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January 29, 2007

Source Says Pepe Wanted Out

By Sharon Bass

According to a longtime teacher at Hamden Middle School, in 2005 principal Frank Pepe applied for the assistant superintendent position that went to Hamlet Hernandez. Last year, Pepe vied to be principal of Derby High School. He lost out on that one to Michael Novia, who was then vice principal of Hamden Middle School. Last Tuesday, the Southington Board of Education approved Pepe to be principal of Joseph A. DePaolo Middle School.

Pepe, who lives in North Haven, is to start his Southington post next month. His current salary is $105,869. Superintendent Alida Begina has requested $110,671 for his position in next year’s budget.

“Nobody leaves in February unless they’re ill or very unhappy,” the teacher said, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal from Hamden school administrators.

“I think he left because he had no future in Hamden,” the teacher said. “He was Alida’s fair-haired boy. He’d bring her lunch. He was in central office on a daily basis” before the new middle school was built. Then things soured between the two after Pepe couldn't cut it on the assistant super's job, said the source backed by another middle school teacher close to the situation.

Several messages left for Pepe and Hernandez since Jan. 22 were not returned. The middle school secretary, who took one of the messages last Monday, asked what the HDN was calling about and was told “Southington.”

“I think he’s dead in the water in Hamden,” the teacher said. “His mentor was Alida Begina and she’s dead in the water in Hamden. He has had a lot of problems with parents and teachers. He does not interface well with his staff. You know, teachers don’t like him at Hamden Middle School. He’s not supportive. He will say to them in the hallways, ‘I only have a minute for you.’ He was always involved with his computer and paperwork. He humiliated the former vice principal [Novia] in front of students. He was a real bastard.”

The source said since Pepe became principal four or five years ago, Hamden Middle School “has been plagued with staffing problems. This year a Spanish teacher walked out. A couple of teachers left at the beginning of the ’05-’06 school year. They said, ‘This isn’t for me.’ There was an Italian teacher who left who said Pepe gave him no support and was very mean to him. There was no turnover until Pepe came on.
“He has such an ego.”

January 24, 2007

Begina Asks for $74.1 Million

Finance Committee Chair Ed Sullivan. Photo/Sharon Bass

The super’s ’07-’08 budgetary request marks lowest increase in years

By Sharon Bass

A small handful of residents and parents sat with school personnel last night for round one of the school budget talks. Superintendent Alida Begina presented her $74.1 million recommended operating tab for 2007-2008 to the Finance Committee. In her 13 years at the helm of the Hamden school system, she proposed one of her smallest increases -- 4.85 percent. Last year, she asked for 9.9 percent more.

“I do want to commend the superintendent on the smallest increase,” said Board of Education member Austin Cesare. “I believe the Council and mayor should be as careful with their budget as we are going to be over the next couple of weeks.”

In addition to pressure from the public, council members and the mayor, Begina’s bottom line was influenced by the town taking over the school department’s health insurance account last year. “That was a huge driver for the budget,” said finance Chair Ed Sullivan. The schools got $70.7 million for ’06-’07, after $14 million was stripped for health care.

Of the proposed $74.1 million, $1.29 million is budgeted for central office staff, up from $1.2 million in the current year.

“This recommendation represents an essentially level-funded budget as compared to 2006-07,” Begina said. Requests from school administrators and directors rang in at $77.7 million to serve the district’s 6,906 students. The super shaved off $3.6 million by denying “many items and new positions,” she said. “The fiscal realities facing the town and state are well-known and documented, and as superintendent my budget must keep those economic realities in the forefront of educational decisions.”

However, Begina included some new positions, such as a nursing supervisor for $70,000 a year, which was turned down last year. And funding for the middle school “attendance intervention specialist,” whose salary had previously been covered by a grant.

She pointed out that state funding for education is shriveling up. Hamden has lost $45 million in the last 10 years in educational cost-sharing dollars. “This is a completely unfair situation,” Begina said. Some $19.5 million is expected from the state for ’07-’08, down from $21.3 million this fiscal year.

Forty-four percent of Begina’s recommended increase goes to salaries; 33 percent to supplies; 21 percent to services; and 1 percent to benefits and plant services.

“We’re lessening our reliance on outside consultants and using staff,” said Begina, who put all-day kindergarten and preschool on top of her must-have list.

