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January 25, 2008

Movin' on the Move

60 Putnam Ave., home to the school administration. Photo/Sharon Bass

After collecting dust for a couple of years, Henrici’s idea to bring the school department under his roof is starting to move, albeit cautiously

By Sharon Bass

Remember that move that was supposed to happen? The school administration relocating to Government Center? Mayor Craig Henrici had said he wanted the merger in order to increase oversight of the school department and communication between school and town officials. In early ’07, he said the move would happen that summer.

Well, that summer is over and not only hasn’t the school department budged an inch but the Board of Education, the final decider, is just now starting to look into the idea.

“The position I’ve always had is I didn’t want to make any big changes without a superintendent involved,” said school Operations Committee Chair John Keegan. “Now that she’s on board and has had a chance to get acclimated in her role, it’s time for us to take a formal look at the request from the mayor.” (The move falls under Keegan’s committee and if approved would go to the full Board.)

Henrici does not return messages from the HDN.

That formal look will begin on Feb. 4, when the three-member Operations Committee and Chief Administrative Officer Scott Jackson will tour the space intended for Central Office. The mayor had said last year that school administrators would use the Parks & Rec Office (it was not known where P&R would go) and also the space behind the Legislative Council Office.

“It’s an initial walkthrough to see what they’re envisioning for the space. Then we’re going to compare that information to our own needs,” said Keegan, and discuss it at the Feb. 11 committee meeting.

He said there are many issues to consider -- among them the cost of moving and renovating 60 Putnam Ave. for other school use -- and while he’s cautious and has spoken against the idea in the past, he said he’s open-minded.

“There are more questions than anything. Will we still have the same access for parents and teachers’ training and parent meetings?” Keegan said. “We need to keep the administrative team in one location. We can’t break up the team. So we need the space to fit all of the superintendent’s staff.

“On the surface it sounds like a good thing to do,” he continued. “Sounds like we’re consolidating, saving money, improving efficiencies. That would be anyone’s initial reaction. But the devil’s in the details.”

Fran Rabinowitz, the new school superintendent, also had hesitancy in her voice when asked if she’s OK with relocating.

“I don’t have a problem moving to the Government Center as long as we have the same accommodations and I mean that by square footage and as easily assessable by staff,” she said. “Not just by staff at Central Office, but staff who come for professional development. They depend on our building for that. We’ve saved lots of money not having to rent places for staff development.”

Board member Austin Cesare, however, is right smack on the same page with Henrici.

“I absolutely think they should be under the same roof. Other towns do it,” Cesare said. “This is one instance where I support the mayor. But the taxpayers have got to be put first. We have to see how much it’s going to cost and if it’s cost-effective, then do it.”

Asked why he thinks the move has been stagnant, he said because it’s not been adequately sold to the Board and school administrators.

“I think the mayor’s been ineffective in communicating the benefits of doing this to members of the Board of Education and Central Office administration,” said Cesare. “If we want to make it happen, we can make it happen.”

What about 60 Putnam?

“Right now there are two paths on this. Can we fit in the space and will it fit our needs? The second issue is, what beneficial use can we find for the existing BOE offices [at 60 Putnam Ave.]?” said Keegan. “We really don’t have a plan for reuse yet. We’ve gotta get ideas from the school administration.”

Also, he said he was “pretty confident” that 60 Putnam could not be sold and put on the tax rolls as was thought last year, because the Steps & Reach program is housed there. It serves middle- and high-school students with behavioral and other difficulties.

“That’s a major consideration of the future use of the building. We have to preserve that program,” said Keegan.

Another thought was to put some of Hamden’s special ed students who are schooled out of district in 60 Putnam, which the late Superintendent Alida Begina had said could save the town at least $200,000 a year.

But Keegan said that may no longer be possible. The state now requires children in special ed to also be in mainstream classes when possible, and both kinds of classes should preferably be housed in the same school building, he said.

In the early ’90s, Keegan said Central Office was renovated from a school to office space. “It’s well suited for its purposes,” he said. “But if the move is economically beneficial then we should pursue it, assuming we can fit there. But it’s going to cost a lot of money and wouldn’t make a lot of sense to spend a lot of money to do it.”

The brick building would likely need to be reverted to a school again if the move occurs, said Keegan, because a preschool or other educational program would use the vacated space.

