August 31, 2006


Superintendent Begina kicks off the opening.

Also, former Councilman Beaudette says names are missing from the new middle-school dedication plaque

Story and photos by Sharon Bass

Hundreds, maybe 1,000, people showed up yesterday evening for the grand opening of the new Hamden Middle School. After seven years of meetings, planning, troubleshooting -- and some healthy doses of political feuding -- it’s over. The school is here. And for the most part, the community seems thrilled.

“If anything’s not perfect today, it will be by Thursday, Sept. 5,” said Superintendent Alida Begina, speaking to the huge crowd just outside the school’s main entrance. She thanked dozens of people for making the $54 million project come together.

“I’d like to give my most resounding thanks to [HMS principal] Frank Pepe,” she said.

Parents, kids, teachers, councilmembers, Board of Education members and elected state officials stood on the grass in the hot sun while Begina, Mayor Craig Henrici and others spoke.

“I’ll make it short,” said Henrici referring to the heat. “It’s breathtaking. But …” He sounded two requests: keep the building well maintained, and support teachers. “Just remember that a building doesn’t teach our children,” he said.

Pepe cut the ribbon and the throng anxiously pushed its way inside.

“This is fantastic,” said BOE’s Lynn Campo. “The kids around this town deserve this. They didn’t deserve modules or having to run from one building to another. It was a mess,” she said of the situation at the old middle school on Newhall Street.

Pepe said everything but the auditorium is done and that could be finished by Sept. 5, the first day of school. “Everything else is punch-list items,” the principal said.

SBC member John DeRosa stands before a whiteboard.

The new HMS is high-tech -- e.g., every classroom has a computerized whiteboard in lieu of the old blackboard and chalk -- as well as high-PC (politically correct) -- e.g., bathrooms are labeled “Female” and “Male,” not “Girls” and “Boys.”

Photo/Betsy Driebeek

Nothing is cookie-cutter about the design. The winding white hallways, high ceilings, skylights and some outstanding rooms -- the music room is exquisite -- caught some adult visitors by surprise. This is not the school they went to.

The Shines: Chris (left), mom, Kathy, and Teresa.

“It’s tremendous,” said Kathy Shine, whose two kids, Teresa and Chris, are entering seventh-grade this year. “Great technology.”

“I think it’s just a beautiful, brand new building,” said Teresa. “It’s nice and clean.”

“It’s awesome,” Chris said.

Poppie and Mary Bert stand with their grandson Josh Adkin.

Josh Adkin, also headed for seventh next Tuesday, said the new school is nice. “It’s bigger and it’s not in a waste dump,” he said.

Three amigos: Adam (left), Michael and Chris.

Adam Earl and his buds Michael Cuneo and Chris Martins are going into eighth. Asked what they think of their new academic digs, Earl shrugged his shoulders; Cuneo said, “It’s nice”; and Martins, the big talker in the group, said, “Big, a lot better than last year.”

Upon walking into the weight room, a parent said, “This is unbelievable.”

Looking down on the caf. Photo/Betsy Driebeek

Missing names?

Former Councilman Ed Beaudette was one of many who spent years working on the school. He also chaired the School Building Committee until last November, when he lost his Council seat. Beaudette was involved in much of the decision-making and was not pleased last night when he got a glimpse of the recognition plaque hanging just inside the main entrance.

Beaudette doesn't like what he doesn't see.

“They selectively picked out who they wanted on [the plaque] and didn’t give a damn,” he said. “It’s unconscionable for them not to mention who volunteered” their time in developing the school.

The names listed are those of the current mayor, school super, Legislative Council, Board of Education and School Building Committee. Seven of the 15 councilmembers were first elected last November; there are two new BOE members; and the SBC chair and several other committee members just came on in late 2005.

Beaudette said he, former Mayor Carl Amento and former SBC resident elector Robert Malavisi should be on the plaque. It’s unclear who chose the names, which were sent to the HMS architect, Tai Soo Kim, to make the plaque but had not been discussed by the SBC, said a BOE official who asked for anonymity. Also, the plaque is temporary. Made for yesterday’s ribbon-cutting. Before the permanent one is created, the SBC is expected to discuss who should be listed.

