Plymouth superintendent takes Trumbull's top school spot




TRUMBULL — When Martin Semmel thinks about the Trumbull schools, one image comes to mind for the longtime educator, amateur musician and Southington High School band parent.

“That marching band — we knew it was going to be a tough competition any time we saw them,” Semmel said. “But that’s what you want. You want to go up against groups that are as passionate and work just as hard as you do.”

The Trumbull Board of Education officially named Semmel, the superintendent at Plymouth schools, the new superintendent of Trumbull schools July 28, picking him from a pool of 20 candidates. The process, complicated by COVID-19, took months longer than expected, said board Chairman Lucinda Timpanelli.

“Something as important as the person that’s going to lead your school system — you can’t do that over the computer,” Timpanelli said. “Everyone understood that we needed to wait until we could conduct the interviews face-to-face.”

Semmel's predecessor, Gary Cialfi, who had planned to retire at the end of the 2019-20 school year, took early retirement Jan. 6, citing personal reasons.

Former Trumbull Superintendent Ralph Iassogna, brought in to replace Cialfi on an interim basis, announced on Jan. 14 that the schools were facing a "dire" budget shortfall initially projected at up to $2 million, though later pegged at about $700,000.

A series of austerity measures that Iassogna described as "agonizing" added to some anticipated utility savings ultimately closed the gap.

After the school board winnowed the initial applicants to six, then two finalists, Timpanelli said Semmel was the unanimous choice.

“He had experience as a superintendent, which was something we wanted,” she said. “He’s knowledgeable about math, language, all the different areas and he’s extremely up-to-date with the latest practices.”

The 2020-21 budget puts Semmel’s salary at $223,147. Cialfi’s salary was $218,811.

Asked what she saw as the top priorities for the incoming superintendent, Timpanelli mentioned the budget and coronavirus safety when school reopens. But an important aspect of educators was the ability to remain flexible and deal with situations as they arise, she said.

“When I ran for Board of Education this time, I thought the two biggest issues would be the Hillcrest planetarium and the weight room at Trumbull High,” she said. Instead, a budget shortfall estimated at over $1 million and a global pandemic had occupied virtually all of her attention.

Semmel grew up in Windsor, and earned his bachelor’s, master’s, sixth-year certificate and doctorate from the University of Connecticut. The last two degrees he earned while also teaching full-time.

“I decided to take the administrator courses at UConn in case I ever decided to go that direction,” he said. “I got my superintendent certificate, then kept going and got my doctorate.”

A 24-year education veteran, Semmel started out teaching math at South Windsor High School in 1996. In 2001, he was named assistant principal of Bristol Central High School, and elevated to the top spot at the school six years later.

After serving as principal of Bristol Central for three years, he moved nine miles southeast to accept the same role at Southington High School.

“It was a great opportunity to go to a significantly larger high school, which was also in the town I lived in,” he said.

While Semmel was principal, Southington High School’s CAPT scores increased in all four disciplines, including a 24.9 percent jump in science over four years. Student suspensions during that time also dropped from 232 in 2010 to 28 in 2013.

Semmel has spent the last five years as superintendent of the Plymouth Public Schools. He said he was drawn to make the move to Trumbull in part to get back to a larger school system.

“In many ways, Southington is similar to Trumbull, with the one high school, two middle schools setup,” he said. “Plymouth has 1,500 students in the entire school system, compared to Southington, where there were 2,000 in that one building.”

In addition to its size, Semmel also said he was drawn to Trumbull by its track record of academic success and strong parental involvement.

“Obviously, when you apply for a superintendent position, you want to have a sense of what the community is like,” Semmel said. “In Trumbull, there seems to be a high level of engagement from the parents and incredible dedication from the staff.”

As a Southington Blue Knights Marching Band parent, Semmel said, he had a healthy respect for what it takes for the rival Trumbull Golden Eagle Marching Band to succeed year after year.

“When we competed against Trumbull High, we were always impressed with the effort and engagement that they put into it,” he said. “When you walk into Trumbull High to compete, you could feel and see that there is a lot of pride there.”

Semmel is scheduled to begin his tenure in Trumbull Sept. 14, but with a budget due in November and a global pandemic still lurking, he anticipated spending weekends over the next six weeks poring over Trumbull reports.

“I just got the job last night, and I feel like, ‘Why haven’t I started on the budget yet?’” he said on Wednesday.

But having spoken with Iassogna, Semmel said he anticipated a smooth transition.

“I met him for the first time last night,” Semmel said. “We’ll have a clean handoff.”