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June 5, 2007

Culinary Chop

60 Putnam Ave. Photo/Sharon Bass

School department looking at skimpier return on student meals

By Sharon Bass

The cost to feed breakfast and lunch to Hamden schoolchildren will rise next September. About 2.4 percent in management and administrative services as well as spikes in other parts of the operation, John Gersbeck of Whitsons Culinary Group, Islandia, N.Y., told the school’s Operations Committee last night. Whitsons serves about 660,000 meals a year to the local public schools.

“How are we making up for the increase?” said committee Chair John Keegan. “Can we increase our lunch costs?”

Jason Lathrop, school business supervisor, said he wouldn’t recommend that. He said meals should remain at $2.25 for middle and high schoolers and two bucks for the younger kids. Instead, he suggested the committee accept a smaller guaranteed surplus -- about 10 grand -- from Whitsons to compensate for the hike. In other words, take a smaller piece of the leftover pie. He said no local tax dollars go into food service.

This school year, Whitsons guaranteed the school department a return of $92,000 on the roughly $2 million the New York food vendor annually collects from Hamden meal sales. Because of the price spike, the committee was asked to agree to an $82,000 surplus for next school year.

The $2 million comes from children’s (parents’) pockets and about 45 percent from state and federal reimbursements to subsidize students from low-income homes, according to Lathrop. All schools but Bear Path, West Woods and the high school serve breakfast. (Click here for a school-by-school breakdown of how meals are paid.)

This is the third year of a five-year contract with the meal maker. Each year, the agreement is readjusted for CPI, food and labor increases. Every five years, the state requires school cafeteria services to go out to bid.

Whitsons not only supplies the victuals, it hires the kitchen and custodial staff and prepares and serves the meals, said Gersbeck. Lathrop said the surplus from the $2 mill in sales goes into a revolving cafeteria fund, which is regulated by state law. Unlike most school line items, he said this fund balance can be carried over from fiscal year to fiscal year. Lathrop said $15,000 to $25,000 of the yearly return is used to buy new kitchen equipment and furniture and to do maintenance and repairs. Currently the account has $100,000, but he said nearly twice that is owed to Whitsons. It's unclear what the surplus will be at the end of the school year.

“My goal is to make them [school department] as much money as I can,” Gersbeck said outside of the meeting. “Let’s say I guaranteed them $90,000 but only $80,000 [is realized in surplus]. And if my company fee is $20,000,” the  BOE can knock off 10 grand for the broken guarantee.

Committee member Adam Sendroff asked Gersbeck about the continued use of Styrofoam trays, which are harmful to the environment and don't decompose. Sendroff said some school districts have banned  them.

Gersbeck said it would cost a lot more to use washable plastic trays. “That’s huge,” he said of the labor costs. And cardboard wouldn’t do the trick either. “Once oil touches the cardboard it’s no longer biodegradable. And it’s not appetizing” to serve food on cardboard, he said. About 98 percent of Connecticut school districts use Styrofoam, said Gersbeck.

The Operations Committee unanimously approved the amended contract. It is expected to get a full Board vote June 12.

Asked if his company provides other culinary services to the town, Gersbeck said it caters affairs on both the school and town sides, but mostly the school.

“The superintendent will call and say she’s having 12 people at a meeting and would you supply wrapped sandwiches,” he said. That costs extra.

Meal Payment Stats for April 2007 (provided by the School Department)

School              Full        Free   Reduced  Total   Free/Reduced %

Sheperd Glen       115      187          9       311      63 percent
Ridge Hill             157       116       43     316      50.3 percent
Helen Street         157       117       55       329      52.3 percent
Church Street       124       209       64       397      68.8 percent
Bear Path             408         64       29       501     18.6 percent
Dunbar Hill           245         77       44       366      33.1 percent
Spring Glen          209         66       26       301      30.6 percent
West Woods        433        30       20        483      10.4 percent
Middle School      623       258      92        973      36 percent
High School       1,673      287     215      2,175     23.1 percent

May 31, 2007

Speaking of E-Evils

Detective Rossacci warns parents about the Internet. Photo/Sharon Bass

By Sharon Bass

Two Hamden cops went to West Woods School Wednesday evening to talk to some parents.

Sgt. Rob D’Aniello and detective Stephen Rossacci came to warn them of the dangers that lurk in the ever-expanding cyberspace. Like sexual predators posing as teen boys trying to lure children into their webs of sin.

“I’ll say it right off the bat, the Internet is a great tool, but there are evils,” said D’Aniello, who is in charge of the department’s new computer crime lab. “The goal here is to educate you on things kids are into on the Internet.”

Using a power point presentation in the school library where a table of bottled water and pretzels was set up, the cops illustrated to the dozen or so parents what’s going on online, common sites children use and how parents can protect their kids.

“I’ve gotten so frightened by all this, I got dial-up [Internet],” said Janet Skeels, who has two children in West Woods. “You can’t do instant messaging with dial-up.”

“Yes you can,” said D’Aniello.

Predators can find children in chat rooms, through instant messaging programs and on blogs such as MySpace.com.

The constant message throughout the presentation is to know where children visit, what their screen names are and to keep the computer in a common area such as a kitchen or dining room. Never allow children to surf the Internet alone, D’Aniello and Rossacci stressed over and over.

“I live by this and I preach this. I have a 14-year-old son,” said Rossacci. “The computer should be in a central location.”

“This is wonderful because my daughter was just complaining tonight that our computer is in the kitchen,” said Skeels.

Another parent said, “Ours is in the dining room.”

Newspaper clips of Connecticut children who were murdered or raped by adults they met online -- who posed as teens -- flashed on the screen. “Internet offenders are not just dirty old men,” said D’Aniello. They are anyone: lawyers, ministers, teachers, psychiatrists.

It starts out as an online relationship, then progresses to the telephone and eventually to face-to-face meetings, said Rossacci.