According to records left by her predecessor, Rabinowitz said six years ago that kind of renovation rang in at $2.5 million. The 2008 price tag is unknown.

“I don’t think this was ever about being a money-saver, but to increase their oversight of Board of Ed activities,” said Keegan. “I think if there’s economic benefit to the move, it’s something the Board of Ed will support wholeheartedly.”

January 18, 2008

A School Chat with Hartford

In the middle school caf last night (top photo): state Sens. Crisco and Looney and Rep. Staples; ( bottom pic): state Reps. Sharkey, Villano and Adinolfi. Photos/Sharon Bass

Emotions run high over how to increase state funding for Hamden's schools -- and who's to blame for the shortfall

By Sharon Bass

Hamden’s state delegation blamed the governor.

Hamden’s Board of Education blamed the state delegation.

The state delegation then pointed to the 60-70 people inside the new middle school cafeteria last night -- during a two-plus-hour conversation about how to get more dough from the state to educate Hamden's kids, and how using local property taxes to fund the bulk of the school bill is straining and draining the town -- and put the pressure on them to write letters to the governor and speak up at education committee meetings at the state capital to push for a fix.

This year the local school tab is $74.1 million. Hartford threw the town $22 million. If the Legislature had fully funded its obligation, Hamden would have received about $34.6 million. For ’08-’09, Hamden is slated to get $23 million.

The PTA Council organized the forum. Police Commissioner Meg Nowacki moderated the event, which featured the Hamden state legislative crew: Sens. Martin Looney and Joe Crisco, and Reps. Brendan Sharkey, Cam Staples, Peter Villano and Al Adinolfi (the lone Republican).

“We are all aware of the grave concerns over the property tax issue,” said Looney.

“We can’t fulfill our educational needs without getting property tax reform,” said Villano.

But Sharkey conceded that while there are some good remedies “we are not going to be able to do much” next session, which begins in February. It’s year two of the biennial state budget. Allocations have already been set, and the governor has reportedly said neither taxes nor spending will increase in the next fiscal year.

An idea the Democrats pushed for last year, but Gov. Jodi Rell vetoed, was to create a progressive income tax system in which the rich would pay a slightly higher percentage than those less advantaged. Sharkey said if folks earning $200,000 and up paid just 1 percent more in income tax, that would solve the educational cost sharing (ECS) deficiencies.

But Democratic legislators from wealthy areas, notably Fairfield County, along with the Republicans pooh-pooh the idea, and the House lacked the needed two-thirds vote to override the governor’s veto.

Looney spoke about regionalization, where neighboring towns would work together as a quasi-county and thereby save money by reducing duplications in services and “cutthroat competitiveness” for new businesses. Participating communities would equally share the responsibilities of bringing in new businesses, regardless of which town they set up shop in, and evenly split the tax revenue generated. That would take some of the property tax burden off homeowners

“It’s a small state to have 169 towns,” said Looney.

Another way to relieve the residential tax burden is to tax nonprofit hospitals and universities. However, the men from Hartford said when legislators bring up that proposal, hospital and university lobbyists fight it hard. The state gives PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) dollars to municipalities with hospitals, universities, churches and other nonprofit organizations. But the payment is about 60 percent less than what the actual property tax bill would be on those buildings.

‘I love you’ ‘I love you’

By Q&A time, about half the audience had left because ice started falling from the sky. Inside, it was heating up.

“The governor was going to give [$150,000] more [in ECS] than the Democrats brought to town. Which one of you is going to stand up for us?” challenged Board of Ed Chair Michael D’Agostino. “We need you to fight for this town. What we want to hear tonight is what are you going to do.”

“Mike, you know I love you and I know you love me, too,” said Sharkey. “What are we going to do? Last year we did produce a budget that had a progressive income tax. We passed it. The governor vetoed it. That was the major sweeping change. Call the governor.”

“So, are you going to try again?” asked a woman.

“Oh, yeah,” said Sharkey.

Crisco was clearly pissed at D’Agostino’s comment. “We’ve been doing a lot for this town,” the rep said at the top of his voice. “To point the finger at this delegation is wrong. I’ll ask, what is the Board of Education going to do?”

Board member John Keegan also had a few words for the delegation.