According to their labor agreement, administrators get a 3 percent increase for next fiscal year; teachers also get a raise (unsure of amount at press time) and negotiations on other union contracts will begin in August, the superintendent said. So it’s uncertain how much more money will be needed for all salary hikes.

“The 2007-2008 year will be the first year when Hamden public schools will not be using revenue to offset expenses,” said Begina. “While there is extensive state statute and case law both for and against recognizing revenue as a Board of Education receivable, at the request of our auditors, we are moving forward with showing both our revenues and expenses separately.”

Estimated revenues include $175,000 in Medicaid reimbursement; $35,000 from worker’s compensation; $184,000 in an adult education grant; $44,600 for services for students who are blind; $100,000 in rent from the Alice Peck School; and $1.3 million in excess costs for special education.

Begina said her department loses money on renting buildings. “We have to revisit the fees,” she said.

Public Feedback

“Ideally, kids should be in school longer, before and after school,” said PTA Council president Tim Nottoli, “to really maximize the benefits of the educational system. It would improve performance, decrease problems. Hopefully, the Legislature will take it seriously.”

Marianna D’Albis, a tax-relief activist, chided the BOE. “We as taxpayers have nowhere to turn for our [salary] increases. You need to be creative,” she said. “The town and the Board of Education have made a lot of mistakes and wasted a lot of time and money over the last 10 years.”

Resident Meg Nowacki, a regular at school and town meetings, said she’d like a breakdown of each school’s costs “to see if education is being delivered equitably across the district.” She said the number of small high school classes should be reduced. “At least I want to recommend that it be looked at.”

Board Feedback

Myron Hul said he wanted to see “all the auditors’ recommendations” at the next committee budget meeting, Jan. 30 at 6:30 p.m.

“Any costs in here for a move to Center One?” he asked.

“No,” said Begina. That expense will go into the capital budget due next month, she said.

“I was surprised the fuel budget shows no increase,” said John Keegan. “I don’t know how that’s possible unless we’re going to steal from the electricity [line].”

“We don’t have any new or interesting programs,” Keegan continued. “I know people think that means extra cost,” but money could be moved around to accommodate that gap. “We’re so focused on the bottom line that we’re neglecting what we need for the educational achievement of our students. I think the bottom line aside, I’d like to see how we’re going to improve performance and achievement.”

He questioned the need for the attendance person. “What’s that all about? Teachers take attendance. I’m not sure that’s a valid role,” Keegan said.

Lynn Campo echoed Keegan’s sentiments. She said she was “concerned that too much cutting would affect the CMT [Connecticut Mastery Test] scores.” And also asked why an attendance “specialist” is needed.

Assistant Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez said the attendance person makes home visits and phone calls about truant children. “The person does a lot of outreach,” he said.

“I want to make sure we’re being realistic about what we want to accomplish,” said Jennifer McGrady-Heath. “I want to make sure we don’t hurt our ability to improve performance.”

Wrapping up, Sullivan said he hopes the state will come through with more money for the increase in utility costs. He then turned to Begina and asked, “If the Board cut $500,000 from this budget, what effect will it have on the system?”

That and other information requested by Board members to be presented during round two.

January 23, 2007
Bottom School 50

Illustration for the HDN by Craig Houghton

By Sharon Bass

We gave you the top 50 town and school salaries, and the 50 lowest town. Completing the square, we present the 50 lowest fulltime school salaries. They are significantly shrimpier than the town's, in contrast to the higher wages paid to school over town administrators.

Aide, $25,088 (numbers 50-32 on the list)
Security, $23,912 (numbers 31-22)
Aide, $23,871
Aide, $22,672 (numbers 20-18)
Aide, $21,744 (numbers 17-14)
Aide, $20,693 (numbers 13-2)
Clerk, $17,089

And that's it, folks.

January 12, 2007

Great Expectations Dashed

The tail end of the school construction. File photo

Still no cure for the middle school lights; leaks supposedly fixed

By Sharon Bass

Hopes were high that a remedy would be cemented last night for the emergency lights in the new middle school -- that can’t be turned off and have resulted in huge electric bills -- and for the recurrent water leaks.

But not much happened at the School Building Committee meeting. Except more delays and promises from Konover Construction, which built the school. Even though the contractor has known about the light problem since last September, no solution was offered Thursday evening. And reportedly the leaks are all sealed up. Again.

