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The Highville Mustard Seed Story

Articles from July 3, 2007, to Sept. 11, 2007

September 11, 2007

Happy New Beginnings

Students Eric Jones and Logan Foreman, both 5, point to their peers’ list of rules. Photo/Sharon Bass

By Sharon Bass

Highville kindergarten teacher Courtney Clinton used part of the first day of school Monday to enlist her 20 students to help lay down classroom rules.

“To raise hands and wait to be called on.”

“No hitting.”

“No talking when teacher is talking.”

“Respect each other.”

Clinton jotted down their advice on a large sheet of chart paper. Children signed the list in crayon.

Earlier in the day, the four-year veteran Highville Charter School teacher read the book “The Kissing Hand,” about a raccoon’s first day at kindergarten. Students then drew pictures of their families and left their handprint by dipping their palms into finger paint.

Yes, Highville opened Monday after months of uncertainties and setbacks. A tour through the building yesterday afternoon -- watching kids and teachers busy at work -- gave one a satisfied feeling of completion and accomplishment. At the start of the day, Attorney General Dick Blumenthal traveled to the Leeder Hill Drive charter school to say a few words.

According to temporary administrator Ed Favolise, 270 of the 300 children enrolled showed up. He said parents of the absent students will be telephoned. If some aren’t going to attend, there’s a waiting list to draw from.

Logan Foreman, a student of Clinton’s, said the first day of school was fun. “We went outside,” he said.

His buddy Eric Jones agreed: “It was great. Recess and lunch.”

September 7, 2007

Paint By Numbers

Chip Croft (left) and Bill Troy stand by the new walls.

Highville is looking good

Story and photos by Sharon Bass

The resilient Highville Mustard Seed Charter School is right on schedule to open Sept. 10. Yesterday, construction workers, teachers and school personnel were busy toiling inside making sure it all comes together just right.

Board chair Chip Croft and acting administrators Bill Troy and Ed Favolese threw out a bunch of numbers describing the school’s disposition:

21 new walls were built …
to create 14 new classrooms
at a cost of $120,000 …
plus another 5 grand for the architect
there are 12 new teachers
and 5 returning teachers
4 paraprofessionals
2 secretaries
and 1 custodian
1 Spanish teacher is still needed …
as is 1 principal
and 2 paraprofessionals
300 children, the state max, are enrolled …
for grades pre-K through 7 ...
75 percent are returning students
class size ranges from 16-22 kids …
Highville is awaiting 2 checks totaling over $1 million from the state

“It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done and the most rewarding,” said Croft, of resurrecting the school from near death.

“We haven’t had any money so we had to use our own resources,” said Troy. Meaning, he, Croft and Favolese have been buying school supplies and equipment with their personal credit cards. They will be reimbursed.

The "Red Cross," aka the nurse's office.

“The global curriculum is in place,” said Troy. “The kids will be challenged academically. Chip and the new board have been incredibly supportive of our vision and our recommendations.”

Croft said a new after-school program is being developed and should begin in a few weeks. Choral, art, fitness, theater and Spanish courses are on the working list.

There will also be a new disciplinary method. Instead of suspending children who misbehave, Troy said they will be sent to an “intervention room,” where they will continue to do their schoolwork under closer supervision.

“We’re really going to limit whenever possible out-of-school suspensions,” he said. Exceptions would include carrying weapons, drugs or becoming violent.

Troy was the superintendent/headmaster of the state’s oldest continuously running charter school, Woodstock Academy. It was established in 1801. Unlike modern charter schools, which get their funding from the state, Woodstock is supported by the town.

Charter schools came to be because there were no public high schools in Connecticut until the late 19th century, according to Troy. There were private high schools for the rich, but Troy said most children didn’t get past grade school.

September 4, 2007

A Chat in Highville

Highville parents DeeDee Brogdon (far left), Allen Jones, Toni Foreman and Robin Godwin stand inside the school they wouldn't give up on.

Interviews and photos by Sharon Bass

The Highville Mustard Seed Charter School received its state charter late last week. It is hiring teachers. It’s got plenty of students. And the 10-year educational phenomenon that serves roughly 300 kids will remain where it’s always been, at 130 Leeder Hill Drive. School starts Sept. 10.

If one didn’t know the background story -- which officially began in fall 2005 when the state began investigating the school's founding father, Lyndon Pitter, his ex-wife and his handpicked board of directors -- one might easily shrug his shoulders. So what? Highville fulfilled what every Connecticut charter school needs to.

But Highville faced nearly insurmountable obstacles. While it teemed with happy parents and children who seem to be well advanced academically, behind that good news was Pitter, who nearly brought down the successful program -- one he created. Like the unhappy, sadistic parent who tries to destroy her own child. Pitter, his board and his ex-wife, Nadine Pitter, are potentially facing both criminal and civil charges for misuse of state money and a host of other misconduct while they ran the school.

Just a month or so ago, it looked like the end was here for Hamden’s only charter school. The state Department of Education discovered the school’s debt was more than expected (estimates from $1.2 million to $2.5 million have been tossed around). But with heavy lobbying from Attorney General Dick Blumenthal and Highville’s new board chair, Chip Croft, state education Commissioner Mark McQuillan decided to fund the school despite the indebtedness.

On the heels of that near death, a fierce fight rapidly surfaced between the new Highville officials and the charter school parents over moving into the old Hamden Middle School. The state has deemed that ground contaminated due to an old industrial/residential landfill beneath, and the school buildings are in horrible disrepair. Scores of parents showed up at an Aug. 14 meeting swearing they would never send their children there.

They won that battle. In fact, the parents won the entire war. For it was the parents, more than anyone else, who saved Highville. They fought passionately for what they believed in. And they received.

Hamden Daily News: It was a tough, rocky fight. What kept you in?
Cecilia Jones (Middletown parent): When you get angry enough … if there was no good reason to close the school, my instinct was to fight back.
Toni Foreman (Hamden parent): It was an emotional roller coaster. We didn’t want to give up. We weren’t going to give up. We knew we had the attorney general in our corner to back us up as much as he could.
Robin Godwin (New Haven parent): [My children] did not want to leave. I did not want to put them in a situation they weren’t comfortable with. My daughter [age 10] has enough changes going on physically, hormonally, so I wanted her to stay in a situation she was uncomfortable with.
Cecilia Jones: People said the school would close. It wouldn’t be the same. ‘Why are you fighting for a school? It’s just brick and mortar.’ A school is so much more than that.
Foreman:  We had the teachers hanging in there when they weren’t getting paid and didn’t know if they were going to get paid. The teachers’ commitment really stayed intact. And for that you have to commend them. I regret that we had to go through this [but] it made it a stronger school.
Allen Jones (Middletown parent): There’s a song that came up, ‘we did it our way.’ Even with all of this adversity that has taken place, it has brought the Highville family/community stronger and it’s a force to be reckoned with.
DeeDee Brogdon (Hamden parent): It’s an excellent school. My daughter is happy here. The children absolutely love one another.

Five-year-old Highville buds, Logan Foreman and Eric Jones, will start kindergarten this year.

HDN: What will be Lyndon Pitter’s legacy?
Godwin: He was a strong man who had a wonderful idea: Highville Mustard Seed. That children regardless of their race, their income level, they can perform academically with nurturing and support. I’m just disappointed. You can’t judge a person by their worst moment. He did good. He made one big mistake -- financial mismanagement -- other than that …
Allen Jones: Lyndon was well before his time. In other words, he was a futurist and his vision was one that could be charted to a time that transcends the present.
Foreman: I think what he started here was great. I just wish it ended differently. If he had stepped down earlier without the [former] board presenting themselves as they did. I just wish it had been a clean break. You never would know what would happen next. We were fighting for what [Pitter] started. He sold that to us and we bought it hook, line and sinker. Our children became a product of what he was selling.
Cecilia Jones: This is one thing about his legacy. It says a lot to me that those who have been here the longest choose to fight for it and are still here.

HDN: Do you think it’s possible for Highville to remain pretty much the same under new leadership?
Godwin: It’s always evolving. I think the fundamentals will remain the same as far as the global studies, the United Nations philosophy. But how it will be [executed] will be different and there will be changes. Different teachers. But it changed every year.