Not in Our Cyber Yards

“I hear it all the time, ‘It can’t happen here.’ It happens all the time. It happens everywhere,” he said. He advised parents to not let their children use their age, gender or location in their e-mail addresses and screen names.

“If [perpetrators] don’t see the right age, they’re not interested,” Rossacci said.

No child under 13 should have an online profile on sites such as MySpace.com. Skeels asked what MySpace is. After the detective explained it’s a social gathering place where typically teens and adults post their photos and bios, the parent asked, “Why don’t they eradicate it?”

“They make too much money,” said Rossacci. And there are legitimate uses for the site, such as there are for most online places child abusers go to find their victims

“In chat rooms, you don’t know who the predator is,” he said.

“I don’t recommend any child be in any chat room,” said D’Aniello. And no child under 18 should have a Web cam, a camera that is hooked up to a computer to show live videos.

“This is information that every parent absolutely has to have,” said Marjorie Clark, who has two kids at West Woods. She said they safely play at ClubPenguin.com, where original messages cannot be sent and children choose a preset penguin identity instead of making their own. They can send pre-scripted messages to each other but nothing else.

Still, Clark has issues with ClubPenguin. “My problem with it is it’s grooming [children] for social networking like MySpace.com,” she said.

D’Aniello and Rossacci said they’ve visited many of the town’s elementary schools with their Internet safety message, for both children and parents. And they will continue to. Next stop, the middle school.

May 24, 2007

Pandiscio, Ready and Relaxed
60 Putnam Ave. File photo

By Sharon Bass

Been there. Done that.

That pretty well sums up the new interim superintendent’s attitude about tackling a school district in transition and disarray. Hamden’s. Herb Pandiscio has done the super-sub thing before and before and before (nine or 10 times, he said) and was the Avon school chief for a quarter-century. What’s there to sweat about?   

In fact, when asked if he was at all nervous about sitting behind late Superintendent Alida Begina's desk starting May 29, he laughed.

“Nervous? No, I’m not nervous and I’m not anxious. When you have a lot of experience you’re confident. And I have a little bit of ownership [of Hamden schools] because I did the search for Alida [in 1995],” Pandiscio said. “I love being in the interim position and bringing my experience to a district and help them out during a period of transition.” His last super-sub gig was in 2005 in New Hartford.

The School Board found Pandiscio when he vied for the superintendent search job (it was just given to Eliza Holcomb, a contractor with the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education). During his April 26 interview with the BOE, Pandiscio talked of his lengthy interim experience.

“I’m a little disappointed I didn’t get the search job. But I presented with a lot of experience [as an interim],” he said, and wasn’t surprised he was instead offered the temporary super post. “Otherwise I would have gotten it [search assignment].”

Yesterday, the BOE officially announced Pandiscio’s appointment. He is putting in half days this week.

Board Chair Michael D’Agostino did not return a message left at his home.

The new interim has been an educational consultant for 14 years and runs Avon Educational Search Consultants from his home with wife, Ruth. During his time in Hamden, he said he wouldn’t actively take on search assignments, but will still compete for them. He said he has one search lined up for November for Dover-Sherborn, Mass.

“I do know what I’m doing. It’s very important for the staff to know so they don’t feel anxiety about that,” said Pandiscio. He said he steers clear of local politics. “I’m here for education, not politics,” he said.

He will be paid $695 a day.

“We simply take the salary budgeted for the position [$153,000 plus a $3,000 annuity],” he said. “It’s typical that I always get the pay of the superintendent who held the position. I get paid for the days I work.” No benefits, no health insurance, no sick days, etc.

$500,000 Order

Waiting for Pandiscio's immediate attention is the $500,000 budget cut made by the Legislative Council last week.

“I think that will be the first order of business,” he said. “I’m not sure what No. 2 will be.” He said the Board's Finance Committee will work with him to carve the half-million from the 2007-08 school tab. Also in the works is central office’s move to Government Center and searches for new middle-school and elementary-school principals and an assistant for the high school.

“Right now I’m really having the senior staff bring me up to date on projects and issues and getting an understanding of how the Board subcommittees interact with the administration,” he said. “Beginning next week, I’ll be visiting the schools. It’s just a matter of picking up as much information as I can, as fast as I can.”

Pandiscio plans to leave at the end of September. It’s unknown whether a permanent superintendent will be in place by then. He reluctantly said it would be a “possibility” to stay on longer if need be. He holds a doctorate in public school administration from Boston University and is the author of two books, “Job Hunting in Education” and “Recruiting Strategies for Public Schools.”

May 22, 2007
Super Search Woman

Eliza Holcomb. Courtesy photo

School committee hires headhunter to find new superintendent; interim super about to be announced

By Sharon Bass

Eliza Holcomb is the woman who’s going to find Hamden a new superintendent.

“I am so excited to have the opportunity. I am fascinated by the makeup of this school district and the diversity and the size,” she said. Holcomb is an independent contractor for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, who was chosen from a pool of five to go on the hunt.

Last night, she met with the Personnel Search Committee (comprised of the full school board) to go over a few things before she hits the ground running.

Beforehand, the committee met in executive session with Herb Pandiscio of Avon Educational Search Consultants, one of the five. BOE Chair Michael D’Agostino would not confirm whether Pandiscio will be named interim super -- a role Pandiscio said he often plays between search gigs. D’Agostino said the interim’s name will be disclosed today or tomorrow.

Superintendent Alida Begina passed away April 19. Her contract would have expired June 30, 2008.

Reached later on her cell phone, Holcomb was cranked.

“You know what? We’re going to do an exceptional job. Wait and see. I’m passionate about what I do,” she said. “I love the work. What a profound way to make an impact on the community.”

She said it should take two to four months to identify a superintendent, and depending on the person’s work/life commitments could start one or two months later. The BOE makes the final decision.

At the last search committee meeting, D’Agostino had said all the applicants but the one from Massachusetts were asking for $12,000 to $16,000 to do the job. Holcomb of Milford said she couldn’t remember “exactly” how much she’s charging, but it falls into the upper end of that range.