It was thought that a $25,000 relay box -- of which Hamden would only be responsible for about $3,000 -- would do the light trick. But it was just learned that the trick would be more complex.

“It’s not quite clear what we’re waiting for,” said SBC member John Keegan about the light fix. The Konover rep who attended the meeting, held in the new school’s auditorium, said the fix is “outside of our contract.”

“Can we have a projected date?” asked Keegan. “Three months? Six months?”

The rep said it shouldn’t take that long. That Hartford-based architectural firm Tai Soo Kim has only given Konover about 60 percent of the design information for the contraption that would automatically control the lights. No one from Tai attended the meeting.

“If this issue was given some priority, would it have been done?” said SBC Chair Curt Leng.

Yes, said the rep.

SBC resident elector Chris Daur asked if a price for the light remedy would be available in two weeks. He was told yes.

“Personally I think the process is a joke,” said Leng. “This slow pace for such a major issue is not acceptable.”

During a break outside the auditorium, Leng said two months ago “every impression was given to [the SBC] that everything was ready to go. And they did not tell us it was going to be complex. I think there’s a complete breakdown of communication between the contractors and architects.”

He thought Konover would give the committee a written proposal for the lighting problem, complete with cost. “And what we got was the runaround,” Leng said.

The SBC tabled the agenda item to approve a resolution for the lights. Leng was the only no vote.

The recent leaks found by Principal Frank Pepe in the atrium and cafeteria have reportedly been resealed and are good to go, the Konover rep said. The committee was given a written report last night documenting that. Two of the leaks had been resealed last fall but showed up again after the recent rain. The rep said all the exterior joints around the skylights will be resealed and calked as “preventive maintenance. The subcontractor assures me this will be taken care of,” he said.

SBC member Austin Cesare inquired about mold. He was told the Quinnipiack Valley Health District inspected the leaking areas and found no evidence of molding.

“Sometimes mold takes time to grow,” said Cesare.

“It needs a moist area,” the rep said.

“Are you saying these are not moist areas?” Cesare retorted.

Daur recommended extending the one-year warranty on the roof and skylights because of the problems. Chandler, a subcontractor, installed the skylights.

“I’ll speak to that subcontractor about extending the warranty period,” said the Konover rep.

“We’re just asking them to stand behind their work,” Daur said.

80 Other Things

Besides the lights and leaks, there’s a list of 80 smaller problems (some have been fixed).  Things like no hot water in the cafeteria, malfunctioning lock cylinders school wide, fax machines with no working phone drops, a chair with a slit in the fabric, nine missing desks and no fans or ventilation system in the windowless nurses’ bathroom are still active. SBC member Gretchen Callahan said she had three more items to add to the list.

According to Leng, there’s $200,000 left in the middle school budget for repairs. That doesn’t include the stump dump behind the school, for which the town is solely responsible. Removing the dump would cost $600,000 to $1.2 million, said Leng.

“This list is long and frustrating,” said Cesare. He spotted a crack in the auditorium floor.

Then Daur noticed that end panels in the auditorium were popping off.

January 11, 2007

Marriage of Convenience

Mayor Henrici                         Superintendent Begina

BOE is exploring a move into Government Center; mayor says giddy up

By Sharon Bass

It’s something Mayor Craig Henrici said he’s been pitching since he took office last November -- for the school department to tie the knot with the town and live together.

He may just get his bride.

At Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, member Austin Cesare proposed the idea to move central office into Government Center. He asked Chair Michael D’Agostino to form an ad hoc committee to study it.

“This is something we’ve talked about for years. For various reasons, it’s never moved forward,” Superintendent Alida Begina said yesterday during a phone interview. But this time the talk sounds more serious.

“I think we are definitely a top-heavy administration and this is a good first step in possibly bringing about change,” said Cesare. He cited a few reasons to join the two entities.

  1. “For too long there’s been a divide in our town between the education department and town side. There’s a lack of communication,” he said.
  2. It could bring much-desired transparency to the school operation if under the same roof as the town.
  3. And it would likely be a money-saver in the long run, said Cesare, because some departments, such as finance and purchasing, could be consolidated.

At this week’s BOE meeting, members Myron Hul and John Keegan voiced opposition to moving in with the town. “I see no reason to look into this again,” said Hul. And Keegan said, “The Board of Education is a very unique entity. There isn’t a lot of common ground” with the town side.

