December 22, 2005

Matchmaking, BOE-Style

Board members are assigned their own schools

By Sharon Bass

As promised when elected chair of the Board of Education last week, Michael D'Agostino has revived an old idea to appoint a liaison to each school.

"The liaison program is a direct result of the Board's desire to reconnect with the community. Fairly or unfairly, the Board has in the past been perceived as aloof and out of touch," he said. " Indeed, many parents have no idea who we are or what we do. Others have correctly pointed out that issues, which could potentially be resolved with a phone call, often escalate into lawsuits."

D'Agostino, a Hartford attorney, said he hopes by assigning BOE members to schools it will open wider the lines of communication between parents/guardians and the school system. He said he expects the liaisons to "make every effort to attend PTA meetings and school events and, most importantly, to simply listen to students, parents and teachers. As elected officials, that is the least we can do."

He said the school board gives credit to longtime education advocate Meg Nowacki and PTA Council President Tim Nottoli for suggesting the idea.

Here's the 2005-2006 lineup for school liaisons:

Hamden High School: Ed Sullivan

Hamden Middle School: John Keegan

Bear Path: Myron Hul

Church Street: Austin Cesare

Dunbar Hill: Mike D'Agostino

Helen Street: Lynn Campo

Ridge Hill: Mike D'Agostino

Shepherd Glen: Jennifer McGrady Heath

Spring Glen: Valarie Stone

West Woods: Ed Sullivan

Wintergreen: Mike Dolan

December 19, 2005

Readers Named This School

By Sharon Bass

The HDN recently asked readers what they'd like to call the new middle school ("Name This School"). As promised, their ideas were sent to Mayor Craig Henrici and Superintendent of Schools Alida Begina.

The final vote came in as such:

"Hamden Middle School," 24

"Veterans' Memorial Middle School," 11

"The Middle School at Meadowbrook," 3

"Sleeping Giant Middle School," 1

"The Carl Amento Middle School," 1

While most respondents e-mailed their choices with no elaboration, a handful added some reasoning behind their picks.

"'Sleeping Giant Middle School'" -- I believe that was the name of the old middle school."

"I feel based on where the new middle school is located it should be called the 'Veterans Memorial Middle School.' It sounds the best, plus it will make all of the veterans that fought for our country feel good about themselves."

The Veterans' Monument at Meadowbrook.

"'Veterans Memorial Middle School'" sounds good to me."

"I'd like to name the school 'The Carl Amento Middle School.' He should be remembered for something other than all the lies that were said about him."

"I suggest that we stick with the tried and true, simple and straightforward 'Hamden Middle School.'"

"I would like the school to be named 'Hamden Veterans' Memorial Middle School.'
I am a Vietnam veteran, and my name is on the memorial. I think this name might help ameliorate some veterans (not me!) who were upset by the middle school being built at that location."

And not surprisingly, with the controversy surrounding the construction of the $54-million-plus building for two grades (seventh and eighth), some readers suggested the following:

"How about 'The Tax Dollar Dump?'"

"Alida Begina's Seventh Hole School."

"Call it like it is, the "Waist of Money Middle School.'" (The writer undoubtedly meant "waste.")

December 16, 2005

Begina Responds to the Changing of Her Guard

By Sharon Bass

When Michael D'Agostino was voted in as chair of the Board of Education this week, he promised to make some pivotal changes. For one thing, he said he'll push for more communication between the Board and the public ("D'Agostino Elected BOE Chair").

"Any time we want to increase communication it's a good thing," said school Superintendent Alida Begina. "One thing we struggle with is we don't have a public information officer. We have not had the financial resources to do that. It's either me or (Assistant Superintendents) Hamlet (Hernandez) or Portia (Bonner)."

And with that statement, Begina said she welcomes D'Agostino as the new leader of the Board and plans to work cooperatively with him.

When Begina resigned from her Hamden post last summer to take the top ed job in Syracuse, N.Y. -- and then changed her mind -- D'Agostino was one of just two to vote against her return. (Former BOE member Shawn O'Sullivan cast the other no vote.)

Asked how she feels about that now that D'Agostino is chair, Begina said, "But he did vote for my contract in October. Board members often have different opinions." She said she didn't take it personally. "I remain neutral as a superintendent."

D'Agostino replaces Myron Hul, who was chair for just one year. Michaela Degnan, no longer on the Board, was chair for nine years before Hul. Begina is in her 12th year as superintendent.