HDN: Your hopes for the new school year?
Foreman: Stability.
Cecilia Jones: I like that one, stability. I’d like to thumb my nose at everybody who said it wouldn’t work.
Allen Jones: You always have some doubting Thomases. It will be a productive year for the children.
Brogdon: I’m just hoping that [board chair] Chip lives up to his word and the school will be better than before. It would be nice to have a library. I’m just excited and looking for a great new year.
Foreman: I’m hopeful.

The parents wished to thank Attorney General Dick Blumenthal and his staff; Highville teachers, including those who took other jobs during the recent period of deep uncertainty about the school’s survival; the 130 Leeder Hill landlord, Ira Saferstein; Newhall community activist Elizabeth Hayes; and others who came to their aid.

August 24, 2007

‘Now I’m Happy'

Trinity Silva, 4, will return to Highville for her second year.

Highville stays home

Story and photos by Sharon Bass

Parents sang and danced in the parking lot under the moonlight.

Children ran up and down the familiar carpeted floors, laughing, holding hands and occasionally stopping to hug each other.

They rejoiced last night because the new board of their beloved charter school had just voted to keep it where it’s always been -- 130 Leeder Hill Drive -- and not move it to the old Hamden Middle School. They rejoiced because, finally, after nearly two years of a nonstop rollercoaster ride of hopes and disappointments, they could finally exhale a sigh of relief.

Besides voting unanimously to keep the school put, the board also agreed to the six conditions the Department of Education mandated in order for the charter to be transferred to the new school administration.

It was a brief, fairly amicable meeting. A sharp contrast from previous ones with the old board, where there was ongoing crossfire between Lyndon Pitter’s board members and parents.

Chair Croft (center) and his board answer parents’ questions.

“We’re going to manage the school and faculty professionally,” board chair Chip Croft told a packed room of parents at the Leeder Hill school. “My commitment is to make the school better than it ever has been in the past. We are committed to it.”

Trinity Silva, 4, was at the meeting with her mom, Sharmee Walton. The little girl said she worried that Highville would never reopen.

“I was getting mad because I would miss my teachers and friends,” said Trinity. “Now I’m happy.”

“I’m elated. I’m totally overjoyed,” said Walton. “It was totally stressful from day one.” She said had Highville closed, Trinity would have gone back to daycare, where she wouldn’t have gotten the kind of education she gets at the charter school.

“This is a culture,” Walton continued. “This school is excellent. She’s only 4 and is learning about countries.” Last year, Trinity studied Israel. This year it will be Palestine, her mother said.

Parent Arlene Hanlan said, “It’s a happy ending. And we love the [new] board members. They did a wonderful job. We also want to thank Mr. [Attorney General Dick] Blumenthal because he came through for us and continues to fight for us. And the state Department of Education.”

Though the air was light and joyful, some parents expressed cautious optimism.

For instance, Toni Foreman of Augur Street is on the fence. Her son was just accepted into a good private school, but she’s hesitant to withdraw him from Highville where he’s a straight-A student. Still, the private school, where her two older children went, guarantees more stability, she said.

Foreman said she will think about it over the weekend.

“We’ll see, we’ll see,” said parent Cecilia Jones of Middletown. “Let’s put it this way. You know the way [Highville] was. You know what needs to be fixed as far as curriculum and the culture.”

Who will teach?

Cynthia Quintana of Hamden said her 6-year-old daughter was in a split first/second grade class at Highville last year, instead of in kindergarten. She credited the teacher for her child’s advanced placement. Now Quintana’s learned that that teacher, like many others, isn’t coming back.

“You can’t clone these teachers,” she said. “We all need to give the new teachers a shot, but it’s heartbreaking that some have left.”

According to Croft, seven of the 20-plus teachers will not return. Many, if not all, took other jobs as the Highville saga unfolded and parents sat at the edge of their seats wondering and worrying. Croft promised that current teachers will work with the board on hiring new teachers, and then train them. He said he’s gotten quite a few applications for teaching jobs.

Principal Lawrence DiPalma, who’s credited with writing the global curriculum, is one of the casualties. Norwalk hired him. Adam Bryers, who’s taught at the school for over four years, is another. Even though Bryers accepted a job with the Meriden public schools, he attended Thursday’s meeting at Leeder Hill.

“I couldn’t wait. I got an offer,” he said. “I was definitely torn. I was on the phone with one of the [new Highville] board members when Meriden called on the other line.” Bryers said he chose Meriden for the job security.

Teacher Stephanie Cervoni Leng was one of the seven to take the risk and keep her fingers crossed. An eight-year veteran of Highville, Leng said she sure is glad she held out.

“It’s unfortunate that we lost a lot of teachers. I decided to put all my eggs into one basket and I’m glad I did,” she said.

Ditto for physical ed teacher Jessica Mills. “I love the kids here and I love the school,” she said. “It’s great here. I was never scared of the school closing.”

Second opinion?

Croft has plans for the rescued school. Since former Highville director Pitter’s private preschool, Global Kids Academy -- which shared space at the charter school -- has been shuttered there is a large empty room. Croft said he’d like to see a library and media center there, and to start after-school theater and art programs.

At an Aug. 14 meeting at Hamden High, Croft told parents that the Leeder Hill Drive site was out of the question because of fire-code violations and the only choice was the old middle school on Newhall Street. Parents balked at the idea, as the soil is contaminated and the school buildings have not been maintained for years and contain asbestos and other harmful elements.

Asked why the sudden change of opinion, Croft said, “We gathered more information and listened to parent sentiment. We finally found ways to make [Leeder Hill] happen.”

Fire Marshal Brian Badamo called the site a “fire trap.” He said it needs three walls and an assortment of minor adjustments. Yesterday, Croft said Badamo, an architect and a consultant checked out the location, and work could begin early next week.

Opening day has been pushed back from Sept. 5 to Sept. 10. Croft said all the construction may not be done in time, but enough so for children to start classes. The estimated tab for the work is $100,000 to $200,000, he said. Some have suggested the board write to the state fire marshal to get a second opinion on the amount of renovation needed.

Who pays the debt?

Another of the six state conditions to receive the charter is to assume or pay the “legitimate” debt incurred by the old corporation led by Pitter. Croft said the debt should not exceed $1.2 million. The amount of “legitimate” debt will be negotiated by the new receiver, to be court appointed Aug. 27, the attorney general and Department of Ed.

For this school year, ACES of Hamden will be the fiscal agent and provide the food.

“We have so much liability from the old [corporation],” said Croft, explaining why ACES needs to step in. “We owe a lot to the vendors” and can’t use them until they’re paid off.

Out of Highville’s $2.6 million ’07-’08 budget, more than $60,000 will go to debt service. A parent asked if Pitter could be held liable for the debt. The answer is unclear, but the state’s attorney’s office might level criminal charges against Pitter and if found guilty, he would likely be ordered to make restitution.

Who gets to go?

Yet another charter condition is having an ample student body. Croft said 290 have enrolled, which exceeds the state minimum of around 220. However, there will no longer be an eighth-grade since there's a lack of enrollment there. The school will go from pre-K to seventh.

Parent Foreman wanted to know what would happen to the new students who were signed up when it appeared Highville would move to the old middle school, and current parents swore they would not send their children there.

Croft said current students will be given first priority, the 50 or so on the waiting list from April would get second, and the new kids, third.

The board will meet next Thursday. Time TBA. Also, on Sept. 19, it will undergo a state training on how nonprofit boards of directors are supposed to operate.

August 22, 2007

The former middle school (Highville chair Croft in picture).

130 Leeder Hill Drive.

Highville board, parents meet tomorrow night to choose a location

By Sharon Bass

A common lament among Highville parents is not getting definitive answers. Will the school continue? Probably. How many teachers have taken other jobs? Maybe half. Maybe more. How many new students have been recruited to meet the state funding quota? Many, but no specific number.

And most pressing at this 11th hour: Where will the school be located? Not sure.

It’s Aug. 22. For most kids, school starts next Monday. But for the nearly 300 students -- new and current -- enrolled in the Highville Mustard Seed Charter School, it’s uncertain. Tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. the location query should be answered at the new board’s first public meeting at 130 Leeder Hill Drive. The choice is between the Leeder Hill site (where the school has always been) and the old Hamden Middle School. There are no other options. Many parents swear they will not send their children to the middle school because of soil contamination and the poor maintenance of the building.