Begina sounded lukewarm to the idea. “I think it does make it easier to conduct business when you have common projects,” she said. “People don’t have to travel to different locations to have meetings. If there’s cost savings, that would be a plus.”

But Henrici said he’s not interested in forming a committee to look into the logistics of such a move. Just do it, he said. Starting with the merging of the finance departments.

“I’m happy that the Board recommended it,” said Henrici, who received a memo from D’Agostino yesterday about the idea. “[But] anytime you form an ad hoc committee you add years to the process and time is of the essence because we’re starting a new budget season. And I think many members of the Legislative Council would feel much better about the Board of Education’s budget if their finance department was here and accountable. So I’d like to strike while the iron is hot.”

The mayor said he suggested the town/gown marriage last summer to school Finance Director Tom Pesce and has had “several conversations” about it with Assistant Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez. “I suggested we at least move the Board finance department to Government Center so there’d be better lines of communication. There will be cost savings,” said Henrici. Asked if any employees would be fired if the departments merged, he said he didn’t know.

Space & Parking

Begina said the 8,000-square-foot central office, located at 60 Putnam Ave., is barely big enough for the administration and thinks the department would get less space at Government Center. Central office has 35 fulltime employees and one to two dozen visitors a day, she said. Also, the Steps & Reach program housed there has 52 students.

“There’s enough space in Government Center,” said Henrici, such as adjacent to the Legislative Council Office and possibly in the basement. “There’s the distinct possibility that some offices here [like the Council Office] will move back to Memorial Town Hall.” A feasibility study is being conducted on renovating the old town hall, he said.

“Parking [at Government Center] is a huge issue,” said Begina. “We’d want to make sure there’d be sufficient space for parking. We have a steady stream of people in here all day long.”

“There’s enough parking,” Henrici countered. “You can nickel and dime a good idea to death and I want to stay away from it. We’ve recommended this since I took office.”

Works Well in Milford

Other communities house their school and town departments in the same building. Such as Milford.

“We have a very good relationship with the city. It’s nice,” said acting Milford Superintendent Larry Schaefer, who was the curriculum coordinator for Hamden schools in the early 1990s. “I can walk up to the purchasing department. Human resources is in the building. It makes it very easy for me to get things done. The town clerk needs information from us, they walk up the hall.”

The two sides began sharing the same digs in the mid 1980s when the high school closed, he said. Before that, the school administration was in an old Nike missile site separate from city offices. Schaefer said the education department is actually a tenant of the city. It pays its share of utilities and uses its own custodians to clean offices. The city maintains the common areas.

“The disadvantages are very minor. We always need more space,” he said. “Being with the city offices is a convenience.”

60 Putnam’s Fate?

Begina said if the move happens, six to 12 special ed children who are schooled out of district could be brought back for a savings of at least 200,000 tax dollars a year. But she estimated that $2 million or more would be needed to bring the building up to code for classroom use. “That was one of the main reasons to vacate these premises,” she said. She was unsure how many Hamden students are placed outside.

Another idea kicking around is to sell the building and put it back on the tax rolls.

“I do have a concern,” said Cesare. “I want to make sure we’re not second fiddle at Center One. That we have just as much prominence as the town side. We’re an important department. I don’t want to be stuck in the basement in some corner. But I think it’s a wonderful idea."s

January 10, 2007

Choice or Dilemma?

Parents David and Heather Larsen and Michele Kearney at yesterday’s packed BOE meeting. Photo/Sharon Bass

Wintergreen parents beg the BOE to guarantee all their offspring a spot at Hamden’s only magnet school

By Sharon Bass

An emotional, at times teary, standing-room-only crowd of moms and dads packed the sweltering hot boardroom at 60 Putnam Ave. Tuesday evening. They sat for hours. Of the 60-plus who came, 27 spoke. They did it for their kids who are students at Hamden’s Wintergreen magnet school -- and for their other kids who are not Wintergreen students.

They implored the Board of Education to institute a “sibling preference” policy to ensure all their children will have the advantage of attending the “great school,” with which regular Hamden public schools can’t compare.