Holcomb said she’s been conducting super searches for five years and has successfully found 35 to 50 school chiefs. Her credits include Stamford (superintendent relocated from New York), West Haven (from Michigan), Danbury, Wethersfield, Ridgefield and Somers (from Massachusetts) and is currently doing East Hampton.

The search will be national, she said. She will advertise the Hamden vacancy in Education Week, create a brochure to be mailed to places like state education associations and post the job on Web sites.

Asked if she would consider someone in district (only Assistant Superintendent Portia Bonner has the educational qualifications to be a superintendent), Holcomb said, “We will screen all applicants who respond to the advertising. We’re going to be very comprehensive. This board is very interested in focus groups.”

So focus groups she will have. Holcomb said she plans to meet with school administrators, staff, teachers, parents, high school students, elected town officials and the public, and will send invitations for meetings to all board and commission chairs. Her goal is to put together the groups before the end of the school year. Search updates will be posted on the school Web site, she said.

Other search firms had told the committee the new superintendent’s salary would have to be in the $160,000-$175,000 range with good perks, such as an annuity and travel allowance. But Holcomb wouldn’t venture a dollar amount.

“I have no idea [what the salary will be]. We’re going to be regionally competitive plus have a comprehensive benefit package,” she said. She most recently found a super for Ridgefield, but wouldn’t say how much that job went for.

Holcomb was also more open to tacking on a residency requirement than other firms, which said that could be a deal breaker and it’s rarely used anymore.

 “I have to meet the needs of the Board. If it becomes a priority of the Board that the candidate reside in the town of Hamden and if we can attract quality candidates who will move into town …” she said.

And the search is on.

May 19, 2007
‘Never Give Up’

Alida Begina and her grandson, Jackson. Photo/Sharon Bass

The community says goodbye

By Sharon Bass

The operatic sounds of Andrea Bocelli opened today’s memorial service for Alida Begina, Hamden’s late superintendent. The stage curtains in the middle school auditorium parted and images of her life, at work and with family, flashed on a screen.

On April 19, 2007, the 13-year leader of the public school system passed away after what has been only described as a courageous and tenacious fight against cancer. About 300 came to the new school to honor her and say their goodbyes.

The stage resembled a simple play set: at far right was a large photo of Begina, 56, and her grandson, Jackson, about whom she has penned six books. Next to the picture hung Begina’s graduation robe from Columbia University, where she obtained a doctorate degree. Next to that, an intricately designed vase sat atop a narrow table. It is a replica of an historic geometric vase Begina purchased in the Middle East.

“This will be her final resting place,” her husband, Bill Begina, said of the vase. “Look to the constellation of Aquarius, three stars to the right. The brightest one that shines.” That’s his late wife. The family named it after her. And brightness and boldness are how Alida Begina’s family, friends and coworkers described her this afternoon, as many in the audience wept.

“She was my friend. Someone I could turn to for advice,” said Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) “I marveled at the rare and beautiful spirit. For a woman, or for anyone, it’s not easy to be a leader. In Alida, I saw that leader, that mother, that wife, that grandmother.”

DeLauro spoke of her own fight with the disease that ultimately took Begina. Twenty years ago, DeLauro said she was diagnosed with cancer. “Few people were stronger in their heart and mind as Alida,” she said. “My friend, an extraordinary woman.”

Lauren Begina Howard and Courtney Begina Harkness gave the crowd a peek into the life of Alida Begina, the parent.

“Our mother had all the answers. She was, after all, the queen of research,” said Lauren. “We learned the value of education. We learned being a great mom is not an exact science. Luckily, our mom taught us to think for ourselves.”

Choking back tears while others rolled down her cheeks, the young woman said, “We love you mom and we will miss you.”

Assistant Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez, a former Marine, said Begina’s father was a Marine in World War II and had apparently passed on his military traits. “It was understandable why Dr. B would call a 5:30 morning meeting,” Hernandez said.

“I feel very blessed … She was not only a leader, she was just incredible,” he said. Hernandez was the only central office administrator to speak and just one of four seen at the event (finance director Tom Pesce, facilities director Mark Albanese and instruction and assessment director Arlene Casello showed up).

As Begina’s illness progressed, Hernandez said, “I sat down [with her] and looked into her eyes and asked why she was doing this. She knew what I meant. She said, ‘Because I’m not a quitter.’”

The assistant superintendent said his boss called him a few minutes later for an update on some contracts. The wet-eyed audience laughed.

Like others, Hernandez credited Begina with rescuing the district when she came on in 1995. “It was in turmoil,” he said.

“She was facing daunting tasks,” said Judge Peter Brown, a former Hamden Board of Ed member. Test scores were declining, schools needed renovating, the budget was insufficient, he said.

“She cared about the people in her life and showed that in meaningful ways,” said Brown. “Her No. 1 focus was how to best help Hamden’s children to learn. I will forever cherish her dedication and tenacity.”

The moment former middle school principal Frank Pepe reached the mic on stage, he opened Begina’s “Jackson Has the Hiccups” and read it aloud cover to cover.

“I use what she taught me every day,” Pepe said. “Rest in peace, my friend.”

Her husband of 35 years called her passionate, tenacious, brilliant. “She lived life to the fullest,” said Bill Begina. “A loving wife, a nurturing mother and grandmother. An extraordinary speller, gourmet cook, traveler.”

Alida was just 19, a college junior, when they wed. She needed her parents’ permission, he said. For a while, the couple lived in the Middle East, where Alida went on archeological digs and gave birth to her daughters.

Before she died, she dictated a message to Bill.

“Alida’s Legacy”

Love your children and all children as your own. Protect them, love them. Never give up on them. And when they grow up, never let go. Never let go.

The Byrd’s 1965 recording of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” played as people filed out.