Board chair Chip Croft and other Highville officials met with state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan Tuesday evening in what was supposed to reap some answers about the school’s future.

“It went very well. We received the final instructions for obtaining the charter and funding. We reviewed the liabilities the board will assume and a new receiver will be appointed by the court on Monday to deal with those liabilities,” Croft wrote in an e-mail to the HDN.

Any definitive answers will have to wait until tomorrow evening.

Due to parental outcry over the middle school, yesterday morning, Croft, Highville teachers, parents and acting administrators and acting Fire Marshal Brian Badamo toured the Leeder Hill site to see what needs to be corrected, according to parent Cecilia Jones, whose husband, Allen, was among the touring crew. Badamo has said the space doesn’t comply with the fire code and needs three walls constructed between classrooms.

In addition to walls, Cecilia Jones said her husband reported that more interior doors are needed as well as a few other minor corrections. At the Aug. 14 meeting at Hamden High, Croft said the construction could cost $100,000.

“It’s rubbish,” said Jones. She said she got quotes in June and the highest was $35,000.

The Leeder Hill landlord, Ira Saferstein of Westport, said Croft contacted him yesterday about the lease.

Saferstein has offered to loan the school up to $100,000, interest-free, and have it amortized over a four-year lease. There is one year left on the current five-year rental agreement, extended from the original five-year lease. But he said Croft informed him Tuesday that the state would only allow a three-year lease plus a three-year extension, and asked the landlord how that would affect the loan.

“I’m sure we can work something out,” said Saferstein. “The offer’s still there. We’d be happy to work with them in any way we can. And we know our site is a superior site to a contaminated, asbestos school. We’d be happy to do the work or advance them up to $100,000 to do the legitimate work.”

Truly tired, truly skeptical

“I’m tired. I’m truly tired of it. Why is there a meeting to now decide the location? It’s never-ending,” said Cecilia Jones. “You just want something definitive. You just want to know this is it. I want my son to be at Highville at Leeder Hill.”

Jones is not just a parent. She has worked at Highville since 2003, first as an administrative assistant and then as a teacher. She said the charter school searched for another location in 2005 because the rent at Leeder Hill is “onerous.” It’s currently $27,000 a month plus utilities. Saferstein said he’d come down two grand. The town is offering the middle school for $25,000 including utilities.

Alice Peck School was briefly considered this month for Highville’s new home, but according to Mayor Craig Henrici, it probably doesn’t have enough space. A daycare center and special ed program operate out of the Hillfield Road building.

Neither Assistant Superintendent Portia Bonner nor Board of Ed Chair Mike D’Agostino returned messages seeking a more definitive answer about Alice Peck.

Déjà vu. In 2005, Jones said Highville looked at Alice Peck and the old middle school but both were dismissed for the same reasons: not enough space and the contamination scare.  

Like other parents, Jones said she will not send her 5-year-old, who has severe food allergies and other medical conditions, to the former Hamden Middle School.

Robin Godwin said she “definitely” would not send her children to the former school. And said she is angry that Croft and the temporary receiver, retired school superintendent Virginia Grzymkowski, left parents out of much of the decision-making.

“I’m very curious why they’re now investigating an alternative plan of the location less than two weeks before the school is to open, that’s causing parents to register their kids in other districts,” said Godwin, who has two kids at Highville. “I would have liked them to be straightforward with us and don’t play games. You cannot plan children’s educational futures in two weeks.

“I was thoroughly offended by the actions taken at the meeting on the 14th,” she said of Croft declaring there is no choice but the old middle school on Newhall Street. “As well as to believe that they were doing a great deed and the parents would just accept it. I don’t think we were respected as parents. Obviously, they had a hidden agenda. I just don’t have any confidence.”

Parent Toni Foreman said she will not accept the old middle school and will appeal to the attorney general if need be.

“There’s always one debate after another debate,” said Foreman. “I don’t understand why we’re even going to be discussing Hamden middle. The majority of parents that I’ve talked to don’t want Hamden middle. They’re stringing us along.”

In April, Jones said “well over” 200 parents signed a letter of intent that their children would be returning to Highville for the 2007-’08 school year. “What happens to them?” she asked, since Croft said many new students from New Haven public schools have been enrolled. Highville’s student cap is 300.

Voice messages left for Croft were not returned.

Also unknown is how the location will be chosen tonight. Since the new board does not yet have the charter, it’s unclear whether it can legally vote.

“The current parents who have been involved at Leeder Hill and have had our lives turned upside down are the ones who should have the final say in the matter,” said Foreman. “You have newcomers coming in, and if Chip has been honest with them and told them the site is Hamden middle and they’re not aware of the [contamination] situation, then they may side with us when they hear the site is contaminated -- or maybe they don’t care.

“We are the Highville parents. If they open up back at Leeder Hill, we’re going to have all our kids back,” she said.

August 21, 2007

Deadline Interrupted

Also, former Highville music teacher can’t get resolve on bounced checks

By Sharon Bass

Monday was another deadline day for Highville Mustard Seed. The state wanted proof that the troubled charter school had enough students enrolled and a location secured in order to commit to funding for the upcoming school year. As of yesterday, the school had the students, over 250, but the site was still up in the air.

Now Monday has passed and the new deadline is today.

Tom Murphy of the state Department of Education said a decision should be made by the end of the day regarding Highville's future.

Highville Chair Chip Croft said “important decisions will be made” by tonight.

“All the problems started with the old board, and now we have a new board and we still don’t know where we’re going to be located,” said parent Toni Foreman of Augur Street. "I thought with a new board we’d have more stability."

Since wresting control of Hamden’s only charter school from former director Lyndon Pitter and his handpicked board, the new acting administrators along with Croft have been jumping hurdles left and right. State Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan came dangerously close to shuttering the school just last month, when it was discovered how deep a hole of debt the previous administration had dug. Over a million dollars, said Croft.

The latest battle, or holdup, is over location. Highville has been housed at 130 Leeder Hill Drive for its nine years of existence. Reportedly, that’s where the school’s belongings are stored. But Fire Marshal Brian Badamo said the Leeder Hill site is a fire trap because it doesn’t have floor-to-ceiling walls. When asked by Croft if there were other sites in Hamden, Badamo suggested the former middle school on Newhall Street.

When parents learned of the board’s intention to move their children to the old school, they were furious. At a meeting at Hamden High Aug. 14, many of the 300 parents and Newhall community activists who showed up protested the move to a site which the state declared contaminated from an old industrial/residential landfill, and is advocating a soil remediation that will cost 10s of millions of dollars.

In addition, the school building appears to be in rough shape and has not been maintained for years. However, the Quinnipiack Valley Health District inspected it last week and announced at the Aug. 14 meeting that it could be renovated and made safe for schoolchildren.

The situation is compounded by time. Highville was supposed to start Sept. 5, a little later than usual, so the old middle school could be cleaned up. But since many of the current parents have made it very clear they will not send their kids there, Highville, town and school officials have been looking into the Alice Peck School.

Yesterday that option became slimmer.

“After speaking with the mayor [last] Friday, I walked away from that feeling confident that there was hope for us to get Alice Peck,” said Foreman. “Now after speaking to a [school official] today, things look a little bleak.”

Foreman said the school official (whom she didn’t want publicly named) told her during a phone conversation Monday that Alice might be too small, and he would look into it. A private daycare center and a public special education program are housed there.

“It’s frustrating right now not knowing. The school year is right around the corner and yet we’re in limbo. We don’t know where the children are going,” said Foreman, whose 5-year-old son has been at Highville for two years and is about to enter kindergarten.

Suzanne Miller took over the troubled YMCA daycare operation at Alice last month. She said she’s licensed for 112 children, but so far has just 24 with another 16 enrolled but who haven’t yet started. She rents eight classrooms. Only eight children under 3 can be in one room.

“I don’t think there’s enough space [for Highville students] at this point,” she said.

Rubber Checks

Rachel Skopin was Highville’s music teacher last year. When she and the rest of the staff got notice April 27, 2007, that their contracts would not be renewed, she decided to return to her native New York, where she landed a similar teaching job.

She said she received two final paychecks from Highville in late June, deposited them and they bounced. Skopin has yet to be made whole.