“It’s unfortunate that the people who worked for years on the school, like Mayor Amento and Ed Beaudette, are no longer in office,” said PTA Council president Tim Nottoli.

To be continued. For sure.


The Silent Treatment

Story and photos by Betsy Driebeek

Over the past few weeks, in all the newspapers, the Hamden Board of Education invited "all members of the public" to attend the new middle school's ribbon cutting, which took place last night. A lot of us showed up, too, right on time at 6 p.m. But most of us standing in the warm evening sun couldn't see or hear who was talking. We couldn’t even see the ribbon.

We stood outside the front doors and on the sidewalks -- to the left and right -- some pouring out into the driveway. From where I stood, squeezed in place by people in front of me and the Channel 8 vehicle parked at the curb, I occasionally heard some clapping coming from the school’s entrance. At first I thought it meant that the doors were opening and we could now go inside and everyone was happy. But after hearing five clapping sessions, I realized the people in the very front to about the fourth row back were applauding speakers.

This went on for a half-hour.

A woman in the crowd collapses, but is conscious. A person with her is overheard telling paramedics the heat can make her weak.

Nonetheless, the crowd beyond the viewing and listening range was patient. Small groups of strangers chatted about the number of people who showed up and why a sound system was not set up. One man noticed a speaker attached to the building at the front entrance and wondered why a sound system had not been hooked in. The speaker worked, too, we found out at 8 p.m. when we were being shooed out of the building.

I suppose the best part of the evening was the look-see inside, after the ceremonies.
August 23, 2006

Begina Talks CMT

By Sharon Bass

Last night, School Super Alida Begina responded to the district’s somewhat disappointing Connecticut Mastery Test scores at a special Board of Education meeting. “Somewhat,” because it depends how one reviews the results.

According to Assistant Superintendent Portia Bonner, the information recently issued by the state is based on “goal” percentages (reaching the zenith). Another way to evaluate how the third- through eighth-graders did on the CMTs in March is by “proficiency” ratings or the level on which students should be -- called the Adequate Yearly Progress standard.

“We’re making slow progress,” said Bonner.

In all grades but sixth, children’s scores improved since 2003 -- the last time they took the tests. (Click here for test scores.) The federal No Child Left Behind law, passed by the Bush Administration and despised by many educators, has set a nationwide goal of all kids performing at 100 percent proficiency by 2014. That includes kids who speak English as a second language. And those who have psychiatric, intellectual and physical disabilities.

After reading through Begina’s four pages of suggestions to up the scores, BOE member Austin Cesare commented, “It’s a good first step.”

“It looks like a lot more assessment,” said member Lynn Campo. She and Cesare suggested getting feedback from teachers.

“This is not something that’s going to be solved in three or six months,” said member John Keegan. “We’ll be looking at this for years.”

“Alida, we like the suggestions you’re making,” said Chair Michael D’Agostino. “We need to do a cost-benefit analysis. We fully support creative initiatives, but to continually rehabilitate [programs to prepare students for the tests] that are not working” is not a good idea.

Some of Begina’s Ideas

  1. Provide teachers with the test results of students entering fourth- through eighth-grade.
  2. Provide teachers with the children’s previous scores.
  3. Start an after-school math program, funded by the Hamden Education Foundation, to identify those who are below goal.
  4. Have the math director create assessments in conjunction with the new elementary-school math books.
  5. Encourage parents of students who don’t test well to agree to a contract that asks them to make sure their kids do their homework, and to communicate with teachers as needed.

The contract idea drew some negative feedback.

“A parent contract means very, very little,” said member Myron Hul. “It has no teeth. The parents needing a contract are not as likely to abide by them.”

Bonner noted that this kind of contract, used in other school systems, has little impact.

“We see schools that have active PTAs have much more successful environments,” said Keegan.

The BOE said it would keep discussing Begina’s ideas at future meetings.