Wintergreen serves Hamden, Wallingford, New Haven and Woodbridge. It goes from kindergarten through eighth grade. Like other charter schools, students are chosen via a lottery system. Hamden has 410 slots, New Haven 117, Wallingford 68 and Woodbridge five. Hamden is the only participating town that does not guarantee that siblings of current students will get in.

Before parents addressed the Board, Chair Michael D’Agostino warned that the state -- which gives more money to Wintergreen than to other Hamden schools -- is cutting down on the magnet school’s funding and wants the BOE to contribute 4 percent to 5 percent more, or about $250,000. The other communities are being asked to pitch in an extra $20,000 to $30,000, he said. Each town, including Hamden, pays the same public school tuition for their students who go to Wintergreen. But the magnet school is staffed by teachers from ACES, who have skimpier contracts than traditional public school teachers whose labor agreements are driven by unions. So between that and the higher state funding there’s more money for a reportedly higher quality education at Wintergreen.

“I’ve got to tell you, I don’t think I’m going to get much out of the Council this year,” D’Agostino said. (After the four-plus-hour meeting, Assistant Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez said if the extra money can’t be found in the next school budget, there would be a consequence, but didn’t say if that would mean fewer Hamden student slots.)

For parents, money was not an issue. Getting the best education for their children -- all their children in the same school -- was. And they want it to be at Wintergreen. They said the school offers lots of stuff other public schools don’t, like foreign language instruction starting in kindergarten, superior technology and a very welcoming and supportive family atmosphere.

“That’s why we want sibling preference,” said Heather Larsen, the mother of a Wintergreen first-grader and two preschool children with a fourth in the oven.

“It’s a great school,” said Michele Kearney, whose kindergartner is at Wintergreen and her first-grader at West Woods. Like many parents, Kearney said she’s put her older child’s name into the lottery but hasn’t had luck.

Andrea Litke has 5-year-old twins. Only one got into Wintergreen. “I would not wish that on anyone else,” she said of having to separate her kids. “Their curriculums are different. The teaching methods are totally different.”

She and others talked of the “comfort zone” their children would have by being at same school with their brothers and sisters.

“I think Wintergreen is a precious resource in Hamden,” said Paul Smith. Parent Tasha Brown likened it to a private school.

One father said he’s moving out of Hamden to increase his children’s chances of getting into Wintergreen, since the other towns have sibling preference.

“You’re splitting families. It’s almost like a divorce,” said another father. “I think a study should be done on what the other towns [that have sibling policies] are doing.”

Parents cited the same problems having a child at the magnet school and siblings at other schools: different bus schedules, different school calendars (Wintergreen has a longer school year), different vacation schedules, additional need for before- and after-school care and inequity among siblings.

“No parent wants to give more to one child than another,” a mother said.

A Different Voice

Wintergreen parent Melissa Stasiak has just one child. “I think people have lost sight that it’s a privilege, not a right,” she said. Instituting sibling preference, she said, would hurt families like hers from getting their only child into the school because the coveted slots would automatically be taken. BOE member Mike Dolan said there were 100 Hamden applicants for 40 kindergarten openings last year. There are substantially fewer vacancies in the upper grades.

Stasiak’s opposing view triggered some heated responses.

“That’s not fair,” a mother said.

“It’s our choice, yes,” a mother of two said. “But I don’t know if Ridge Hill is the school I want my children at, from the things I’ve heard about it.”

Christine Kirschenbaum said she has one kid at Wintergreen and one at Ridge Hill. “The education they’re receiving is just not the same,” she said.

“I have a child at Spring Glen and I want him to have what my child at Wintergreen has,” another mother said.

But Hamden resident Meg Nowacki, who has no school-aged children, came to Stasiak’s defense. “You do lock up spaces with siblings,” she said. “It does close out spaces for equal opportunity for other parents. There are strong issues on both sides.”

And the Board Opined

Superintendent Alida Begina began with a brief background of the 9-year-old school. She said the BOE has shot down sibling preference in the past because of the limited number of spaces "and wanted as many families to be a part of it” as possible. She said the other three participating towns adopted sibling policies because the feeling at the time of the school’s inception was that no one would send their kids there.

Board member Lynn Campo, who serves on Wintergreen’s steering committee, told the crowd they were lucky. “You’ve just got to say thank you to the lottery. I understand how you feel, but if there is sibling preference many parents wouldn’t have gotten their kids in. If you want your kids together, send them to public school.”