Local elected officials who paid tribute to Begina Saturday included BOE members Ed Sullivan, John Keegan, Lynn Campo and Austin Cesare; councilmembers Bob Westervelt, Jim Pascarella, Gretchen Callahan and Al Gorman; and Mayor Craig Henrici, one of the speakers.

May 18, 2007

Committee Applies Brakes to Henrici’s Move

Government Center, future home of the BOE? File photo

By Sharon Bass

Mayor Craig Henrici said he remains positive that the school administration will settle into Government Center sometime this summer.

“I’m looking forward to having the central office staff working in this building,” he said yesterday afternoon. He’s designated space for the 30 school staffers behind the Legislative Council Office and the entire Parks & Rec Department. It’s unclear where the P&R employees will be re-stationed.

But the Board of Education has yet to vote on the move. And at last night’s school Operations Committee meeting, it seemed somewhat less than for sure the transition would occur this summer.

“We still haven’t determined that it’s doable,” said committee chair John Keegan. “I think there’s some merit to it but it’s not a priority of the Board. We’re looking for a lot of new staff and we have a school to run. Those are our priorities.”

Furthermore, Keegan said, “The Council just axed off $500,000 [from the new school budget] and we don’t have extra funds for new things. And this is a new thing.”

“We really need at this point some direction,” said facilities director Mark Albanese.

The committee threw question marks on the table: Will there be enough parking at Government Center? What will happen to the vacant space at 60 Putnam, where central office is? Will the Council foot the bill to make improvements and changes to the building to accommodate reuse? Who will pay for the move? What will it entail? And should the entire staff move?

“I’m much more comfortable with everyone being under one roof,” said committee member Adam Sendroff.

“I agree. We need to keep the team together,” said Keegan. “But we’re not in a position to undertake the costs of this. We have a very tight budget and next year it will be tighter. And we’ll be covering the [utility and janitorial] costs of this building. It’s sort of a penalty.”

Their ideas for reusing 60 Putnam included adding sixth-grade to its Steps & Reaches seventh- through 12th-grade program. Bringing back some students labeled special ed who have been placed out of town. This would mean hiring additional support staff. And perhaps starting a preschool, similar to the ones at Alice Peck and Church Street schools, which are tuition-based, said Assistant Superintendent Portia Bonner.

“There’s no excess [money],” she said. “[Tuition] pays for staff and supplies.”

“There’s certainly a need for quality preschool,” said Keegan. Bonner said the building would have to be retrofitted for toddlers and the preschool would have to be on the first floor.

“One thing I’ve been wondering is what’s entailed in that move?” said Keegan. “It’s not just packing up our things.”

“No, it’s not,” said Albanese.

Earlier in the year, the town hired McCabe Furniture to produce a rough architectural rendering of how the space at Government Center could be restructured for central office. Henrici said, during the afternoon interview, it would likely entail knocking down and building up walls and doors, adding wiring and buying new furniture.

“The town should pay for the furniture,” Albanese said.

“Do we know if there’s enough space?” asked Keegan. Bonner said office space is needed for 30 -- 25 administrators and five directors -- and was skeptical enough room is available.

The committee said it would want assigned parking spaces and didn’t think there were enough to accommodate the school administration. Bonner said in addition to spots for the 30 employees, another 10-15 would be needed for parents and others who daily visit central office.

Henrici said there’s plenty of parking. “If necessary, I will park my car on [adjacent] Colony Street,” he said.

“Could we still do teacher trainings?” said Keegan.

“That will be a challenge,” said Bonner, suggesting that the boardroom and conference room on the first floor of 60 Putnam could be used for trainings. But not if a preschool is developed. Another place for trainings could be Miller Library, she said.

Keegan emphasized that the move takes backseat to other pressing demands, like finding new elementary and middle school principals, an adult education director and a superintendent, as well as “running the school.”

He said the full Board would not vote on the move at its June meeting. He was unsure about July.

April 27, 2007
Super Bucks

The BOE is told a new superintendent is going to cost -- more

By Sharon Bass

Turns out, Alida Begina was a bargain. The Hamden school superintendent who passed away last Thursday was paid about $153,000 a year. Three search firms told the school board last night that taxpayers are going to have to dig deeper into their pockets to get a new super. Pricy perks would also have to be part of the deal -- like a monthly travel allowance and a healthy annuity -- to attract applicants.

The firms, interviewed separately, also concurred that the pool of applicants is shrinking. The supply is barely keeping up with the demand. And superintendents are demanding bigger bucks than ever

“What people look at first is the salary,” said James Connelly of the New England School Development Council. “I think you have to be at at least $160,000, $175,000 to stay competitive.” And that's just for the salary.

“You're telling us what we expected,” said Board of Education Chair Michael D'Agostino.

Connnelly was one of the three salespeople who pitched their services to the Board's new Personnel Search Committee. Two weeks ago, the committee interviewed the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education and Goens/Esparo to find Hamden an interim and a permanent superintendent. D'Agostino said no more firms will be interviewed and expects the BOE to choose one next month. All but one are asking for $12,000 to $16,000 to do the search, not including expenses. Jacqueline Roy's price is $44,250.

There's a much smaller pool than ever before”

At 6:30 p.m., Roy of J.A. Roy Associates in Dennisport, Mass., was the first interviewee Thursday. She wore a tailored red skirt suit and spoke softly and loquaciously.

“It's been a long time since you've had a search for a superintendent. You've had longevity,” she began. Begina served nearly 13 years. Like those interviewed before and after her, Roy said she would conduct focus groups with teachers, parents, town officials and “special interest groups.”

“It really helps define what you're looking for. The ideal person,” she said. After she gets community input, she puts together a profile and starts recruiting. Roy said she then does background and reference checks on candidates and turns over her results to the BOE to start the weeding-out process.

“Logistically, how do you coordinate the meetings? I'm looking for a full-service shop,” said D'Agostino.

“I do everything basically. But you know better who has to be invited to these meetings,” said Roy.

Like the other search firms, she would advertise the position in trade journals, such as Education Week, and online.