The first thing she said she did was report the rubber checks to former acting chancellor Kimberly Childress. Then Skopin said she informed Karen Flannagan, an attorney for the state Department of Ed. Shortly afterwards, on July 19, Skopin said she received an e-mail from one of Highville’s new board members giving her chair Chip Croft’s phone number. She said she spoke with Croft the next day.

“He told me to give him a week to work it out and if I didn’t receive a check or hear back from him in a week, to give him a phone call,” said Skopin.

A week passed, and she said there was no check in the mail and she heard nothing from Croft, so she e-mailed him three times and called twice but he never get back to her. The last attempted contact was about a week ago, Skopin said.

“I realize they’re busy with everything and they have a lot of stuff going on. But it’s starting to aggravate me because I’ve given them so much time to work it out. It’s frustrating,” said Skopin.

Croft said the checks were given to Skopin by the former administration. “She knows there’s nothing that can be done,” he said. “There is a communication problem. We’ve tried to reach her. Right now we don’t have the charter. We haven’t received money from the state. And she knows that.”

It’s unclear whether other Highville employees are holding bounced checks.

August 17, 2007

Got the Kids, But Not the Home

Highville board chair Chip Croft. File photo

By Sharon Bass

As of Friday morning, over 250 children have been enrolled in the Highville Mustard Seed Charter School for the new school year, according to board chair Chip Croft. The ever-troubled school needed at least 230 to be eligible for state funding.

“Some wrote on their [registration] forms that they would not send their children to the old middle school,” Croft said. But added they only account for maybe a half-dozen of the 250-plus. The possible move to the empty building on Newhall Street has been the latest in a long series of struggles for the charter school, started nine years ago by Lyndon Pitter, who was made to resign after an 18-month state investigation found financial and other improprieties.

Croft said he doesn’t know how many of the 250 are new students. While he said he’s still considering the former Hamden Middle School, he’s not ruling out the current school location at 130 Leeder Hill Drive, the former Alice Peck Elementary School on Hillfield Road and other sites he did not identify. But, he said, there are “many problems in the Leeder Hill building,” which Acting Fire Marshal Brian Badamo said has fire-code violations that require building interior walls.

Tom Murphy of the state Department of Education said the deadline is Monday for Highville to prove it has enough students, a financial plan and a location. However, he said the deadline could be extended if a site hasn’t been cemented by then.

August 17, 2007

‘There’s Just No Question that Leeder Hill is a Safer Place’

Bob Westervelt. File photo

Retired Fire Marshal Westervelt speaks against Highville moving to the old middle school; and the Leeder Hill landlord offers to reduce the rent

By Sharon Bass

Councilman Bob Westervelt, who served as Hamden’s fire marshal from 1987 to 2003, has a granddaughter who attends the troubled and semi-homeless Highville Mustard Seed Charter School. With that personal interest and concern in mind, he told the Hamden Daily News he does not want her to go to the former middle school, where Highville might be relocated, because of the much-touted contamination and general bad repair of the 50-something-year-old building. He said he’d much rather keep sending his grandchild to the 130 Leeder Hill Drive site, where the charter school has always been.

Here's what Westervelt had to say.

“It is far safer to have 200 or 300 schoolchildren at the Leeder Hill facility that is fully sprinkled. Every student is at ground level. Evacuation is far simpler than trying to get out of the old middle school, which is not maintained and has questionable environmental problems.

“Partitions [between classrooms at Leeder Hill] were allowed when we used to inspect the facility. I don’t know if that’s changed. I don’t think the fire code violations [cited by Acting Fire Marshal Brian Badamo] are critical life-safety issues.

“There is no sprinkler system at the old middle school As long as the sprinkler system, fire alarm system and all the life-safety systems are working properly at Leeder Hill, it’s far safer than the middle school.

“I totally disagree with Brian Badamo [that expensive permanent walls need to be constructed between classrooms]. I’m thinking of my granddaughter and her safety.

“I’m not trying to be the fire marshal. I’m just concerned about the safety of the children and my granddaughter. In order to comply with fire-code abatement, you need approvals so you know you’re not wasting money. You should hire an architect. You can’t just start building walls where the current partitions are. If you get an architect down there who knows fire codes, the fix might not be as expensive. It may or may not be constructing walls.

“You’re talking about moving these kids into a 50-year-old un-sprinkled school building. What’s the advantage to the schoolchildren? There is none. There’s just no question that Leeder Hill is a safer place. In my opinion, there’s no reason that building cannot be used.

“The fire marshal’s job is to inspect, to cite code violations and send an abatement letter to correct the code violations; we can make recommendations and that's as far as we can go,” Westervelt concluded.

Asked for comment, Mayor Craig Henrici said, “As far as I’m concerned, Brian Badamo is an excellent fire marshal. However not being an expert in the field, I wouldn’t know [about the building safety].”

A message left for Badamo was not returned.

Also ...

Ira Saferstein, landlord of 130 Leeder Hill Drive, said he’s willing to lop off $2,000 from the $27,000 monthly rent “to match what the town’s charging” for Highville to use the old middle school. However, it’s not exactly a match. Because there’s no way to bill separately for utilities at the middle school, they are included in the town’s rent, while Saferstein’s tab is exclusive of utilities.

He said the sprinkler and fire alarm systems are working properly.

There’s about one year left on the five-year Leeder Hill lease. The state would have to pay it off if Highville leaves, unless Saferstein sublets the space.

August 16, 2007

Extension Granted

Highville charter school gets more time to collect students

By Sharon Bass

Today’s drop-dead deadline to get at least 230 kids signed up to attend Highville Mustard Seed Charter School this fall -- or else bye-bye school -- has been given a reprieve until next Monday.

“We’re trying to give them as much room as possible to open up the school. You have to remember this is a charter school. Not a school run by the state of Connecticut,” said Tom Murphy of the state Department of Education.

At Tuesday’s large and loud meeting at Hamden High, state and local environmental and public health officials tried to convince parents the move from Highville’s longtime home at 130 Leeder Hill Drive to the old middle school would not present a health risk to their children. The new board chair Chip Croft said today would be the “last deadline” for the board to prove there would a sufficient number of students to qualify for state funding for the upcoming school year and to receive the charter to get the school going.

But parents balked at the thought of sending their young children to the Newhall Street school, where the ground is contaminated and the school building is in severe disrepair. When they left the meeting, many said they were even more opposed to the abandoned school after hearing testimonies of children and adults allegedly becoming ill from being in the school.

Still, Croft said Wednesday he is optimistic about reaching at least the 230 number. (Highville typically enrolled the max of 300 students for each of its nine years, with a waiting list as well.)

“I knew it was going to be emotional [moving to the middle school]. It’s an emotional issue. We’ve gotten a lot of sympathy,” he said. He’s been collecting applications at New Haven’s Stetson Library and the Miller Library and said “we’re more than halfway there.” He said he didn’t know the exact numbers.

Quite a few of the applicants are new students, he said, primarily from the New Haven public schools. And while he promised current Highville parents he would explore other locations besides the former Hamden Middle School, he said the likelihood of securing another place is “very remote.”

Meanwhile, parents are insisting that the Leeder Hill property, which needs permanent walls built between classrooms to meet fire code, be seriously considered. While they’re re-enrolling their children, many say they are doing so to keep the school open but insist they will not send their children to a school they feel is not safe and wasn’t safe for Hamden’s public students. It’s unclear how many of the applicants fall into that category.

Murphy said Croft and the court-appointed temporary receiver of the school, Virginia Grzymkowski, a retired Plymouth school superintendent “have the sole authority on this. They are really interested in the middle school. This is their collective judgment. We have to respect that. We can’t second guess them. This is their call.”

Though the ed department doesn’t make the location decision, “they have to assure us the site has to meet all fire and other codes and is habitable. We would intervene if they don’t have a certificate of occupancy,” said Murphy.

Newhall resident Toni Foreman said she enrolled her 5-year-old son at Miller Library yesterday, but told a board member she won’t send him to the old Hamden Middle School. “She said, ‘OK, we’ve had other people do the same thing,’” said Foreman. “We don’t want our school to lose its charter. A lot of parents won’t send their kids to Hamden Middle.”

Like many current students of the 9-year-old charter school, which offers a global curriculum in which students have reportedly thrived academically, Foreman’s son started when he was just 3. He is to enter kindergarten this year. The question is where?