"I've already had several discussions with Michael. I'm looking forward to working with him as chair. The Hamden BOE has had a consistent track record of putting the needs of children first," Begina said. "You can go to other towns and see more decisiveness. Our Board has always acted in a nonpartisan manner. It's unusual."

Next Monday, she said she and D'Agostino will further discuss his ideas for the direction of the Board. "Everybody has a different style," Begina said.

If their ideas clash?

"I've had a difference of opinion over the years (with chairs) and we're always able to work it out," the super said. "If we're not able to come to an agreement ultimately it's the nine members of the Board who make the decision."

December 14, 2005

D'Agostino Elected BOE Chair

Former Chair Hul pulls his name at the last minute

By Sharon Bass

Just before last night's Board of Education meeting, the Democrats caucused to determine where the support was for a new chair and secretary. Apparently, it was then that Chair Myron Hul realized he didn't have it and dropped out of the race.

The support went to Michael D'Agostino, who received all nine BOE votes. Same for Secretary John Keegan, a Democrat, who was also unopposed in reclaiming his post.

According to Democrat Michael Dolan, Hul was still interested in the chairmanship prior to the caucus. Hul could not be reached for comment last night.

"I was the one who nominated Michael," said Dolan. "I have a lot of faith in his leadership abilities.

"We need more public participation. Some of the ideas (D'Agostino) expressed in a letter to fellow Board members were ironically expressed by the president of the (Hamden) PTA," he said. "Mike is hoping for more of a two-way line of communication between the general public and the Board and the administration."

The 34-year-old D'Agostino, a lawyer with the Hartford firm of Bingham McCutchen, said he is excited and looking forward to his new role. Asked for further comment during a 10 p.m. phone interview, he said he was tired and needed to go to bed.

Both sides of the political aisle felt it was time for a change in leadership. The BOE has been criticized for not being responsive to parents and the public, and for operating too clandestinely.

"This is a good change. I supported Mike because I think he offers a new face and vision," said Austin Cesare, one of three Republicans on the Board. He said he would have voted for D'Agostino even if Hul had run.

"I was behind Mike because I ran for office on the idea of wanting to support change and new ideas," he said.

One of D'Agostino's ideas is to have each of the nine members represent an elementary school. "It's been done in the past. (It creates) better lines of communication between the schools and the BOE," said Cesare. "I just like his all-inclusive approach. That's not saying Myron can't (adopt that approach), but Mike is willing to listen to all ideas."

Republican Lynn Campo was lukewarm on the changing of the guard.

"I believe a lot of things happened in the Democratic caucus," she said "Mike had indicated that he thought there needed to be a change and he talked to everyone, including the three new members.

"In general, let's face it (the Republicans) haven't played a lot of politics on the Board. We cooperate very well. I think we have to see what Mike is going to do. He's a smart young man."

D'Agostino's father, Julius D'Agostino, was superintendent of the Hamden schools in the 1980s, Campo pointed out. "He did not get along with his board and he moved on to other towns to be superintendent," she said. "So Mike has a long history with Hamden schools. I have long supported Myron (Hul). I'm willing to support Mike. He feels he knows the current Democratic administration. He feels we need to do more public explanation of our votes and of our reasons. That's something he is going to push for.

"Whatever, it's always for the kids. I don't think the Board plays it any other way. I know we get criticized all the time," she said. "But I've got news for you. If you're in there for any gain, you're crazy. We're not paid. There's no benefit to being on the Board except for the benefit of the kids."

December 13, 2005

Name This School

Also, what's happening with the school on Meadowbrook

By Sharon Bass

The new middle school is 48 percent complete and needs a name.

Councilman Curt Leng, also the new chair of the School Building Committee (SBC), said several names have been tossed around: Middle School at Meadowbrook, Veterans Memorial Middle School and simply Hamden Middle School.

The HDN is asking readers to submit their ideas or choose one of the above. All submissions will be forwarded to the mayor and superintendent of schools, and can be anonymous.

Meanwhile, Leng offered an update of the project.

According to Konover Construction, which is building the school, the exterior is 100 percent done, said Leng. Turner Construction is the onsite project manager that oversees the cost and job.

"By getting the entire building shut in they can put on interior temporary heaters," said Leng. This will enable workers to sheet rock the classrooms over the next two weeks.

"They're on target for opening in fall 2006," he said. However, there is one big bump that needs to be smoothed over: the removal of the stump dump on Meadowbrook. Leng said no one knew the extent of the dump, and so the cost to haul the stuff away is much higher than anticipated.