“It becomes a major national search. The reality is, are we going to get people from California? Most of our candidates will be from Connecticut,” she said.

“There's a much smaller pool than ever before,” Roy said. “Baby boomers are retiring.”

Board member Mike Dolan asked about the commute from Dennisport to Hamden. Roy said it takes three and a half hours. “I won't be coming down every day,” she said with a laugh.

“Your references. Most of the people you've done searches for are outside of Connecticut,” said member Myron Hul. “I like to welcome people to Hamden saying we do it our way. How tied into Connecticut are you?”

The saleswoman said, “I'm pretty tied in. I know a lot of people in Connecticut, actually.”

“Is there any warranty in your search?” asked Dolan.

“I stay with you until the search is over,” said Roy.

Dolan told her two other firms are offering one- and two-year warranties at no extra cost except expenses, if the person chosen doesn't work out and they have to find another candidate.

“Wow,” said Roy.

“How long till you bring in candidates if you start in May?” asked member Ed Sullivan.

“That depends on you,” she said. “I think you're more in a dilemma.”

“We want the best person no matter how long it takes,” said D'Agostino. “We're not interested in saying we want someone by Sept. 1 and get a mediocre person.”

Sullivan told Roy an interim is also needed. She said she wouldn't have a problem finding one and there would be no extra fee.

Sullivan returned to the commute. “Because you're out in Massachusetts ...” he began but Roy cut him off.

“You sound like I'm across the country,” she said.

“Three and a half hours is significant,” Sullivan shot back.

D'Agostino asked what kind of salary would have to be offered.

“My sense is you're probably going to have to jack it up. It's supply and demand,” Roy said. “It all boils down to how much you like them and how much you want to please them.”

Board member Austin Cesare has promoted the idea of making the new superintendent live in town and asked Roy about it.

“It may not be appropriate to do that,” she said. “School districts would love it but it shouldn't be a deal breaker. You can't really demand it. That's not what you should want to have happen.”

“That's your opinion,” said Cesare.

“Well, we can talk about it, but it would limit candidates,” she said.

“The salary is the first thing the candidate looks at”

Herb Pandiscio of Avon Educational Search Consultants was up next. Also soft-spoken, he was dressed in a conservative charcoal gray suit with a red checkered tie. He said he worked on the 1995 search which yielded Begina.

“Alida was the fastest search we ever conducted,” said Pandiscio. “The school system was in troubled times.”

(David Shaw preceded Begina. After being arrested for drunk driving in 1995, he hired New Haven powerhouse defense attorney Hugh Keefe, said Board member Lynn Campo during a break between interviews. She said Shaw left the system with a check for roughly $250,000, which constituted the rest of his contract. Begina was brought on in November of that year.)

Pandiscio started his sales spiel by telling the committee he was the super in Avon for 25 years and has served as interim many times, as recently as last year. He said he and his wife, Ruth, run the search operation.

Who you're seeing tonight is going to conduct the search. Ruth does the behind-the-scenes work,” said Pandiscio. “The fact is, if you were to appoint me tonight, the search will being tomorrow. I meet with as many groups as possible. We handle all the logistics.

“The salary is the first thing the candidate looks at. You'd like to think they'd look at the town first. But they don't.”

Pandiscio said an annuity of $10,000 to $15,000 and a monthly travel allowance of $300 to $400 should be in the package.

“Confidentiality is very important,” he continued. “Superintendents [applying for other superintendent jobs] don't want their names out. It's very difficult to apply for a job and be rejected. With assistant superintendents, it doesn't matter. Their names are out there anyway.”

“You mentioned being a former superintendent. What advantages do you bring?” asked BOE member Valarie Stone.

“I'm glad you asked,” the Avon salesman said. “I've also served as interim eight to nine times. I stay contemporary. I'm going to be a little immodest. I think I established a pretty terrific school system in Avon. I think I'm a good politician myself. I'm very respectful of my candidates. I am really good at focus sessions.”

“You said you were an interim superintendent,” said Sullivan. “That's something else we're looking for.” He asked how much it would cost and how long it would take to find an interim.

Pandiscio said no charge. “I have two to three people who call me about interim” jobs, he said.

“So you have a pool of interims?” said D'Agostino.

“No, but there's a pool out there,” he said.

D'Agostino asked for his take on a residency requirement.

“I haven't had a board wanting that for years,” said Pandiscio. “Residency would limit your pool immediately.” Unlike business relocations, educators typically don't want to move. For one thing, he said, most marry other educators and live strategically near both spouses' school districts.

Aleeda was getting $155,000, if I'm not mistaken”

Connelly was not soft-spoken. Sporting a blue jacket with a blue and red striped tie and gray slacks, he was long-winded and loud.

I knew Aleeda slightly and I want to give you my condolences. It's kind of difficult coming in [here]. My heart goes out,” the man from NESDEC opened his pitch.

You need a professional search firm. The last district that did its own search, it blew up on them,” Connelly said of Wallingford. That town recently hired a new super who pulled out a month later.

Asked how long it would take to find a superintendent, he said, “You'd probably be in the position of appointing a superintendent realistically Jan. 1.” He said the summer is not a hot recruiting time with folks taking vacations.

I think the difference between us and a lot of other search firms is we're not selling us, we're selling Hamden. I think the big difference between us and others is I don't have a stable of candidates. Each search is unique,” Connelly said. (Pandiscio had said he too stands out because he doesn't have a stable.)

We know people in school districts who aren't even looking for a job and we tap them,” said Connelly. “We get more people that way than waiting for someone to answer an ad. I'm not a big one on display advertising. And ad in Ed Week is $1,000 each time.”

Cesare asked what he thought about offering a bonus to move to Hamden.

The pressure to live in a community has diminished. It's not widespread,” he said. Twenty years ago more than half of Connecticut supers lived in town, he said.

What would be the starting salary?” Cesare asked.