“I appreciate you listening to us but you guys don’t have the answers,” said Keegan. “We don’t get to the core issues that are really crushing us. I’ve been on the Board for seven years and I haven’t seen one thing change.

“The Board of Education is not overspending,” he continued. “We’re getting more [unfunded state and federal] mandates. We’re getting more lower-income students who are less prepared. We need to see something happen. This is an urgent situation. We don’t care about the other 168 towns.”

“John, I love you, too. But what you just said is 100 percent wrong,” said Sharkey. “You cannot put your head in the sand” and only care about Hamden.

September 12, 2007

Surplus & the New Super

Fran Rabinowitz signs her new contract with D’Agostino. Photo/Sharon Bass

By Sharon Bass

At Tuesday's school Finance Committee meeting, chair Ed Sullivan was praised up and down for finding $387,169 to send back to the town this year.

“I want to give you a lot of credit,” said committee member Austin Cesare. “I wish we could see that kind of discipline on the town side. We’re now able to give back to the town this amazing amount of money. We had no layoffs this year and no substantial cuts to programs.”

“It was very careful budgeting,” said Lynn Campo.

Adam Sendroff asked for an historical comparison. Finance Director Tom Pesce said roughly $250,000 was returned from the ’05-’06 budget. The $387,169 is leftover cash from the ’06-’07 taxpayers’ tab.

Sullivan said he didn’t know what the return was in years prior. “I couldn’t tell you without having Tom do a lot of legwork,” he said.

“We could have spent this money,” said Cesare. “We could have been out there on a spending spree.”

Campo asked, “Now, how are we doing this year?”

“We’re OK,” said Sullivan. “We’re not in any deficits yet.” The fiscal year goes from July 1, 2007, to June 30, 2008.

But Pesce said it looks like the liability insurance line item will be $2,000 to $3,000 under-funded. The insurance bill came in after the school budget was passed last spring, he said.

Sullivan said the $385,169 return was the result of putting a freeze on spending because it was uncertain how much the electric bill would be, since rates skyrocketed this year.

“It’s a very good year for taxpayers,” he said. “Now, if we can get the town to spend it right.”

Of the six-digit return to the town, the BOE is suggesting that $150,000 go toward the self-insurance health fund. But it’s just a suggestion. The town can use it any way it wants.

The Rabinowitz Vote

When the full Board reconvened, after a 45-minute executive session, it discussed Fran Rabinowitz, the superintendent finalist. It was time to take a vote and give the school system a permanent chief. In late May, Herb Pandiscio was brought in temporarily to replace the late Superintendent Alida Begina. He will be leaving Oct. 12.

“I think it’s great. She’s eager. It’s a change,” Sullivan said of Rabinowitz. He said comments around town about the Branford resident and associate state ed commissioner have been good.

“I’m hopeful she’ll have a positive impact on the district,” said Sendroff.

Cesare called her an “outstanding choice” with a “pleasant personality.”

“Ms. Rabinowitz is certainly very qualified,” said Myron Hul. “The curriculum experience she brings to the district is important. I have some concerns about the contract and I will be abstaining” from the vote.

But Hul’s reservation was the only one voiced last night. John Keegan said he was “ecstatic. There’s a lot of positive energy. It’s all very good.”

BOE Chair Mike D’Agostino called the new super a “breath of fresh air for Hamden.”

Hul was the only abstention in an otherwise unanimous vote.

Rabinowitz will be paid $160,000 a year with a $5,000 annuity. D’Agostino said there are some “very unique provisions” in her contract. For one thing, she requested a “360-degree review,” meaning staff and teachers would update the Board on how she’s doing.

“A lot of people wouldn’t want that,” D’Agostino said.

Another "very unique" provision in her contract is a bonus of up to $10,000 in performance compensation based on student achievement. For instance, if current fourth-graders do significantly better in sixth-grade, Rabinowitz would be eligible for extra dough, per the BOE.

“She can make more money if the district does well,” said D’Agostino. The rest of the contract, he said, contained typical administrative benefits.

Accepting her new post, Rabinowitz said, “I am pleased and honored to be the new superintendent. I look forward to working with every stakeholder here. I was told you’re only as good as your team. I believe that.”

And on a refreshing note, she said, “The children need to be the centerpiece of everything we do.”

Rabinowitz starts Sept. 24.


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