"They started digging and digging" and found more tree stumps, he said. Originally $200,000 was allocated for the job, but now it's looking to be $1 million to $2 million.

"That's the only real surprise," said Leng. "We're expecting an on-time, on-budget project."

In accordance, the so-called "guaranteed maximum price" the town got from Konover will increase due to the stump dump and last spring's work stoppage. The GMP was set at $44.5 million. It's unknown how much higher it will go.

The entire project cost is slightly over $54 million, said Leng. That includes Turner's bill, $200,000; architect and engineering fees, $3.33 million; furniture and fixtures, $2.32 million; "soft costs," $1.5 million; bond issuance, $580,000; Dixwell Avenue roadwork, $260,000; and contingency costs, $1.5 million.

"Inside it looks extraordinary. It has skylights running the entire length of the school. It's a real centerpiece for the town," he said. Leng and other Legislative Council members of the SBC -- Al Gorman, Bob Westervelt and Gretchen Callahan -- recently visited the inside of the structure-in-progress.

Another issue that is being straightened out is the windowless classrooms that had been slated for special ed students. After parent opposition, two classrooms with exterior windows are being revamped to accommodate those children who spend most of their day in a "self-contained" room, rather than switching classrooms. But Leng said two may not be enough down the road if the spec ed population grows.

"The compromise we came up with is they're going to design a third classroom for a self-contained room," he said. When the school opens next fall it will be a regular classroom, but when/if needed for special ed, it would be ready for conversion.

While some have questioned spending millions of dollars to educate the 1,100 students in seventh and eighth grades, Leng said the school is needed. "The $54 million is a lot of money, but it's going to be the middle school for the next 50 years," he said.

December 7, 2005

Hartford Mayor is Now Hartford's BOE Chair, Too

A bold new move from the state capitol could give Hamden food for thought

By Sharon Bass

Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez made statewide news this week by doing something way out of the ordinary. He appointed himself chair of the city's school board and made two board appointments to serve with the elected officials -- something many communities are undoubtedly salivating over.

With ubiquitous complaints of school departments spending too much, having too much autonomy and not being held accountable by the municipal side of government, Perez's innovative move could serve as a doable inspiration.

"The people are having a voice in the direction of education," said Sarah Barr, director of communications for the Hartford mayor's office. "Perez says he doesn't want to be king. It's about accountability. He feels this is going to build a critical link between the school system and the city." Perez is not in this for the long run, she said. Just long enough to help drive the direction of the city's new BOE.

"You always have concerns about any department spending, Board of Education, police, Public Works," said Hamden Mayor Craig Henrici in response to what he thinks of Perez's new role. "But I think we're going to be fine. I'll go to a few (BOE meetings), that's what I said at the campaign."

As mayor, Henrici is automatically an ex-officio member of the BOE, but he can't vote or be a part of the budget-making process or other Board decisions. (The Legislative Council's yay or nay vote on the school's total budget is the only power Hamden -- and other municipalities -- has over BOE spending. It can't play with line items.)

"In a perfect world the Legislative Council and the Board of Education and the mayor and superintendent work well and in concert. And that's going to be our goal," Henrici said.

Last week, he said, he and his aide Scott Jackson met with BOE Finance Director Tom Pesce, Superintendent Alida Begina and Assistant Superintendents Hamlet Hernandez and Portia Bonner. "Just to get together to discuss some projects that they'll need some town help with. It was a get-together," he said.

As a full-fledged school board member, Perez said he plans to throw his weight around. In an e-mail to the HDN he wrote: "I have decided to serve as chair during this transition period to a new BOE because there are a number of tough decisions that need to be made over the next year. I want to make sure that the Board makes these decisions in an environment where what is best for the children of Hartford is at the forefront."

In most communities, such an arrangement would run counter to their charters. This was true for Hartford until 2003, when the city amended its charter to allow the mayor to make BOE appointments, said Barr. It also changed and greatly strengthened the mayor's role. The mayor used to serve a two-year "ceremonial" term. Two years ago, that was upped to four years and the mayor was allotted much more power.

Perez also wrote: "This new BOE must bring a renewed sense of urgency to raising the bar in two key areas, preparing our kids to successfully attend four year college and make sure our schools are safe, orderly places for students to learn and teachers to educate.

"I will appoint two task forces made up of school board members, staff and administrators to tackle these issues. I will ask the task forces to review our discipline policies and security procedures and ask them to report back with recommended improvements. Further, I will ask this group to recommend how we can implement a school uniform policy citywide. I will ask a second group to report back on how we can accelerate the implementation of the Blue Ribbon Task force on Higher Education. We have made progress but there is still a long way to go.

