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July 31, 2006

This One's For the Parents

Al Lotto at his Skiff Street CD shop, Exile on Main Street. Photo/Sharon Bass

The Lottos win the last round in their civil suit against the school system

By Sharon Bass

The parents of a Hamden High student sued the Board of Education over a year ago for unfair treatment and grade tampering. After some boomeranging from state to federal and back to state court, they just learned their civil case is going forward.

"I think at this point we're probably going to go to trial," said Al and Lisa Lotto's New Haven attorney John Williams. "I think that there is too much in this case that is typical of what happens to kids in school. They're not all treated the same. When you're on the bottom end of disparate treatment and you're just a kid, it can be a life-altering experience."

The case is in New Haven Superior Court.

"It's a long, stressful process in the hands of judges," said Al Lotto. To recap, his daughter, Alyssa, was expelled in late 2004 for reportedly bringing booze to school, although none was found on her or in her locker. According to her parents and Williams, the school system promised she'd be tutored at the Keefe Community Center during her expulsion but she wasn't. She was an honor roll student.

The May 24, 2005, lawsuit claims: "Alyssa's right to an alternative educational opportunity during the period of her expulsion was and is mandated by the provision of Section 10-233d(d) of the Connecticut General Statutes.

"The defendant [the Hamden BOE] failed and refused to provide Alyssa with the alternative educational opportunity to which was entitled … In fact, although Alyssa was given excellent grades for work allegedly performed during that period, she in fact was given little or no school work … The defendant, through its agents, issued such grades in an effort to conceal the fact that Alyssa was not being educated during that time."

That is the sole focus of the lawsuit, said Williams. "They promised if they [the Lottos] did not contest the temporary expulsion of their daughter that they would provide her with an appropriate educational experience and they didn't do that," he said.

There were other counts in the original suit, but they were thrown out. One was a discrimination violation of the Connecticut Constitution, which the judge dismissed "because Alyssa had accepted the expulsion and she could not claim she was being treated differently. The removal [of the count] is automatic," Williams said.

According to the Elm City attorney, a Hamden BOE lawyer Jim Williams of North Haven appealed to move the case to federal court in mid-May 2005. Seven months later, he appealed again -- this time to have it completely thrown out. The judge instead returned it to state court.

Williams said there are teacher-witnesses ready to testify that Alyssa Lotto did not receive the promised education. If there is a trial, it probably won't be until late 2007 or some time in 2008, a typical timeframe. "You've got to remember that the state case was filed in May of '05. These cases take two to four years," said Williams.

A Dizzying Runaround

Al Lotto said he's worked tenaciously to get the town and state to address the alleged problem. He's sent e-mails, letters and made phone calls to Superintendent Alida Begina, Assistant Super Hamlet Hernandez, former high school principal Vin Iezzi and Scott Newgass, the state education department's coordinator for safe and drug-free schools, and said he's gotten little to no response. Lotto showed the HDN many of his letters and e-mails.

"The school department has fought us every inch of the way. Everything from hiding behind the excuse that we're in litigation so they don't have to talk to me about anything," he said. Not even about other issues pertaining to his daughter that have nothing to do with the lawsuit, he said.

Williams said he will ask the jury to determine a monetary award. "I never ask," he said.

"The total runaround from all officials involved is the perfect example of the lack of concern and compliance that no parent should go through," said Lotto. "And the retaliation towards my daughter for this lawsuit is something that no child should endure in school."

A message left for BOE Chair Michael D'Agostino was not returned, however parties being sued typically do not publicly comment.

July 28, 2006

No More Money

Begina's seat in the Board Room. Photo/Sharon Bass

By Sharon Bass

For the first time in Alida Begina's 12 years at the helm of Hamden's schools, the Board of Education did not give her a raise.

"She's not getting a raise," said BOE Chair Michael D'Agostino. The nine members spent three hours in executive session last night evaluating the superintendent's performance, and decided not to give her more money.

"We laid out the reasons for what needs improvement," the chair said. The super is up for a raise every year.

That was all D'Agostino could say about the evaluation until he and Begina sign off on it. Then it becomes public information. "There will be a formal written evaluation in her file within 24 to 48 hours," said D'Agostino. He said though the Board has never before denied the super a raise, he believed there was one year when she voluntarily forwent it.

The highest paid public worker in town, the superintendent earns $152,559. While Begina has always been given three-year contracts (the current one runs from July 1, 2005-June 30, 2008), her contract was rolled over every year, at which time she would receive a sign-on bonus and a raise, authorized by the Board.

Interestingly, just last year BOE member Lynn Campo told the HDN that Begina got an "excellent" review. In the same breath, Campo said the super needed to rebuild her credibility.

In early summer 2005, Begina announced she was going to head the Syracuse, N.Y., schools. She said she'd be leaving Hamden in October. But she never left. Citing health and personal reasons, she asked for her job back. On Aug. 3, 2005, the BOE gave it to her.