“There is no hesitation in my mind. No ifs, buts, maybes. He definitely won’t be [at the middle school],” she said. “We’re going to fight this to the very end. I’m not just going to roll over and die just because they [Croft and Grzymkowski] have their minds set on the middle school.”

On the other hand, Foreman said she would send her son back to the 130 Leeder Hill site “in a heartbeat. It’s a familiar surrounding for the kids.”

Middle town parent Cecilia Jones has a similar situation. Her 5-year-old has also been attending the charter school since he was 3 and said she’d very much like him to continue at Leeder Hill.

“My child is not going into the middle school,” she said. Even though her objections parallel those of Foreman’s and other parents, Jones may not have a choice if the school is relocated to the former middle school. At Tuesday’s meeting, she said acting administrator Ed Favolise, who resigned under pressure as the Ansonia super, told her not to register her child because of his health conditions, which could be severely triggered by the cleaning solvents and other chemicals and contamination at the Newhall Street property.

“But you can’t do that. It’s a public school. You can’t deny me a spot in a public school that my child is already enrolled in,” Jones said. Highville means so much to her that it’s worth the 100-mile daily roundtrip to drive her son to Hamden from Middletown.

With news that a substantial number of new students -- older kids from New Haven schools will likely help Highville meet the state quota to qualify for funding -- Jones and Foreman said that is a problem.

“The school has a culture and when you bring in older kids it takes longer for them to assimilate. They are more resistant to change and structure,” said Jones.

Remarked Foreman: “If you’re going to start bringing new kids in, you’re talking about higher grades. If they’re coming from a school where there’s no structure, it’s going to be a problem. Highville has a structure and these kids know it and follow it. They know what’s expected of them. The majority have been there from pre-K.

“I think again we’re losing sight of what’s important,” she continued. “We want the school to stay the same. You can’t just act out of desperation and open it up to meet a quota on deadline. We had a waiting list. We already had 300 kids until this middle school thing came up.”

The move to the old middle school brings up another dilemma. There are still nearly 12 months left on the lease for the Leeder Hill site at 27,000 tax dollars a month. The state is on the hook to pay out the rest of the rental agreement to landlord Ira Saferstein, while also paying the town of Hamden rent on the middle school. Saferstein charges $27,000 a month excluding utilities. Mayor Craig Henrici said the proposed three-year lease for the middle school is $25,000 monthly including utilities.

“With that building it’s impossible to separate utilities. It’s all open,” said Henrici. “This is a negotiation with a separate entity that came to us.”

An Offer that Can Be Refused

Landlord Saferstein sent e-mails Wednesday to both Croft and Grzymkowski, to offer a no-interest loan to construct the interior walls in exchange for a four-year lease. He said he heard back from Croft who indicated he would discuss the offer with Grzymkowski, who did not respond to Saferstein’s e-mail.

“I would pay for it or do the work up to $100,000, but I don’t think it will cost that much,” he said echoing parents, like Jones, who have looked into the cost.

“I’d like to keep them as tenants. The parents are calling me. Basically, I said, ‘Look, I’m not trying to be an instigator. The space is available. Besides the fact I still have a lease,’” said Saferstein.

Loads of Debt

Murphy said the school owes Saferstein at least two months’ rent, as well as being in debt to vendors. He said there’s not enough money to pay teachers or rent “but they have some cash flow. The money awaits them. All they need to do is have a site and a sufficient number of students.” The next state grant to Highville could be as much as $750,000 depending on enrollment. The amount per student went up this year by $400, to $8,600 per child.

Croft said registration will continue at the Stetson Library from 10:30 a.m. till 8 p.m., Thursday and Friday, and from 10:30 a.m. till 5 p.m. on Saturday. The Miller Library will accept student applications from 10:30 a.m. till 5:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday.

August 15, 2007

24 Hours

Highville parent Allen London said his 3-year-old, Kimana, will not step foot in the former Newhall school.

Story and photos by Sharon Bass

Highville parents were given a clear ultimatum last night: Re-enroll your child within 24 hours or the long-troubled charter school will cease to exist. The catch: The school will be moved to the old Hamden Middle School, where a cloud of contamination and fear hovers above.

New board chair Chip Croft told a crowd of about 300 who assembled in the Hamden High auditorium that at least 250 kids have to be signed up by today in order for the state Department of Education to approve funding for the upcoming school year. Highville went from preschool through eighth-grade, but Croft said there might not be enough seventh- and eighth-graders to continue those grades.

State environmental and public health officials were called upon to give their opinions on whether the old school building and grounds are safe for children. They all but guaranteed they were. All but.

However, from the din of objections from the audience, it appeared parents weren’t buying what was being sold from the stage. Outside the school, petitions protesting the move to the old middle school were circulated. According to Highville Mustard Seed Charter School parent Toni Foreman, over 130 signatures were obtained. She said she plans to fax the petitions to the Attorney General’s Office and state Department of Education today.

A man shouted to the folks on stage, which included the new Highville board, “Would you put your own kids in that school? Why did [Hamden] build a new school if the old one is safe?”

Tom Riscassi from the Department of Environmental Protection said, “We have nothing to do with the new middle school.”

Newhall community activist Abdul Hamid was furious. He said his son, now 26, was a student at the old middle school and subsequently developed leukemia. The audience moaned.

“We are happy it will be used as a school again but not happy to put minority kids in there,” Hamid said. “Do not make haste. We want a school there but not until it’s 100 percent clean.”

The DEP is supposed to soon release its final cleanup plan for the neighborhood, which was built on top of an industrial/residential dump. The plan will include removing a certain amount of soil from around the school, homes and the fields in Newhall and replace it with clean topsoil. In 2001, when the contamination was discovered, a temporary soil cap was placed 2 feet under the school ground. Last night, Riscassi said although it was only intended to last three years, it could theoretically last “indefinitely” if maintained.

Meg Harvey from the state Department of Public Health said the contaminants found under the ground, like lead, do not cause leukemia. “There is no risk to the students or teachers,” she said.

However, at a DEP open house last September at the Keefe Center to promote the remediation project, Harvey told this reporter that although there are no documented health risks -- “We had never told Hamden they couldn’t [expand] the middle school” --  she also said, “We don’t need to find health risks or documents in order to justify the cleanup.”

“No one on stage can guarantee our children’s safety [at the old middle school],” said Highville parent Robin Godwin. “We are an educated group of parents that need to be informed. I demand an alternative plan!”

She received a thunderous applause.

One alternative parents discussed last night was remaining at the Leeder Hill Drive building for at least one more year. The lease expires next June or July, said the landlord, Ira Saferstein. Whether Highville uses the space, the state still has to pay the rent, which is $27,000 a month. After the meeting, Saperstein said he’d be willing to give the charter school a five-year lease.

However, Croft told the crowd that Saferstein’s property has “serious fire code violations.” According to acting Fire Marshal Brian Badamo, who also addressed the parents Tuesday evening, the building needs permanent walls between classrooms to replace the partitions that have been in place during the school’s nine-year existence.

“That school was a fire trap ready to happen,” Badamo said. The former Highville administration, led by dethroned director Lyndon Pitter, did not follow his corrective orders, he said.

“As far as to what has to be done, I’m not an expert but I did talk to the fire marshal about six or eight months ago and he told me the portable classrooms don’t meet the fire code because they don’t reach the ceiling,” said Saferstein, who is not financially responsible to construct the walls. “That makes sense. Smoke can get in. But I don’t think that’s a lot of money to fix. The building is fully sprinkled. And the fire marshal said that. And the fire alarms at the school go directly” to the nearby firehouse.

Saferstein echoed the parents’ lament that the new board has not kept him informed. “I only know what I read in the paper,” he said. “What’s funny is another school wants the space. We’ve been holding off. [Highville] hasn’t moved out. And they haven’t told me they’re not leasing the [Leeder Hill] space.”

Parents accused Croft and the board of not trying to rectify the wall issue at Saferstein’s building and also not looking for other spaces. Croft said there are no other sites for the school “and we’re running out of time.” School is to open Sept. 5, but the amount of work needed on the old middle school to ready it for the students could very well postpone opening day.