Aleeda was getting $155,000, if I'm not mistaken. I would say $160,000 to $180,000 to be competitive.” Plus an annuity of $5,000 to $13,000 and a monthly travel allowance. He then spat out some super salaries from around the state and said to add another 3 percent to 4 percent because the numbers were a year old:

Cheshire, $147,000

Danbury, $175,000

Farmington, $182,000

Glastonbury, $155,000

Madison, $167,000

Rocky Hill, $145,000

Southington, $171,000

Wallingford, $149,000

As the clock neared 9:30 p.m., D'Agostino tried twice to end the interview with Connelly but each time the salesman said, “Just one more thing."

Afterwards, Dolan said he was impressed with all the firms. Other Board members said they are withholding comment for now.

April 24, 2007

Many Wrinkles in BOE Move

By Sharon Bass

The goal is to move school central office administrators and directors -- all of them -- from 60 Putnam Ave. to Government Center this summer, when classrooms are empty and the focus can be on the transition. But logistical problems abound.

The school Operations Committee, chaired by John Keegan, is currently putting together a recommendation for the move, to be voted on by the full Board. However, Keegan said it is already deemed that more space will be needed than what has been allocated -- the Parks & Rec Department, which will be moved elsewhere, and in back of the Legislative Council Office.

Keegan also said there doesn't seem to be sufficient parking at Government Center and it is unclear where the Board of Education will meet and what will happen to 60 Putnam. Those dilemmas are expected to be hashed out at the Operations Committee meeting next month, he said.. Hope is more Hamden special ed children, who have been placed outside the district, will be schooled at 60 Putnam once administrators vacate the premises.

The Council Office will be shrunken to allow space for school officials, said Mayor Craig Henrici, a driving force behind the move, which is hoped to bring about more transparency of the education department and closer communications with town departments, especially finance.

“The long range plan is for that office [Legislative Council] to go to [Memorial] Town Hall where the chambers are,” said Henrici. He said once renovated, police headquarters will also be housed there. A feasibility study to renovate the old building at the corner of Dixwell and Whitney is underway, said the mayor. Next step is to hire a construction manager.

Meanwhile, the BOE is also looking for both an interim and permanent superintendent as well as a new middle school principal. This Thursday, the Board's new Personnel Search Committee is scheduled to interview search firms J.A. Roy Associates, Avon Educational Search Consultants and the New England School Development Council.

Assistant Superintendent Portia Bonner has been appointed acting super for now. According to an inside source who asked not to be named, Bonner has also submitted her résumé to the Southington School District, which is looking for a new super. Bonner did not return a message seeking comment. Former middle school principal Frank Pepe left the Hamden district in February to head Southington's Joseph A. DePaolo Middle School after being passed over for promotions in Hamden.

April 20, 2007

Alida Begina, 1950-2007

The late superintendent with Board member John Keegan. File photo

By Sharon Bass

According to Yale-New Haven Hospital, school Superintendent Alida Begina, 56, died at 6:20 p.m. yesterday. Just hours earlier, a press release was issued saying she would retire on April 30 after nearly 13 years at the helm of the Hamden Public Schools.

Those who worked with her called her an intelligent, strong woman who made significant contributions to the system.

She was a great lady. Hamden has lost a tremendous person,” said Councilman Jim Pascarella. “I know what her goals were. I know what she wanted to accomplish. It's just so sad.”

When Mayor Craig Henrici was asked for comment about Begina's just-announced retirement date, she had not yet passed away. “She's had a long and distinguished career with the Board of Education,” he said.

About a year after she arrived at 60 Putnam Ave., Begina formed the Hamden Education Foundation, of which Pascarella was president. He stepped down when elected to the Council in '05. The foundation promotes and raises money for the schools.

I felt she did a number of wonderful things for the school system. I think her lasting legacies will be the construction projects,” said Pascarella.

During her dozen-plus years, Begina oversaw the renovation of the high school, the construction of the new Spring Glen, Bear Path and middle schools, and the renovation and establishment of the Wintergreen Magnet School.

I've always enjoyed working with her. She was intelligent, dynamic, down to earth and very pragmatic. She was an extremely creative lady,” the councilman said.

Begina wrote six children’s books based on her grandson, Jackson, and four have been published. All proceeds go to buying books and materials for the media centers. (Click here for Begina's last interview.)

School board member John Keegan was also contacted about Begina's retirement message, in this case just minutes before she passed away.

The fact that she's been superintendent over 12 years says a lot about her commitment and success,” he said. “Superintendents average four to five years in a district. She did a tremendous number of things for the town in regards to education, including establishing the high school as one of the finest in the state. I think she'll leave a big vacuum. She had a very strong personality. A driver who pushed the district to improvement. Sometimes she had to drag people along to do it. We'll be challenged to find someone to fill her shoes.”

Assistant Superintendent Portia Bonner has been named acting super until an interim is found, said Keegan. She was chosen because she is the only Hamden school worker state certified to be a superintendent. The Board is currently interviewing search firms for a permanent replacement for Begina, who announced in February she would retire by the end of June, a year before her contract would expire. Keegan said the firm, expected to be chosen by mid-May, will also look for an interim.

Bonner would not return a message left for her yesterday. Instead, her secretary did and directed the HDN to Chair Michael D'Agostino instead.

It is my hope that people will also remember the solid programming that Alida brought to the district, which will endure,” said Pascarella. “The many award-winning programs which unfortunately the public may not be aware of.”

Under Begina's watch, all-day kindergarten, the town-run preschool at Alice Peck, the culinary arts and DECA programs at the high school and middle school sports teams were conceived.

And the excellent accreditation results for Hamden High School, which we received about a year and a half ago,” said Pascarella. “When Alida was hired, Hamden High School was on probation. And 10 years later, we were given an absolutely excellent accreditation report.

"One of the things I liked about Alida is you can amiably disagree. And she had a great sense of humor,” said Pascarella. "She put in enormous hours a week. She was constantly thinking and researching especially about trying to close the achievement gaps."