“It’s a school of choice,” echoed BOE member Myron Hul. He suggested making changes to ease some of the problems of having siblings at different schools, such as coordinating school calendars. Also, Hul said he’d consider making a preference policy for twins. And making Hamden public schools more inviting.

But members Austin Cesare and Valarie Cooper seemed to lean more in the parents’ direction. “I’ve always attended schools with my siblings,” said Cooper. “I think everyone should have the opportunity.”

D’Agostino summed up the discussion saying more information is needed in order to make a decision, such as how other towns’ sibling policies work. He implored the parents to get involved in this year’s budget process. “Make your voices heard,” he said. “Lobby the town. Contact your state representatives.”

“What the state is saying is, ‘We’ve supported magnet schools for 15 years. Now towns, it’s your turn,’” said Begina.

The issue will be revisited at the Feb. 7 Curriculum Committee meeting.

It is Exactly a Freeze

Superintendent Begina. File Photo

By Sharon Bass

Last night, Superintendent Alida Begina made it official. The school department is on freeze status similar to the town’s. For the school side, it’s reportedly all about skyrocketing utility costs.

“This may be the time to revisit energy conservation companies,” Begina said during the Board of Ed’s Finance Committee meeting. She said she would inform the Legislative Council that the school’s utility account will wind up in a deficit. Finance Director Tom Pesce estimated the deficit at $529,000, but said it is “very, very difficult” to calculate because of the new middle school having no utility history.

On the committee agenda were four transfer requests. They all passed hours later during the regular Board meeting and that, Begina said, will be it. No more transfers through the end of the fiscal year, June 30, 2007, unless there’s an emergency, and no more new hires, she said.

BOE Finance Chair Ed Sullivan said the state gave Hamden $350,000 in energy aid and “at the last minute the state pulled [the funding] from the education side.” He asked what the “rough savings” would be from the freeze. That is yet to be determined.

The Board approved the following transfers:

  • From the tuition account to the clothing allowance account: $3,600 for custodial and maintenance uniforms as stipulated in the union contract. The reasons noted for the transfer were uniforms costing more than was estimated based on the previous year’s figures, and employee turnover.
  • From the tuition account to the instructional supplies account: $18,000 for items such as middle school science kits, high school hallway passes, elementary reading and math materials -- and four grand left over for future needs.
  • From the tuition account to the maintenance supplies account: $4,500 for toilet paper, buffing pads, hand soap, paper towels and carpet cleaner.
  • From the tuition account to the “other supplies” account: $7,500 for printer and toner cartridges, office supplies for the high school, nursing supplies and payroll check forms.

January 9, 2007

Leaks Trump Lights

The school before opening day. Who knew? File photo

By Sharon Bass

The new middle school’s eternally glowing lights were to be on top of the School Building Committee’s agenda this Thursday. But their No. 1 position was superceded by a discovery made yesterday by principal Frank Pepe.

The school on Dixwell Avenue is still leaking.

Pepe did not return a message left for him yesterday. But e-mails he sent to school and town administrators and SBC Chair Curt Leng were forwarded to the HDN, which tell the soppy tale.

E-message 1: “Sorry to have to start your Monday morning off on the wrong foot but.…. A new leak has occurred in the main atrium. When I state new, I am clarifying that this area has never leaked before. The water seems to have dripped off of one of the light fixtures and a taping joint has sagged and pulled away from the sheetrock.”

E-message 2: “Since I sent the e-mail earlier this morning, I have taken pictures of two more areas in which water has leaked into the building. Both are areas that have leaked before. One is near the south stairwell in the main atrium and the other is in the cafeteria on a window wall.”

At the Dec. 18 SBC meeting, a Konover rep said those two leaks had been identified and sufficiently resealed.

Pepe also contacted Fred Cosgrove of Konover, who e-wrote back: “Thank you for bringing these issues to my attention however we are in the warranty phase of this project, please contact Todd Alverez at Chandler Architectural. If they do not respond, I will then contact them.”

“Leaks have just advanced in front of lights,” said Leng of the Jan. 11 committee agenda. He said he didn’t know if anyone checked out the leaks Monday, and was unsure what the warranty process is or if the town has yet entered that phase.

Assistant Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez assured the leaks would be taken care of ASAP. “It’s going to be addressed immediately and expeditiously. It’s already being addressed by the School Building Committee and the administration on the town side,” he said.