In other business, the Board voted to extend school-bus company Laidlaw’s contract until 2010 in lieu of a competitive bid.

“I have long supported putting that contract out to bid,” said resident Meg Nowacki, who attends nearly all town and school meetings. “There were several communities that went out to bid and got favorable results.”

In exchange for lengthening its term of service, Laidlaw slashed $128,000 for this school year and $300,000 over the course of the contract (the amount of the contract was not available last night). Hul said he wanted to see the savings “earmarked as a potential give-back to the town as a surplus.”

“I think it’s an excellent contract but I think a contract this big should go out to bid,” said Keegan. “I know we wanted immediate savings but I suspect we’re paying for it one way or another.”

The vote was taken thrice. The first time, D’Agostino, Cesare, Mike Dolan and Ed Sullivan voted yes, while Campo, Hul and Keegan voted nay and Valarie Stone abstained. Upon hearing that the motion passed, Stone changed her vote to a no. And it failed accordingly.

D’Agostino then whispered something to her and asked for another roll call vote. Stone’s third decision turned into a yay.
August 11, 2006

Down to the Wire

Promised to open on time, on budget. Inside the new middle school. File photo

By Sharon Bass

The School Building Committee struggled yesterday evening with the latest last-minute laundry list of needs for the new middle school. No one from Konover Construction, the builder, showed up to provide pertinent information. As a result, many items had to be tabled by a frustrated committee. Still, for the most part, it’s business as usual, said SBC resident-elector member Chris Daur.

“It’s normal stuff that comes up at the end of every job,” he said. “The normal public won’t notice there’s anything to be completed. It’s just minor punch-list things.”

It was those minor things that kept the committee talking for about two and half hours.

Chair Curt Leng said the town will be taking over responsibility for the stump dump. It is now fenced in and won’t be removed before school starts, said Mark Albanese, director of facilities.

“It’s good for us because we don’t have to fool around with it,” said Leng.

Daur asked if the town could get a state grant to cart the stumps away. That question was raised last January. Superintendent Alida Begina, who’s not on the committee but sat in last night, said the state said no. “But we can appeal it,” she said.

There is still no plan for the stump-dump removal.

“We’re running out of time to do this,” said SBC member Al Gorman.

The committee moved on and approved up to $10,000 for six catch basins for the front of the school. But tabled votes on elevator locks and keys for students with disabilities, a video monitor for the main office, a sign at the foot of the driveway and how it would be lit, locks for classroom cabinets and drawers, more lighting in the media center and additional fire alarm devices priced at $23,502.

“If we table the agenda I’m going to be upset I came here tonight,” Leng said and chuckled.

Most items on the second half of the laundry list were not tabled. Konover already did the work on some of them, making the committee’s vote merely a formality. Those items included more lighting by exterior doors for $12,906; more VFDs for $37,505; and another $8,031 in heating and air-conditioning sequencing costs. The SBC denied one request: $9,694 for lift equipment to use to replace light bulbs in the auditorium.

Also discussed were four more LCD video projectors for classrooms, which will not come in time for the first day of school, Sept. 6. “I don’t understand why the projectors weren’t ordered already,” said committee member Myron Hul.

“They weren’t approved,” said Begina.

“We spend money without approval,” Hul said.

Daur and Leng said the $54 million project will not go over budget. “The school’s going to be beautiful,” said Leng. “It’s going to open on time.”

August 2, 2006

After the Eval

60 Putnam Ave. File photo

BOE members talk about Begina's performance

By Sharon Bass

After a three-hour executive session last Thursday, the Board of Education emerged with a somewhat less than glowing evaluation of Superintendent Alida Begina. It was reportedly the first negative review she has gotten in her 12 years on the job. And the first time she was denied a raise.

In Begina's written response to her 2005-06 evaluation, she announced for the first time that she has "significant health issues." However, the mention of her illness came as no surprise to Board members, whose reactions sharply vary.

"It was not an easy task giving this review," said BOE member Mike Dolan. "But we have an obligation and a duty to carry out, and as difficult as that may be, we felt we had to do it."