D'Agostino was one of two who voted against Begina returning. In 2004, the super applied for the top ed spot in Monroe, but either changed her mind or was not chosen. For D'Agostino, the attempted leaves were too close together. The entire Board agreed her contract needed amending, in part to prevent Begina from trying to jump ship again.

However, according to her contract, "The parties may, by mutual consent, terminate the contract at any time. The Superintendent shall be entitled to terminate the contract upon written notice of ninety (90) days … The Board may terminate the contract … for one or more of the following reasons: 1. Incompetence; 2. Insubordination against reasonable rules of the Board; 3. Moral misconduct; 4. Disability as shown by competent medical evidence; 5. Breach of contract; or 6. Other due and sufficient cause."

Also tucked into the contract are such fringe benefits: 30 vacation and 18 sick days a year; a fully paid life insurance policy worth three times her gross salary to a maximum of $350,000 prior to age 70, $250,000 until 75, and $200,000 afterwards; an annual tax-free annuity payment of $3,000; and standard benefits like health care and long-term disability insurance.

In other BOE biz Thursday evening, Assistant Superintendents Hamlet Hernandez and Portia Bonner were given a 3.5 percent pay hike on top of their $117,000-plus salaries. They are the only nonunion school employees to get an increase this year, said Hernandez

"I wholeheartedly endorse [the raises]," said D'Agostino. "They're doing a fantastic job."

July 18, 2006

Five Months Later

Inside the new HMS.

A school grows up on Meadowbrook

Story and photos by Sharon Bass

The new middle school is stylishly white and glass. It looks sterile and at the same time dramatic, with its long, winding hallways and huge skylights. The interior sharply contradicts its pedestrian exterior.

The $54 million sprawling building on Meadowbrook is about done. Ross Mezzanotte, project manager for Konover Construction, gave the media and Town Hall folks a tour yesterday. The last one was in February.

"I haven't been in since winter, so I'm excited," said Darlene Butler, a mayoral aide.

"I have not seen it at all," said Tax Collector Barbara Tito.

In the group went, glad to leave the oppressively hot outdoors. In virtually every corner of the two-story structure was the smell of fresh paint. Walls are lined by yellow lockers that appear too short for young teens.

The first phase is 100 percent done, said Mezzanotte. The town is now the official owner (the town owns all school buildings). At last week's School Building Committee meeting, there was some back and forth over when Konover would have to hand over the keys, since workers will still be going into the building for fine-tuning. The board insisted on getting the keys yesterday.

During the Feb. 22 tour, Mezzanotte said the school was 70 percent complete and finish date would be July 17. Yesterday. Workers are still tinkering away -- "Fix this here, fix that there," he said -- and the 700-seat auditorium is not expected to be done till the end of September. But the school is guaranteed to open on time for the town's 1,000 seventh- and eighth-graders.

A food prep room. That's Town Clerk Vera Morrison in the white getup.

There are five houses, or pods, on each floor (seventh-graders are upstairs) and about 50 classrooms. There are 10 science rooms; two large food prep rooms on the second floor, each with five ovens, two large GE refrigerators with all the features, a washer, dryer and dishwasher and two sinks; special ed rooms, tech ed rooms, etc. Since the rooms were bare, they were almost indistinguishable with the exception of a telltale sink.

Fire alarm tests went off sporadically. Unlike traditional alarms, they just don't make noise. They automatically move things. Like doors.

Part of the cafeteria.

Dave Richards, the town's self-described IT guy, explained. The siren goes off followed by an automated voice that calmly tells you to get out of the school. At the same time, the hallway double-doors automatically close. Richards said they have magnetic knobs that get triggered by the fire alarm system. And a gate comes out of the wall in each pod -- after humans have been evacuated -- to contain the fire.

All of the school's networking depends on this wiring closet.] [Splicing the fiber optics to maximize server connection.

The new Hamden Middle School has electronic white boards at the front of each classroom. Information put on the boards can be transmitted through a complicated technological system into the wireless Mac laptops the kids are given.

Five months ago on the main level.

"This is what we called a library as kids," said Mezzanotte, as he led the troops into a vast empty room. "Now they call it a media center."

"What's the difference?" someone asked.

"Technology," said Mezzanotte.

Yesterday on the main level.

July 14, 2006

The Tension Mounts

The new middle school is not complete, needs tweaking and unexpected bucks -- but is expected to pull through on time

By Sharon Bass

Councilman Bob Westervelt aptly summed up last night's School Building Committee meeting: "People are getting jittery. There are a lot of last-minute items that have to be addressed."

The jitteriness is over the completion of the new middle school. The last-minute items are numerous. And many questions the committee posed to the builders, Konover Construction, were answered ambiguously. Especially when it came to price tags for the 11th-hour odds and ends needed to cut the ribbon on time on the $54 million building at Meadowbrook.

The committee of Council and Board of Education members and residents discussed each agenda item in great detail -- its cost, from where the money would come and why it wasn't included in the project budget in the first place. They also repeatedly went back and forth with two Konover reps about when the town takes ownership of the school and who's liable for damage when equipment and furniture are moved in.