Leng said enough is enough.

“I’m surprised that the building is still leaking. I’m just frustrated,” he said. “I don’t think we should have to be dealing with these issues anymore. I know with new construction that there are kinks that need to be worked out. But we’ve been in this school six months now and there seems to be too many issues that continue to arise.”

The fix for the two recurring leaks should not come out of taxpayers’ pockets, said Leng.

Though it rained quite heavily Sunday night and early Monday morning, he said it doesn’t matter.

“I don’t care how much it rained. This building should be absolutely tight,” he said. “I’m not letting this school be a repeat of Spring Glen.” The new Spring Glen elementary school opened in 2004 and the roof still leaks, Leng said. Plus there are problems with its heating/cooling system. “Legal counsel had to get involved,” he said.

Yesterday Leng said he contacted the Town Attorney’s Office about the ongoing water problems at the middle school. “Should there be a problem with these roof issues I’d want them to follow a legal course,” he said. “I can understand their [Konover’s] position about not wanting to fix the new leak. However the ones they said they fixed, I fully expect them to take care of. That’s why I went to the town attorney.”

To be continued at 7 p.m. Thursday at 60 Putnam Ave.

January 8, 2007

The Dog Ate It

Photo/Sharon Bass

By Sharon Bass

School purchase orders and invoices for the last fiscal year are not only being withheld from the HDN and two councilmen, who have made repeated requests for the documents. They have also not been submitted to the town Finance Department since March 28, 2006 -- a violation of the Town Charter.

From Section 12-2 of the charter: “The Board [of Education] shall report monthly to the Mayor and to the Council a comparison of actual and estimated expenditures. The Director of Finance shall keep a full and complete record of all fiscal transactions of the Board of Education.”

Town Finance Director Mike Betz said he was not aware of the absence of documents until Councilman John Flanagan sent him a letter last month about it. Flanagan and Councilman Curt Leng have asked for the data that shows how the school system has spent its budgeted funds during the last fiscal year.

“I did not know they were in violation of [the charter] until I investigated John’s inquiry, about seven or eight days ago,” said Betz. “These are things that will come out in the (2005-’06) audit. That’s no excuse for not being proactive about it. The information stopped in March and here I am in January finding out it stopped.”

All town departments, save education, gave auditors the needed information last year, Betz said. Complete documentation was supposed to be available to Levitsky & Berney of Woodbridge by late 2006. An extension was given until Jan. 31, but Betz said he expects the auditors’ report before that.

Anonymous sources have told the HDN that Levitsky & Berney have found “red flags” in its ongoing school audit. Asked about that, Betz said the “auditors needed more time to conduct the school audit and will make recommendations for the school department.”

What kind? “It remains to be seen,” he said, noting that the Legislative Council hires the auditor and will get the report first. Betz said he is withholding further comments about the recommendations until the audit is released.

“Invoices and purchase orders are indicators of how the school department is spending its budgeted money,” he said. “The Board [of Education] has to become more proactive in bringing things to us under the charter and understand they have to be in compliance with the charter. We expect to see more contact with them. They have to present more to us to allow us to control the procurement process.”

But, said Betz, “I think it’s been customary over the years to not require what the [charter] calls for. I’ve read the charter and I know the duties of the [town Finance] office. It’s not the sort of thing that leaps out at you when you read it.”

Flanagan, who chairs the legislative Administration Committee, said he sent the letter to Betz after discovering that school purchase orders and invoices have not be filed with either the Legislative Council or Finance offices since last March.

“This has never happened before, not when I was on the Council,” he said. “Either someone is grossly negligent or someone’s trying to hide something.” Flanagan blamed the BOE and school administrators.

He said BOE Chair Mike D’Agostino recently telephoned him in response to his requests for the spending documents, and reportedly told the councilman he would get them by Jan. 10, when they’re due in the auditors’ hands. Flanagan said he was supposed to receive the paperwork by Dec. 26.

“I don’t want to give anyone the impression that there’s no communication between the town and Board of Ed,” said Betz. “In order for the BOE to pay their bills, they send a warrant over to [Finance]. But I would agree with John that we haven’t gotten the greater level of detail on their budget lines and transfers since March.

“We know what they spend on payroll and the amount of bills they need to pay, but we don’t see invoices or a lot of purchase orders or things perhaps we should be seeing.”