On the other hand, Chair Michael D'Agostino said, "I have never had a discussion with her about health issues. I don't care why she's taking time off. I'm concerned with the fact that she's taking the time off and the effect of that. Her reasons are her own and I do not care to know them.

"I personally felt comfortable with [the evaluation]. This represents the consensus of the Board," he said. "The evaluation is a continual process. We will keep an eye on all these issues throughout the course of the year."

The chair said over the last 12 months, Begina has used 74 sick days, 24.5 vacation days and 3.5 personal days. "All of which she is legally and contractually entitled to take," he said.

Asked if it would be counted as a day off if the superintendent came into work for just an hour or two, he said, "That is a good question to which I don't know the answer."

D'Agostino said there have been no discussions between the Board and Begina about her leaving before 2008, when her contract ends, because of health problems.

In its review of the super, the Board cited six areas of weakness: 1) "a lack of a clear and cohesive approach to improving student achievement"; 2) "needs to improve her decision-making relative to the delegation of some duties to appropriate administrative staff"; 3) "needs to increase the full exchange of information with the Board, including presenting all points of view and all sides of an issue"; 4) "needs to be more accessible to, and open with, the public"; 5) "needs to improve her follow-through with … individual Board members"; 6) "the Superintendent's absences from work have significantly interfered with her ability to perform her duties."

"There's been a couple of communication breakdowns this year. We have been used to a very high level of performance from her," said BOE member Lynn Campo. "This year she has not been at that level. The fact is she does return her calls. She always does, but there are gaps."

Campo said she has been troubled by the lack of feedback Begina has given the Board about the success of the various school initiatives.

"We keep adding programs and we keep asking the superintendent and the assistant superintendents what is working. We're trying so many programs, we don't know when we have the right program," she said. "We keep trying things and don't know when to stop. So we have been on her case for a long time [about] what we could discontinue to fund. So this has been a problem. The bottom line is we don't even assess the worth of the tutors."

Campo said the BOE has asked Begina to discontinue some of the programs "and there was no answer. When we were doing the budget [Finance Committee Chair] Ed Sullivan was questioning the value of some programs," she said. So far, Campo said, only one educational initiative has been killed.

"There's a lot of money involved in these big things. There might be smaller programs that can be as effective," she said.

When asked for his take on Begina's evaluation, Mayor Craig Henrici, an ex-officio BOE member, said, "I'm aware that members of the board have issues with the superintendent, but I've gotten along well with her on a personal and professional level. I realize she has, as she said, significant health problems. Because of that I'm going to reserve comment."

He didn't reserve comment at last Thursday's BOE meeting. Henrici stood before the nine men and women to ask members to forgo raises for administrators this year. Both assistant superintendents got 3.5 percent pay hikes later that night. And the mayor was not pleased.

"In my proposed budget I had increases in just four areas [including the BOE]. We've helped them with financing computers and copiers. My administration has assisted them in every way possible. We increased spending for education. We wanted the money to go into the classrooms," the mayor said. "At the time, some people warned, 'Watch, the administrators will get raises.' We always hope that's not the case. $8,000 [roughly the combined raises of the two assistants] might not seem like a lot, but still it's the perception."

D'Agostino said Henrici's appearance last week was a first in his BOE experience.

"We all appreciated his concerns. I don't think previous mayors came to Board meetings. We were glad to see him," he said. Though two administrators got salary increases, D'Agostino said about a dozen other non-union employees did not.

Assistant Super Hamlet Hernandez said he could not disclose how many sick days Begina has left or who has taken on her workload. "Those questions need to be asked in a Freedom of Information request," he said. (The HDN fired one right off.)

And how are things going without the superintendent around much? "Good. We're having a very busy summer as we prepare to open the middle school, hiring teachers and staff," said Hernandez. "We had five teacher retirements this year. Then we have people who resigned and take leaves of absence."

Begina could not be reached for comment. Hernandez said she was not at work yesterday.