"Raising expectations and making our education system more accountable for results are the key motivations for taking this position."

December 2, 2005

Dangling Votes

The BOE is fighting part-time workers from unionizing

By Sharon Bass

This past August, 26 part-time Hamden Board of Education workers voted unanimously to join the United Public Service Employees Union (UPSEU). That's the labor union that represents the BOE's full-time secretaries and clerks.

But these part-time "paraprofessionals" are still waiting to join the club. The BOE is appealing the vote.

"The Board of Ed is spending thousands of dollars fighting this," said Wayne Gilbert, regional director of UPSEU. "It's ridiculous how they waste money over there. It really is. They're going to end up losing this case."

He said the board claims there is no open "window" at this time to unionize more BOE employees, according to its contract with UPSEU. However, Gilbert said, another union would be allowed to solicit these part-time employees.

"A lot of employers would rather deal with other union reps who they can be buddies with and play golf with. My job is to represent my members. They're the ones who pay my salary. It's not to be best buddies with management," said Gilbert.

The BOE has retained Bercham, Moses and Devlin, a Milford law firm, for the appeal.

"We never questioned the vote," said Assistant Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez. "We are working with Bercham and Moses to hopefully resolve the issue between the union and the Board of Education." Since the case is in litigation, Hernandez said he could not elaborate further. But he did say the appeal is based on the "recognition clause" in the UPSEU clerical contract.

Gilbert offered another reason.

"They don't want these people in the union. It's that simple," he said. "They know they're going to have to spend more money on these people on benefits. In addition to having to pay out more money, the employees will have rights."

If the decision swings in favor of the union, the state Labor Board would then certify the new members, who would become part of Local 424 Unit 2 -- UPSEU's bargaining unit at the Hamden BOE.

Lena Donnarummo is co-president of that unit. A BOE benefits clerk for 17 years, she spoke highly of the union.

"They've done an excellent job. Since we've been with UPSEU our grievances are settled on a more timely manner," she said. "They're very hands on with us. They do monthly visits to all the school sites and members. Wayne is a great negotiator. (Joining the union) will give (part-time paraprofessionals) some job protection and seniority rights."

UPSEU came on board in spring 2004, said Donnarummo, replacing the Connecticut Independent Labor Union (CILU).

Council 4 (of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees), which represents Hamden Town Hall workers and school crossing guards, also has bargaining units in the BOE. It represents the supervisors, custodians and maintenance workers, cafeteria workers and school security employees, said Larry Dorman of Council 4. Before CILU was voted in six years ago, Council 4 had represented the clerical staff.

Gilbert said UPSEU also wants to replace Council 4's Town Hall bargaining unit, Local 2863. He said he's given the town attorney a Freedom of Information request for the names and addresses of members, to send letters urging them to switch unions. If UPSEU gets at least 30 percent of 2863's people to sign on, it can then file a petition with the state Labor Board to start the election process.

Stay tuned.


Card Artists

Holiday designs by Hamden students

Credits: top row (left to right), Jose Valdovinos, grade 6, Helen Street School; Morgan Hughes, grade 5, West Woods School; Abdul Rahman Jamjoon, grade 4, West Woods. Bottom row (l to r), Valentina Velez, grade 4, Dunbar Hill School; Michael Corcoran, grade 6, Helen Street; Zainab Choudri, grade 3, West Woods.

December 1, 2005

Burned and Abused
Vandalism at Ridge Hill School

This slide was set on fire. Photos/Mark Albanese

By Sharon Bass

Over the Thanksgiving school break, someone threw paint balls at Ridge Hill School and started a fire in the playground.

"We did have some vandalism. The police were called," said Assistant Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez. He said he has no idea who the culprit(s) is. The Hamden police didn't have any information either.

Apparently, a liquid substance was poured down a slide and then ignited. And there's some paint ball damage on a side of the building. The slide, which has been cordoned off by yellow police tape, will have to be replaced.

"It was unfortunate. And (slides) are very costly," Hernandez said. The playground was funded by the Ridge Hill PTA, but the Board of Education is responsible for the upkeep. The assistant super said he's unsure what it will cost for a new slide and to clean the paint off the exterior wall.

"Unfortunately, vandalism happens," said Hernandez, who was principal of Ridge Hill last year. "I had it at Alice Peck, too."

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