Betz said he’s “sure it will all work out. I’ve already spoken to [school Finance Director] Tom Pesce about having better exchange of information.”

Betz also said he expects the school department will return a surplus to the town after the audit, which is for fiscal year 2005-06. For ’04-’05, he said the department handed over a “small surplus, in the five figures.” The Council approved a $70.7 million education budget for the current fiscal year out of a total budget of $163.6 million. For the first time, the school’s health insurance fund was transferred to the town side. It is projected at $17 million, while the town side (with fewer employees) is budgeted for $10 million.

January 4, 2007

Energy Hogger

The middle school still shines 24/7. Photo/Sharon Bass

Despite discovering a cheap remedy, the new school’s lights continue to burn, burn, burn taxpayers’ wallets -- and the heating ain’t cheap either

By Sharon Bass
Though it was supposed to be a green building, the $54 million middle school project is looking pretty red. As in, holy smoke it costs a lot to run. The light bills have been sky high, in part because they’re on all the time and can't be shut off. And the cost to heat the building -- even during this record warmth -- is already in the five digits.

With United Illuminating’s rates going up 50 percent and the weather bound to get cold, the utility bills have only one way to go: up. There might not be much that can be done to lower the gas-heating bill, but it’s now known that a simple relay switch could put the lights out when the building is not in use. Yet nothing’s happening.

“I can't tell you why the work hasn't been completed to date. There's just absolutely no excuse for it,” said School Building Committee Chair Curt Leng. “We’re supposed to be dealing with a green building.” He said a remedy for the lights, such as a relay box, will be on top of the agenda at the next SBC meeting, Jan. 11 at 7 p.m. inside 60 Putnam Ave.

“I’m extraordinarily frustrated that no one caught this problem and it’s a problem that should have been caught during the construction period,” said Leng. “Everyone’s playing the blame game. In my personal view, Konover, as Hamden’s construction manager on that project, should have caught this problem many, many months ago in the process of installing the lighting. The middle school is still lit up like a Christmas tree.”

Furthermore, Leng said he plans to talk to the town attorney “to see if there is any liability regarding the issue now that we are looking at so many taxpayer dollars wasted."

At last month’s SBC informal meeting (there wasn’t a quorum), the school’s first electric bill of $44,969 (erroneously reported as $43,000) was heatedly discussed. SBC member Al Gorman asked how the lights could be shut off. The emergency lights, which are in every classroom, hallway and staircase, can’t be turned off. Apparently, a $25,000 relay box would do the trick and cost the town under $3,000. The state would be liable for two-thirds of the 25 grand and the remainder split three ways between Hamden, Konover and the school’s architect, Tai Soo Kim, said Leng.

Yesterday morning, the HDN sent a Freedom of Information request to Assistant School Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez for the school’s electric and heating bills. However, he supplied the information orally and readily, forgoing the FOI process.

According to Hernandez, the United Illuminating bill was $44,969 for September; $31,262 for October; and $25,174 for November. He said he didn’t know why it went down.

The Southern Connecticut Gas bill for the Dixwell Avenue school was $839 for September; $8,170 for October; and $16,897 for November. And according to courant.com, November and December in Connecticut were the warmest months on record. Asked if 17 grand is way out of whack to heat the school during the unusually warm November -- or even a cold February -- Hernandez said he wasn’t sure but will present a statistical analysis of the bills at the Jan. 11 meeting. He said December’s utility bills have not yet come in.

“I know that the SBC as well as the Hamden public schools are very, very concerned about it. And obviously in light of recent utility increases, the sooner we can remedy this the better we are,” he said.

Should Have Seen the Light

This is not the first time Konover has erected a school where the lights can’t be turned off. The same thing happened when the Farmington-based company built North Haven High School in 2005.

“I'm disappointed that Konover didn't catch what is obviously a major problem," said Leng. "Why would the town's paid construction team install a lighting system that it had direct knowledge of how much more it would cost us?  Konover should have seen this problem. They build all over the country.”

Konover hasn’t been given its final payment of "hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said. While the school department is now in charge of the building, the construction firm is still working on the athletic complex, which Leng said wouldn’t be done until next spring. Meanwhile, students are using the high school fields.

A message left at Konover’s Farmington office was not returned..


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