“We’re tired of your excuses,” a parent said to Croft. “Why weren’t we informed earlier? We are now told we have 24 hours to make a decision.”

“I am not willing to take a chance with our kids’ lives,” said parent Foreman, who lives on Augur Street, close to the middle school. “I don’t understand why you can’t find another location.”

Highville parent Darlene Morris told the room that 25 middle school teachers died of lung cancer. She said her mother worked at the school for 10 years and contracted pneumonia and upper respiratory infections more than a dozen times.

Morris also said the planned Hamden police substation for the Newhall Street building is because of “all the crime in the area. Do we want to send our children there?”

Croft was asked if it would be cheaper and quicker to fix the Leeder Hill building rather than make the 24 corrections on the old middle school noted by the Quinnipiack Valley Health District, which inspected the building Monday. Croft said renovating the portion of the school for Highville would be much cheaper, although the dollar amount is unknown. And the town and state would foot the bill. (Click here for the QVHD’s findings.) Whereas, he said the state “wouldn’t approve funding to fix the Leeder Hill site.”

Lesley Balch, director of the QVHD, said nothing was found during Monday’s inspection that can’t be corrected. “I will say it’s an ambitious schedule [to get it done by Sept. 5.] I can’t predict if there will be delays,” she said.

“We have an ambitious plan,” said acting Highville administrator Bill Troy. “It is now in the hands of you as parents. Whether you feel it’s safe for your children.”

The majority of the parents seemed to feel it wasn’t safe. Not the inside or the outside. However, Foreman and others advocated enrolling their children anyway -- so the state would approve the funding today -- but said they adamantly refuse to send their offspring to the old school.

While many hands were still raised wishing a chance to air their views, Croft ended the meeting. “We’re running out of time. Just one more question,” he said.

“Let the people speak!” a chorus yelled out.

Carol Anderson of the Newhall neighborhood spoke. “I’m telling you it’s a mistake to put your kids in that school,” she said. “I had two biopsies for lumps in my breasts [when  she was in her late 20s]. There was no explanation. The doctors had no explanation. Until they let us know the grounds are contaminated. God said the people perish for lack of knowledge.”

“We’ve done all we can,” said Croft. “We’ve done everything humanly possible. The Department of Education has given us a deadline. This is the last deadline. The blame goes to the former administration [Pitter and his board]” for not complying with the state’s mandated corrective action plan and for incurring a debt of over $1 million.

“I’m leaving here very sad and very disappointed,” said Highville parent Zelda Pickett. “I have a migraine headache because I have to find a new place for my child.”

Overhearing Pickett, fellow parent Chinita McDuffie implored her to enroll her child “because it might be a blessing from God that they might find another place.” McDuffie said she too will not send her child to the old middle school.

Parent and former Highville administrator Cecilia Jones said Badamo told her if a firefighter was stationed inside the Leeder Hill building during school hours, it might be possible to stay there. The school’s belongings are still in there. Jones also said that her investigation on the cost to erect the walls was between $20,000 and $35,000 -- far less than the $100,000-plus Croft quoted earlier to the crowd. Badamo could not be located for comment.

Holding his beautiful 3-year-old daughter, Kimana, a student at Highville, Allen London said he was furious. Not only wasn’t he told about the move until he read about it in the Hamden Daily News, he said, but questioned why it’s OK to put black and Latino children into a building that would likely be off limits to a school of white middle-class kids.

“They didn’t convince me that that school is as safe as they say,” he said. “They should be ashamed of themselves to offer housing to kids that isn’t safe. I’m insulted.”

In the back of the auditorium community activists, including Elizabeth Hayes, held up signs. One read: “To: The Parents. The Town of Hamden Are Using BLACK And Latino’s Babies to ERASE A Budget Short Fall. The TOWN’S Short FALL? $2,000,000.”

Another sign said: “Methane Gas May Kill Your Babies!! Its in the School. The School was no good for White Babies in 2005. And its still no good for Latinos And Black Babies in 2007!!!!”

Croft said he has to report to Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan tonight on the number of enrollees. Asked if a different location could be found in time, he said there was a “very remote chance.”

Student registration will be held today at Miller Library from 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and at New Haven’s Stetson Library from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Quinnipiack Valley Health District's Findings

On Aug. 13, the local health agency inspected the space at the former middle school that the Highville Mustard Seed Charter School plans to use -- the first two floors of the building next to the cafeteria -- to assess its health and safety status for young students. Here are some of its conclusions:

  • Ventilation system. “The ventilation system in the entire building was not operating. Nobody present [on the inspection] could make a statement of whether the system had been operational in the recent past … I spoke with Kenny Wallach of environmental [sic] Systems Corporation. His company will be making extensive repairs … and intends to have the work complete … by August 24th.”
  • Methane monitoring. “Representatives from the  DEP were using hand-held photo ionization detectors to verify the accuracy and functionality of the methane monitoring system installed in the boiler room. Refer to their report for results.”
  • Room 114. “The asbestos management plan for this building must be reviewed prior to removing and replacing [broken] floor tiles.”
  • Windows. “Numerous windows are broken or missing. Bill Troy stated that he has a commitment by the Mayor for all of the broken or missing  windows to be replaced before September 4, 2007.”
  • Cafeteria. “The asbestos management plan for this  building must be reviewed prior to removing, replacing, or encapsulating [broken] floor tiles. Any remediation work in this area must be done by appropriately licensed contractors.”
  • First-floor hallway to gym. “The floor, walls, and window frames all have defective and peeling paint on them. Each of the surfaces needs to be professionally repainted using lead-safe work practices.”
  • Ventilation grills. “Many are filthy with dust. All of them need to be vacuumed with a HEPA vacuum prior to the air handling system being turned on.”
  • Air handling system filters, all. “We did not observe the currently installed filters but Bill Troy agreed that all of them would be replaced before occupancy.”
  • Large gym. “The ventilation system was not operating and it was uncomfortably warm. Billy of the maintenance team stated that the control for the ventilators is a timer device that must be turned on manually and that the blowers will only remain turned on for brief periods of time before needing to be reset. This is unacceptable …”
  • Small gym. “Same as Large Gym.”
  • Steelwork at stairways. “Many of these surfaces in various portions of the school have defective and peeling paint on them. Each of the surfaces needs to  be professionally repainted using lead-safe work practices.”
  • Second floor hallway to gym area. “The magnetic fire safety devices intended to hold the doors open were not operating and one cover was missing. The town’s fire marshal should review this topic and advise.”
  • Second-floor girls’ lavatory. “Entry door is badly broken and needs to be replaced. There is a foul odor in this room and there is no ventilation.”
  • Room 210 and others in vicinity. “There are wires around the perimeter of the ceiling attached to an electrical box near the doorway. Some of the wires are improperly fastened. Nobody could state the purpose of these wires. The wires need to be removed or properly secured to the walls.”
  • Auditorium. “The auditorium and the hallways leading to the auditorium had a foul odor present. The odor was far stronger inside the auditorium than in the hallways … None of the ventilation systems were operational in this room and nobody present knew how to enable those systems. The ventilation system dedicated to removing the creosote odor from beneath the stage must be turned on several weeks prior to occupancy so that creosote concentrations in the air are reduced to acceptable levels. Refer to reports of several years ago addressing this issue … Bill Troy stated that the school does not intend to use this room initially; however the ventilation systems must be, and remain, operational whether or not the room is used. Failure to properly maintain this room and its systems will create an ongoing adverse public health condition which must be prevented … It was unclear by all who were present who is to be in charge of maintenance of any portion of the building.”
  • Building exterior. “There are several steel doors, overhead awnings, and wooden surfaces that are each coated with defective and peeling paint … The rear entryway to the kitchen is in poor condition also … the building needs to be returned to, and maintained in, a water-tight condition.”
  • Exterior ventilation louvers on gym portion of the building. “The louvers on the north side are damaged and appear to be non-functioning. The louvers on the south side have paper debris caught between the screening and the louvers. All of the fresh air intake areas need to be reviewed and repaired and maintained so that fresh air supply is assured.”
  • Behind the Newhall building. “There are numerous painted window frames (and broken glass on the ground) leaning against the bollards in the parking lot. These frames have been there for many months and must be removed …”

August 8, 2007

Kid-Safe After All?