After announcing her retirement in February, Superintendent Begina said this to the HDN: “I always loved school and I loved learning and I think it was that passion that led me to education. That I could share that same love and desire to people who want to learn and even learn beyond their formal schooling. Beyond the high school diploma. I’ve taught Latin, English and Spanish. I taught a little ancient Greek as a club. Then I did some staff development curriculum for ACES. And then I did some central office work in two districts, New Britain and Bethel. And then I became a superintendent. I’m going to leave my options open. I’m not sure what I’ll be doing. I’ll definitely be spending time with my grandson. It’s a unique experience.”

April 16, 2007

Next Stop: Court

The school department seems to have run out of objections to the Lotto suit

By Sharon Bass

Claiming denial of education and grade tampering when his daughter was expelled from Hamden Middle School over two years ago, Al Lotto sued the school system. After numerous attempts by the school's lawyer to kill the suit, on March 26 Judge Angela Thomas-Robinson ruled for the Lotto case to go forward in New Haven Superior Court. The charge is breach of contract.

“We're going to trial,” said New Haven attorney John Williams, who is representing Lotto's daughter, Alyssa, now a sophomore at Hamden High. “If I had to guess, I'd say sometime next year. They [Hamden school system] promised her a particular type of educational experience and did not give it.”

Though two-plus years has seemed like a very long time to the Lottos to get their day in court, Williams said it's actually not. Some school cases can take seven to eight years, and the average takes about four. “The truth is we're speeding things up,” he said.

"Their sheer arrogance and non compliance with education laws are a direct result of retaliation against my daughter for this lawsuit,” said Al Lotto.

“I think that this system is very hard-nosed,” said Williams. “They seem to be willing to spare no expense in fighting litigation regardless of merit.”

PTA Council president Tim Nottoli has recently taken an interest in the Lotto situation. “I would have hoped it would have been resolved a long time ago and it's a shame that it became a lawsuit,” he said.

Nottoli said he first learned about the case from reading newspaper accounts. Then last month, Al Lotto talked with Nottoli about his daughter's school file which Lotto claims has discrepancies that could be used against her in court. “Basically I didn't know what to do either,” said Nottoli. “I didn't have any specific suggestions. I just hope [the case] can be resolved with all the evidence from both sides presented.”

Lotto wrote a letter to Superintendent Alida Begina on Jan. 9, 2007, about the discrepancies in his daughter's school records. Begina responded to Lotto on March 13 saying in order to investigate the records she would need to hire a retired school administrator.

“Because you have requested a written response to incident(s) spanning multiple years and expressing concerns about multiple Hamden Public School personnel not involving me, it will take some considerable time to comply with this request,” Begina wrote in her March 13 letter. “I am also planning to engage the services of a retired administrator, Edward J. Mackniak, to help complete this task ... If you agree with this approach, then please so indicate by signing, dating and returning this letter to me by March 19, 2007. Also enclosed for your signature is a three-part form for you to allow Mr. Mackniak and me to review all of Alyssa's records as part of the bullying complaint investigation.”

But Al Lotto said he didn't sign the papers because he questioned the hiring of Mackniak and didn't trust the intent of Begina's letter.

The case stems from an incident in November 2004 when Alyssa Lotto was accused of bringing alcohol to school. She was expelled and promised tutoring at the Keefe Center. Reportedly, she didn't get adequate enough instruction to finish her courses but her teachers gave her As on her report card.

The initial lawsuit also included bullying claims, but those were dropped. When Alyssa returned to school after her 2004 expulsion, she was attacked from behind by one of the students she claimed had been bullying her, and suffered a concussion. The student was expelled, but the bullying didn't stop, according to Alyssa. At that time, school administrators claimed there had never been a bullying case in Hamden schools.

April 11, 2007
Cindy Gets the Stage

Cindy Simell-Devoe (center) surrounded by some of her numerous supporters in a stairwell at 60 Putnam. Photo/Sharon Bass

The BOE gives it to her

By Sharon Bass

This is a fairy tale. But real.

A local talent who has worked tirelessly and passionately to create topnotch live theater in town was given a gift last night by the Board of Education. Members agreed that what Whitney Players director Cindy Simell-Devoe gives to the community is a significant cultural and educational asset. They not only agreed, they embraced. And gave her a discount.

Simell-Devoe asked the Board to waive some of the fees for use of the new middle school auditorium for her summer musical, “Beauty & the Beast,” from Aug. 13 through Aug. 18. She's been using Thornton Wilder Hall and said it's too small for both the audience and her cast, which can swell to 80 actors for a big musical.

Thornton has 300 seats; the middle school has 550. Sometimes folks can't get in to see a Whitney Players production because despite multiple performances, the demand will far exceed the space. Last year, for instance, there weren't enough seats for “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

The 60 Putnam Ave. boardroom was crowded with Simell-Devoe supporters, eager to tell the BOE exactly what the theater company means to them.

“There is no better theater for youth than in Hamden. They deserve better,” Arts Director Mimsie Coleman said of the Whitney Players need for a larger venue and fee waivers.

Raquel Santiago-Martinez of Hamden said her daughter had a “great” experience being in one of Devoe's shows. “While I love Miller Library Thornton Hall, it is clearly too small for the group,” she told the Board. “It's not only a great theater program, it's great theater and that quality is hard to find.”

Santiago-Martinez and others said Whitney Players provides a diverse learning experience, and many of its actors star in Hamden public school performances.

“It is a training ground for young actors,” said former Mayor Carl Amento's assistant Jackie Downing, whose two children have been in many Simell-Devoe plays. “In the same way the town discounts use of the ice rink for Hamden Youth Hockey, and the Board of Ed has a cooperative arrangement with youth sports, like Hamden Fathers', we're asking for the same recognition.”

Whitney Players performer Annie Lisa drove from her Ansonia home to give testimony. “If you haven't seen any of the Whitney Players shows, the quality is spectacular,” she said.