Councilman Al Gorman questioned spending over 10 grand on two scoreboards for the gym.

"Why wasn't this in the original funding agreement?" he said. "This is too late now."

He was told there was a failed effort to get outside funding for the scoreboards, so they weren't put in the budget.

"We were going to have a gymnasium with no scoreboards?" Gorman said incredulously.

Next the committee looked at a request for 10 two-way walkie-talkies for guidance offices and custodians.

"I don't know where this money is going to come from," said resident elector John DeRosa. He asked if anyone knew how much the radios cost. Ross Mezzanotte, project manager for Konover, said $285 apiece.

Middle School Principal Frank Pepe said the extra walkie-talkies are needed because of the layout and size of the new school. The old middle school had eight radios, he said, and he wants enough for all the guidance offices and custodians.

Asked why, he said, "If a child vomits."

"You don't have an intercom system? A telephone on the desk?" said Gorman.

"Those people should not be sitting at their desks," said Pepe.

Councilwoman Gretchen Callahan asked if the BOE could foot the bill.

"These things are extremely invaluable in schools," said BOE member John Keegan. "You have gym teachers out in the field. $2,800 is pretty inexpensive. It's unfortunate it was not picked up earlier in our budget."

"Unless somebody can tell me where the money is coming from, I can't support this," said resident elector Chris Daur.

BOE's Myron Hul said he understood where Daur was coming from. But "this committee has passed items without knowing the cost. You're right. We need to know where the money is coming from. We haven't known for three to four years."

"If money is not available for the walkie-talkies, how is it available for the scoreboards?" asked Keegan.

The committee asked Konover for a total of the extra costs. "How do we find out what the budget is?" said Daur. "We can't use money we're not authorized to." The scoreboards and radios were tabled unanimously until members could get a copy of the project budget to see how much money is left.

The next three agenda items had no dollar signs attached: key call-switches for the elevators, something Pepe said he really wants to keep kids off the elevators; a video monitor in the main office; and a lighted sign in school colors at the entrance driveway.

"Why didn't we get that in the original design?" Gorman said of the key call-switches.

"I've been asking for a year," said Pepe. He said an architect would be needed to change the specs on the elevator to include key use.

"I don't know about a lighted sign," said Gorman.

Again committee members voted to table the three requests until they got prices.

While the committee was supposed to discuss whether to spend $55,473 for an upgraded athletic field drainage system, Mezzanotte said the work had already been done. He just needed the OK in order to bill for it. The original system, he said, was "significantly under-designed."

"Why wasn't it corrected before?" Westervelt said.

"That's a question for the electrical engineer," said Mezzanotte.

"Who's paying?" asked Gorman.

"Town of Hamden," said Mezzanotte.

"Do we have any recourse to this?" said Keegan.

"I don't know," said Daur.

Auditorium ceiling clouds (for improved acoustics) for $65,517 and larger sinks for special ed classrooms for $14,606 were up for scrutiny next. Mezzanotte said some of the money was factored in the budget.

New sinks had just been installed in the special ed rooms, but have dividers making them too small for industrial-sized pots and pans. The new batch are larger and don't have dividers. Daur asked if the first set of new sinks could be resold; they've not been used. Mezzanotte said it wouldn't be worth it. He said while each sink cost $450, the town could probably only fetch 100 bucks because they'd already been installed.

Mezzanotte said he purposely had the wrong sinks hooked up. "We had to install the sinks so we could proceed with the building inspection," he said.

The newer larger sinks didn't pass Callahan's muster. "There's no way you can wash pots and pans in those sinks," she said, clearly annoyed. "It was a mistake."

The SBC voted to allocate no more than $10K for new sinks, down $4,606 from the original request.

"Where's it going to be charged to?" said Gorman. "I suggest we charge the architect," Tai Soo Kim of Hartford.

"Who's keeping track of items of dispute and who pays what?" said Hul.

"That's why we have a secretary," said Gorman.

"I haven't seen minutes for four months," said Hul.

"Neither have I," said Gorman. SBC Chair Curt Leng was out of town last night.

Shaky Timeline

The committee asked the Konover reps when furniture and equipment could be moved in. Mezzanotte said he plans to have seven coats of wax poured on the floors by next Monday, and desks, chairs, computer equipment and library shelving can be brought in then. The following week, he said the building will be ready for tech ed, food tech and gym equipment. He said every room will be videotaped -- every inch of floor and wall space -- for documentation on the condition of the interior before stuff is schlepped in.

With furnishings and computers in the new school, Daur said he didn't want Konover to have the keys any longer so there'd be no dispute if stuff is missing.

"How will I get in?" asked Mezzanotte. He was told the head custodian would have a key and could let him in.

Keegan asked over and over when the town would receive ownership of the school, which means Tai Soo would have to sign a letter of substantial completion. He got several different answers, all fuzzy. None specific.

There was also no clear response to when the security, electrical, plumbing, HVAC and other mechanical systems would be finalized. But the final word was the new middle school will open in time. That is, all but the auditorium.


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