Before Highville could move into the former middle school, the state wants assurances that the inside and outside are safe for students

By Sharon Bass

A proposed lease between the town and the Highville Mustard Seed Charter School to rent the old middle school is in limbo, at the moment. Not only are parents upset with the possible new venue, but a spokesman for the state Department of Ed said yesterday the Newhall site would need a clean bill of health from two entities before it could house the students.

  1. The state Department of Environmental Protection for the land. Six years ago, the DEP slapped a soil contamination label on the middle school and the neighborhood, and advocates spending 10s of millions of dollars for a cleanup.
  2. The state Department of Public Health for the interior of the buildings that comprise the former middle school.

DEP’s Rob Bell said, “It’s safe to use it as a school. The DEP never said students couldn’t be here because of the contamination.”

He said he would submit, if asked, a written statement affirming the soil would not harm the children. A couple of years ago, a temporary cap was placed 2 feet below the surface. Bell said that provides safety although a permanent cap is needed.

The DPH, however, could not give that assurance at this time.

“It’s definitely something we need to look into. This is the first we’ve heard about this,” said Lynn Townshend, executive assistant to the DPH commissioner. “It sounds like it is a concern to the community. Anything that’s a concern to the community is a concern to the public health department.”

But, she said, the local health agency would have to initiate an inspection “and if called upon to assist, we would bring in expert advice.”

Quinnipiack Valley Health District is that local agency. “I have not been notified that that building [might] be reoccupied as a school,” said Leslie Balch, director of QVHD.

She said any building used as a school is automatically inspected. Asked when the last inspection of the former middle school was performed, Balch said she didn’t remember but it was when the school was still in operation. (It closed June 2006.)

She said it wouldn’t be necessary to dig into the agency's records to find out what year QVHD last inspected the school because, “today is today, yesterday is yesterday and tomorrow is tomorrow. As far as the local health department is concerned, we would inspect the school and make sure the building occupants and their families were notified” of the results.

According to Chip Croft, the charter school’s new board chair, the first day of school is Sept. 5 and a new home still needs to be secured and likely renovated.

Highville is also looking at the school behind St. John the Baptist Church on Dixwell Avenue in New Haven, said Tom Murphy, state ed spokesman. It has 15 empty classrooms.

In addition, Murphy said education Commissioner Mark McQuillan “wants to see a viable financial plan and a transition schedule” before taking Highville off probation and funding it for the upcoming school year. That plan needs to include student enrollment. Some Highville parents say they won't sent their children to the old middle school. It is unclear -- with the news of the possible move to Newhall reaching more and more parents now -- how many of the charter school's 300 children will return.

In related news, last night the consultant hired by the town to come up with new uses for the old middle school met with councilpeople and officials from Town Hall, the DEP and Olin Corporation. Regional Growth Partnership, the consultant, reviewed its just-released recommendations with the group. They were partly based on community input.

Councilmen Al Gorman, John Flanagan and Mike Colaiacovo asked how the redevelopment of the school could go forward without first knowing what the state intends to do about the soil remediation. That entails replacing contaminated soil with clean topsoil at roughly 300 homes, the middle school and two fields. The DEP has yet to produce its final cleanup plan but expects to "very soon."

"You're absolutely correct to say we need to know about the remediation," said Bob Santy, who recently left the helm of RGP but has stayed involved in the reuse project.

Ideas for the old middle school property include building apartments or condos, developing commercial space, having adult-ed classes, a culinary arts school and performing arts and sporting events. RGP estimated it would cost $10 million to $16 million to get the building up to code.

If the Highville charter school moves in, Santy said that would alter some of the more immediate reuse plans, such as a police substation and a DEP office.

Flanagan asked how new housing could be built in that area since it sits on a landfill and would need 50-foot pilings to secure the construction. That would disturb the contaminants buried in the dirt, which the town was told several years ago could pose a health risk.

However, last night DEP's Rob Bell said excavation can be done in an environmentally sound way without having to evacuate the neighborhood.

In 2001, the old middle school was going to be expanded when lead and other contaminants were found during early excavation. Flanagan said the town and school administrations at that time claimed it would be unsafe to expand the school because of having to dig 50 feet down, justifying the need for the new $54-plus million structure on Meadowbrook.

“The new middle school didn’t have to be built,” said Flanagan. “Unfortunately, they built the new school too small and we’re going to need classroom space at some point in time.”

Re-enter the old middle school where apparently -- according to the DEP -- it's safe for students and safe to excavate.

August 4-6, 2007

'We Have a Green Light'

Highville's new board chair, Chip Croft, said his mantra has been "300 children, 300 children" as he and his board fight for Highville's existence. Photo/Sharon Bass

After months of setbacks and disappointment, Highville parents are told the charter school is finally good to go -- but where it might go is "out of the question" to some

By Sharon Bass

According to the new chair of the board, the Highville Mustard Seed Charter School will “definitely” open this fall. Target date: Sept. 5. Where, however, is still up in the air. And that air is filled with parental outrage and shock.

Last Thursday evening, it looked like the school was dangling on an emaciated thread of hope. Parents received e-mails saying the charter school of 300 kids would likely not reopen because the amount of indebtedness was more than the state Department of Education was willing to take on. According to inside sources, that debt -- left by the Lyndon Pitter regime -- exceeds three-quarters of a million dollars.

Then, at the end of the business day last Friday, state education Commissioner Mark McQuillan told Highville’s court-appointed receiver that the state will fund the school after all, Croft told the HDN yesterday.

“We have a green light to go ahead,” he said.

But the two-year battle at the scandal-riddled school is not over, even with the green light from the state. Parents say there is “no way” they will send their children to Highville’s likely new home -- the old middle school on Newhall Street. The school that was abandoned in June 2006 because the soil beneath was deemed too contaminated to make a necessary expansion, and so the new one on Meadowbrook happened.

“The school is definitely going to open, but the location is uncertain,” Croft said. The old middle school and other sites are being reviewed, he said. On Aug. 2, Mayor Craig Henrici presented a rental lease to the Highville board for the middle school, but it has not yet been signed.
Highville’s old digs on Leeder Hill Drive is not an option, Croft said, because it needs over $100,000 in repairs to meet fire code. There’s a year left on that lease. He said if the old middle school is chosen, renovations on the portion used by the charter school would be completed in time for opening day. He couldn’t say which space would be costlier to renovate.

A message left yesterday with Tom Murphy of the state Department of Education was not returned.

Location, Location

“I hear what they’re saying. It’s great the money is there but I’m not convinced. It’s been too much back and forth,” said parent Toni Foreman of Augur Street, a 10-minute walk from the old middle school.

Here’s her dilemma. For several years now, Foreman said she’s been getting mail from the state about the contamination in the Newhall area. Now, the state is willing to pay to school her 5-year-old son there.

“It [the mail] tells you about the contaminants they’ve found and the meetings,” she said. Like many residents who’ve voiced their fears at neighborhood meetings, Foreman said she's become convinced that the area is environmentally dangerous. In fact, she said, her uncle sold his Morse Street home after hearing the state Department of Environmental Protection’s contamination scare.

(Both the DEP and state Department of Public Health have repeatedly said there have been no known health problems linked to the soil, which covers an old industrial/residential landfill.)

“You don’t know what to believe at this point,” said Foreman. “I’m hesitant to send my son to Hamden middle. My major concern now is it safe for him to be there. What about all the issues [at the old middle school]? There has been mold in the building. There’s a heating problem. I want to know how they’re going to address those issues. I can’t understand why they can’t find a better place for these kids.

“If I drop him off there, every day [her son’s health] would be on my mind,” she said. Despite the good news from the education commissioner, Foreman said she’s still going to look into other schools.

“My daughter is absolutely not attending school at the old Hamden middle. That’s out of the question,” said Deedee Brogdon of Heathridge Road. “And I cannot believe that the board has even considered this. I cannot believe it. Why is it OK to send our kids to this school all of a sudden? What about their health?

“I have no choice but to make other arrangements. It’s getting late,” Brogdon said. “We’re still sitting around. Do we have a school? Where’s it going to be? At this point I can’t sit and wait anymore. And if it’s Hamden middle, she’s not going there.” Brogdon's daughter has been a Highville student since she was three. She’s about to enter first-grade.