August 1, 2006

Begina's Eval

Alida Begina. Courtesy photo

By Sharon Bass

Last week, the Board of Education did not give Superintendent Alida Begina a yearly raise citing several reasons in her evaluation. It marked the first time in her dozen years at the top ed post that she was denied. The BOE's written assessment of her performance just went public today. Here's what the board wrote:

"2005-2006 Evaluation

The Superintendent meets expectations in many areas including overseeing multiple school construction projects, creating enhanced early childhood development learning programs within the District, supervising the budget process, being a strong advocate for education and Hamden's public schools in the face of an increasingly difficult environment, and improving diversity among the faculty and within the curriculum. The Board of Education, however, had identified several areas that require improvement:

First, there appears to be a lack of a clear and cohesive approach to improving student achievement in the District. The Board has viewed this as an area that needs improvement for several years.

Second, the Superintendent needs to improve her decision-making relative to the delegation of some duties to appropriate administrative staff.

Third, the Superintendent needs to increase the full exchange of information with the Board, including presenting all points of view and all sides of an issue.

Fourth, the Superintendent needs to be more accessible to, and open with, the public.

Fifth, the Superintendent needs to improve her follow-through with particular items and issues of specific concern to individual Board members.

Sixth, and finally, the Board of Education is concerned that the Superintendent's absences from work have significantly interfered with her ability to perform her duties, including providing needed leadership and direction to the Board and to the administrative staff. This requires improvement."

Signed by BOE Chair Michael D'Agostino

Begina's Response

In a July 31, 2006, letter to D'Agostino, the superintendent writes:

"For the past 12 years, I have successfully led the Hamden School District and have received positive performance evaluations and recognition for significant achievements, beginning with the successful re-accreditation of Hamden High School in 2005, the culmination of ten years' work. Next, I have weathered, along with a capable and dedicated staff, the lack of consistent funding, both on the state and local levels, coupled with a well-documented rise in student enrollment and poverty, thus increasing the need for services.

Each year, I am faced with making painful budgetary recommendations to the Board that focus on funding teachers, basic supplies and honoring collective bargaining agreements that leave little or no money for new textbooks, instructional materials, training, computers, after-school programs and summer school. Yet we were able to pilot and ultimately advocate for full funding of all-day kindergarten, even with these budgetary constraints. We are beginning to see increased reading skills from this initiative.

Last year, we were also fortunate to pilot the first year of Fast ForWord and Read 180 at Church Street and Hamden Middle School. These are both computer-based reading programs, requiring up-to-date technology. Although we experienced technical difficulty in implementing these programs with our current computers, students at Church Street in particular made impressive reading gains. Fortunately, we were able to purchase some elementary computers out of the 2005-06 budget to move these programs forward. We hope to expand these reading programs to other schools as funds become available, and our partnership with the National Urban Alliance also holds great promise.

In terms of student achievement, the Board of Education has adopted the following mission statement: 'The mission of Hamden Public Schools is to ensure all our students learn to the best of their potential each and every day they are entrusted to our care,' and 2004-08 Board of Education goals devoted solely to increasing learning. In addition, the Board of Education has adopted a district-wide improvement plan as required by No Child Left Behind, a plan that has been recognized as a model by the Connecticut State Department of Education. Each of the schools has a Board of Education-approved improvement plan as well. The challenge will be to achieve the desired results given our 2006-07 fiscal allocation and lack of adequate state and federal funding. Should the Board wish to revisit the adopted improvement plans and Board goals, my staff and I are prepared to review them with you at any time.

As you are aware, I have been facing significant health issues and have been using my accumulated sick days as needed. When I have been absent from the office, my practice has been to call daily to check messages, return phone calls or address school system concerns that may have arisen. I also frequently check my email, including nights and weekends. My email and phone number are posted on the website and in other district communications so that the public can readily reach me or one of the assistant superintendents.

Finally, I am confident that with my successful history with the district and continued conversations with you and the Board, I can address the professional goals you have outlined for me during 2006-07. As issues arise during the upcoming school year, I will seek clarification from you and Board of Education members as to what information you may need in order to make the most informed decisions."

Signed by Alida D. Begina
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