And the Board was moved.

Member Austin Cesare said he would “ordinarily” oppose waiving fees. “But I heard compelling [statements] from people so I will be supporting this.”

“We heard testimony from Ms. Coleman that they are the co-sponsors of the [theater group],” said member Myron Hul. He likened that to the relationship between Parks & Rec and community sports organizations, which get use of town facilities at a reduced cost.

There should be no distinction,” said Hul.

Mike Dolan voiced the only objection. But didn't push it. “I think the one difference here with Hamden Fathers' and Parks & Rec is there's a fee collected for [Whitney Players] performances,” he said.

“Kids pay for camp,” said Hul.

“But no one pays to go to a game,” countered Dolan.

“A lot of these kids go into Hamden High drama,” said Cesare.

The Board voted to drop the utility, rental and technical fees for the six days in August, said Simell-Devoe, and just charge the theater company about $3,000 to cover custodians and security. She said the whole tab would have come to $7,500 had the three fees not been waived.

“I'm thrilled that so many people are going to benefit from this,” the director said.

April 3, 2007
‘I Think it’s a Distraction’

With uniforms in storage, the BOE can focus on the big stuff

By Sharon Bass

John Keegan, secretary of the Board of Education, said he’s against uniforms and unhappy about the handling of the March 21 public forum on the contentious issue. He also thinks there are more pressing issues facing the school system than clothing; for instance, finding a new superintendent.

“The forum we held didn’t go over very well. We got negative feedback about that,” he said. Thought was it would be an open discussion about whether the school system should adopt a uniform code. It drew at least 100 parents, many opposed to uniforms who didn’t get a chance to speak when the meeting seemed to be cut short.

Instead, said Keegan, the panel’s focus that evening was to inform parents why the concept was being considered. It wasn’t a debate about whether there should be uniforms.

“It didn’t give the parents a chance to express their opinions. It’s an issue that’s got a rather split decision. There’s no decisive way from parents. And the Board is the same way. The Board was very split on it,” he said.

But for now, both sides can take a break. The motion has been sent to the Policy Committee for further discussion, at some point. (Messages left for Policy Chair Myron Hul were not returned yesterday.) It originated in the Curriculum Committee, which put it on the full Board’s consent agenda for a vote before the public got a chance to speak. Parents opposed to uniforms came to that meeting and the item was sent back to Curriculum.

“I’m not in favor of it (uniform),” said Keegan. “I think it’s a distraction and it might help some members of the administration and the Board feel they’re making some progress. But the issues we’re trying to address are deeper than what kids wear to school.”

He cited two biggies the BOE is facing: finding a new superintendent and middle school principal. Superintendent Alida Begina is to retire by the end of the school year, and middle school principal Frank Pepe left in February for another job.

The newly created superintendent committee expects to interview four search firms over the next few weeks, said Keegan. Cost varies from $10,000 to $50,000. Asked if either assistant superintendent, Hamlet Hernandez or Portia Bonner, would be considered, he said, “I don’t think we have any predetermination on that. We’re hoping to get a large pool [of candidates] so we can find the highest-performing candidate that we can. Obviously we’re not just going to focus on the town.”

Keegan’s on the fence about requiring Hamden residency, an idea put forth by BOE member Austin Cesare in his column, “Cesare’s Take.”

“I’m mixed on it. I think if we’re relocating someone a great distance that makes sense. I’m not going to relocate someone from North Haven. You have to be sensitive for that,” said Keegan. “I’m not going to knock out a good candidate because of their circumstances.”

He said the search would be a long process with a lot of public input. The goal is to get someone in place by Sept. 1. “That’s our goal. At this point I’m not sure if we can do that. But the overriding factor is getting the best candidate,” said Keegan.

A replacement for Pepe has been posted in trade journals, he said. In May, a committee of teachers, administrators, Board members and others should start interviewing candidates. The BOE votes on its recommendation.

April 2, 2007
Uniforms on Hold

By Sharon Bass

The fiery school uniform issue was to be on the Board of Ed’s April 10 agenda. But due to popular outcry it’s been shoved back into committee, its fate unknown. One deciding moment was the March 21 public forum in which many parents who came to speak against making kids dress alike were not given a chance.

Though Board member and Curriculum Committee Chair Austin Cesare said he’s in favor of some sort of uniformed dress, he feels there should be another forum allotting a lot more time for the public.

“I certainly want to see more input than was allowed at the forum,” said Cesare. “I sorely disagree if the administration felt it was adequate public input. I think allowing the taxpayers to speak for about a half-hour on the issue is not allowing adequate public input.

“I hope we’re not killing a very good issue by not having enough public input.”

Cesare said Chair Michael D’Agostino referred the uniform item to the Policy and Curriculum committees. (D'Agostino will not speak to the HDN.) Cesare said he hopes the two committees will work jointly in deciding whether there should be a uniform or stricter dress code for K-8.

If there is another forum, as Cesare would like, he said he hopes to see more people on both sides of the issue come out. The sentiment of the e-mails he’s received about uniforms is pretty much 50-50, he said.

“I’ve gotten a lot of e-mails for a dress code change and a lot against. A lot of people say, ‘We’ve gotta change something here. The way the kids are coming to school isn’t appropriate,’” said Cesare, who’s been teaching history at Milford’s Foran High for nearly 10 years.

“I see the same types of competition. The same type of attention being focused on clothing rather than schoolwork,” he said of Foran. “I see teachers disciplining kids for wearing inappropriate clothing. I have to do that every day. If I see a student with profanity on a T-shirt or low-cut shirts or baggy, baggy jeans I have to send them to the office.

“I am for a change in the dress code. There’s a big difference between a Catholic school style versus making the dress code more strict,” Cesare continued. He said he’d be for something like khaki pants and a collared shirt.

“I would just want to see not a classier style but a more business type of attire for kids. This is an age where kids have to learn how to dress for success,” he said.


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