked chemistry and I studied chemical engineering for about three years in college. And then I found it very unfulfilling—it was all math and physics and nothing to generate things I liked like in liberal arts so I switched over to education because I thought about what I wanted to do, I thought about the high school principal and I said ‘I think I’d like to teach and become a principal.’
Q: So this is your junior year in college, you switched majors pretty late?
A: Yeah, I had to spend an extra year.
Q: What about your high school principal made you look up to him and want to do that job?
A: His presence, his intelligence, his ability—I mean we had a huge high school, around 5,000 kids.
Q: What was the most adversity you’ve faced as Westport’s superintendent?
A: I think the most difficult one was the mold situation at King’s Highway in 2007. We had a modular classroom that was attached to the building that we closed off because we found mold in it and we were about to strip it down and rebuild it. We had the place sealed off and we were content that we would be able to do it—it wasn’t a big problem.
Some parents really flipped out over it and they were concerned that there would be mold throughout the building coming from that add-on module which had been closed off. So we called in the state health department, they did a full examination of the building and they said there was no problem in the building, just clean up the other and everything should be fine.
The parents were not satisfied, they demanded that we close the building, I don’t know what the heck they wanted us to do, but I refused and they went to the first selectman, at the time, Gordon Joseloff, and I thought he saw it as an opportunity to, who knows what. He decided he was going to take it up, even though it was a Board of Ed issue and he made a big deal over it. He created a committee of local citizens and they hired and he gave them a lot of money, town money to hire a specialist to go in, we had our own specialist.
And what they found was there was no danger in that building and we were correct to begin with, but then, as a result of that, it was determined rather than clean the module just get rid of it, which we did. Of course now we’re suffering from lack of sufficient space because the enrollments grown and we don’t have the space. It was removed, end of story.
And then we went through a whole review of the building with that committee, and of course, like in every building, you find Aspergillus-Penicillium Mold, which is harmless, it comes just over time behind walls and so on. But once you start that, even though there was no need to do it, we did the whole building wherever it was—behind walls, in the gymnasium, so we cleaned up whatever it was.
And then, to make matters worse, we had put all new windows in the building, prior to that, and so that sealed the building and now the parents were concerned again that ‘Oh my goodness we’re going to have CO2 levels that are high.’ We test the building all the time, it never was, but it was decided that we would put a new heating and air conditioning system in the school and that’s an old school. Once we got into that we found out there was lead paint in the walls so that resulted in a whole mess too—we got rid of one contractor, we got in another contractor and now it’s all done. We have the highest quality, better than any school, air conditioning and heating system.
So that cost the town a fortune. I would say it cost something like $10 million—could have almost built a new school. I argued that it wasn’t necessary, but you know, hysteria took over, it is what it is.
Q: How has the evolution of technology played a role in your job as superintendent?
A: I think it’s transformed everything: the way we teach, the way we do business, the way I communicate with people in the community…it’s different. When I came here when you left the office you left the office.
Q: What about technology with respect to cyberbullying?
A: That’s a real problem, a real problem. We try to address that because we discipline kids if they do that off-site as well as on-site. In the classroom I don’t think we’ve had much of a problem because we’ve made it clear—you can have your cellphones, but don’t use them during class.
We work closely with the police department when it becomes serious cyberbullying and I think overall we’ve been pretty good, but there have been some bad situations where kids have said some really nasty things. That’s a real problem and it’s hard to deal with that. We’ve put barriers on certain software elements, but there are others we can’t do anything about so we have to rely on the kids letting us know, the parents letting us know. We ban as much as we can in school, but once they’re out of school it’s hard to do.
Q: What is something you wish you could have done differently?
A: Redistricting. We are now overenrolled at King’s Highway School and at Saugatuck and I think it’s only going to get worse. I made a recommendation a couple years ago that we should redistrict and study redistricting and do it, but that fell on deaf ears.
It would balance the elementary schools which some are under enrolled and others over enrolled—there’s plenty of space in some, but we have a real problem trying to find enough space at King’s Highway School for next year because of the over enrollment at that school and the same is true at Saugatuck.
Unfortunately, I wanted to address this before a new superintendent came in, but there was no stomach for doing it on the part of the (school) board so the new superintendent’s going to have to deal with a serious, serious problem.
Q: There are interim superintendent openings in Fairfield and Greenwich. Would you be interested?
A: I’m going to take this summer to enjoy myself. What I do after that I don’t know, but if they want an interim they’ll want him in the summer.
Q: What is the Elliot Landon stamp on Westport?
EL: 17 years I’ve hired virtually everybody in this school district, every administrator is one I’ve hired, virtually all of the teachers. ... I think that’s my legacy; just great people I’ve left behind, really good administrators.