Allen London said he had no idea the school was moving, and had planned to send his 4-year-old daughter back this year. But …

“If they’re going to be there at the Hamden middle school, no she’s not going to be there,” he said. “As her father who has joint custody of her, I don’t want to send my daughter there.” London said he’d have to discuss it with his daughter’s mother before a final decision is made.

Staffing, anyone?

Foreman, Brogdon and London also queried about the teachers. All staff members were given notices earlier this year that their contracts would not be renewed. Croft said the board would likely hire back many of the current teachers and bring on new ones.

The old Highville board, controlled by Pitter, had given contracts at its last meeting to two school administrators -- acting chancellor Kimberly Childress and Allen Jones -- to co-run the school, for an annual salary of $90,000 apiece. The state did not honor those contracts since the old board didn’t have the power at that point to make employment decisions.

Croft said two former school superintendents have been hired to temporarily direct Highville until one (not two) principal is found. One of those supers is Bill Troy of Manchester. A message left for him with his wife last night was not returned.

In addition to possibly landing up in the old middle school, London said he’s worried the school won’t be the same academically.

“Being that the state is taking over, that whole global learning curriculum having kids think outside of the United States knowing other cultures exist, I don’t know what it’s going to be,” the West Haven parent said. “I don’t know. Nothing’s been discussed. How are they going to keep those learning approaches in place if the person [who started it] is no longer there?”

Croft said it will work. “We’re going to keep the culture and the curriculum of the school,” he said. “It’s going to be a first-class school.”

The chair said the board has gotten affirmation that 250 current students will return, and there’s another 50 children on a waiting list. The school’s charter allows a max of 300.

However, Foreman questioned the 250 number because when board members called parents to see if their children were coming back, parents weren’t informed of the move, she said. Foreman said two board members called her to ask about her son and neither mentioned a new location. Ditto, said Brogdon and London.

Croft said a meeting between the new board and parents is being arranged for this week or next. He expects to announce the specifics in a couple of days.

Can’t Catch a Break

Arlene Hanlan is a fighter. File photo

Highville parents may have something new to worry about

By Sharon Bass

Toni Foreman said she just heard that her son’s charter school may not survive, after all, because of how much it's in debt.

While that has not been confirmed, the new chair of the Highville Mustard Seed Charter School board said there’s “a massive ongoing effort right now” to try to reopen the school in time for the new school year -- in about three weeks.

Chair Chip Croft said there have been many “high-level” meetings this past week between the new board, accountants, lawyers and the court-appointed receiver. “Everything is out there,” he said. “A lot of people are working really, really hard to make this happen.”

He said it was too premature to determine if the Leeder Hill Drive school of 300 young children would reopen in the fall. And if so, where it would reopen. Croft also wouldn’t comment on the amount of debt the old school board, driven by dethroned director Lyndon Pitter, incurred. But did acknowledge there’s a problem.

Mayor Craig Henrici said he gave the new board a proposed contract Thursday to lease the old middle school on Newhall Street -- a move parents are upset about. He wouldn’t say how much rent the town is asking for. He also said he knows nothing about the school’s financial problems.

“I have not heard anything from the new board about their solvency or their acceptance of the proposed lease,” Henrici said.

Messages left with the state Department of Education yesterday seeking comment about the school’s financial situation were not returned.


Meanwhile, parents say they’re shocked and angry at what they’re hearing about the school’s finances -- and just days after finding out Highville may be moved into the old middle school, which sits on contaminated soil.

They said the state promised to save their school. After going through months of uncertainty and sitting through long board meetings, they say they have little faith left. And have little time to find another school for their children.

“You get your hopes up and then you get let down,” said Foreman, who lives in the Ridge Hill School district. “I got a call last week from a new board member asking if my son would be coming back. Now I’m hearing the place is not going to open and they’re saying it’s because the school owes more than the state is willing to pay.

“I’m back to looking [at other schools] again,” she said. “School’s going to start in three weeks and I don’t know where my son’s going.”

Ridge Hill is not an option. “I don’t want to put him in there,” said Foreman. “I would choose a private school before I send him to Ridge Hill.” Foreman said she had toured Ridge Hill a couple of times and was not impressed.

She also said she wouldn’t send her five-year-old son to the old middle school because of the hype about soil contamination.

“I don’t want my son there. They moved 1,000 kids that went there before [in June 2006]. Now you want to put 300 children there?” said Foreman. “If I’m going to fight for his education, I’m going to fight for his health. I’m really upset they waited this long to let us know.”

Foreman said “at least” six Highville parents told her they wouldn’t send their kids to the old middle school, either.

On the other hand, Arlene Hanlan of North Street said she is not going to look for another school for her kids, 10 and 7. She said she doesn’t believe the school can fold and would do everything humanly possible to keep it alive.

“I am really, really upset about what’s going on. I am upset to the point where if there’s anything at all I can do about what’s going on, I am going to do it,” said Hanlan. “I’m not trying to look for a school for my kids because the school is going to open because we have invested a lot of our time in that school. The kids are doing great. One person makes a mistake. Or one person does something wrong ...”

Pitter and the State

Like Foreman, Hanlan blames Pitter and to a lesser degree the state for the school’s fragile condition.

“[Pitter] has done something to the community. He has done something to every person [involved in the school],” said Hanlan.

“I don’t see how he can feel comfortable with what he did,” said Foreman. “Especially at the beginning when he said he only had the best interest of the kids at heart. He said if he had to step down, he would step down. He wouldn’t interfere with the school. But it’s been one disaster after another. He’s really screwed up a lot of lives.”

And the Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Ed “should have stepped in earlier and it wouldn’t have gone this far. If the state had stepped in, believe me, we wouldn’t have been having so many problems,” Foreman said.

The state “must do something to help our kids,” said Hanlan. If Highville doesn’t reopen, “I will go back to the attorney general because he promised he would do everything in his power to make sure that the school continue.” She said Croft and the new board told her the same thing.

Attorney General Dick Blumenthal has been advocating for the school. On July 12, he asked a Hartford judge to give temporary reins (receivership) to a retired superintendent, Virginia Grzymkowski, since the Pitter board of directors was not cooperating with the state on what needed to be done to keep the charter. The school was on probation twice because of findings of foul play uncovered during an ongoing state investigation into Pitter, his ex-wife, Nadine Pitter, and the old board.

Many felt the old board was not cooperating in an effort to sabotage Highville, since the Pitters were banned last March from having any involvement or collecting any money from the school. Still, former board member Fatima Ennis-Grant wrote two checks to Lyndon Pitter in late April, according to the state.

“They were withholding things and [aligning] themselves with Pitter,” Foreman said. “Evidently, they didn’t want the school to continue.”

Asked for comment about the alleged financial crisis and the school’s chance of survival, Blumenthal released this statement to the HDN: “I will continue to fight to ensure the school has a fair and full opportunity to open this fall and work to recover any moneys that may have been misspent. Our paramount goal remains saving and sustaining this education success story. The children and parents of this school deserve an opportunity for renewal and revival, which the receiver process offers them.”

Foreman and other Highville parents said they feel betrayed. They’ve been given many promises and now at the 11th hour, they say the picture looks bleak.

However, Hanlan said she refuses to give up. Even if the school year starts and there’s no Highville. She said she will pound on the state door over and over until Highville is up and running.

“I don’t feel betrayed because it’s not over yet,” she said. “This school, it is so secure. The people. The workers in the school. The family that we found in the school. If you could talk to the 300 parents that goes there, they will say to you that they take good care of my kids because I can leave my children and I know my kids will be taken care of.”

July 31, 2007

‘We’ve Been Assured’

Ye old middle school at dusk. File photo

Few if any contamination concerns seem to exist for Highville students hunkering down at the old middle school

By Sharon Bass

Funny thing. Former Mayor Carl Amento said he offered the Highville Mustard Seed Charter School use of the old middle school in 2002. But then-director Lyndon Pitter wasn’t interested. “He was worried about all the contamination issues,” said Amento.

Now, as first reported yesterday in the HDN, it looks like the charter school may very well wind up there. And according to the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Newhall Street school building is safe for kids.

“It won’t pose a health risk,” said DEP spokesman Dennis Schain. The ground around the school was temporarily capped a couple of years ago and “is still providing protection but needs a permanent cap,” he said. “But we believe there’s a risk if there’s prolonged direct exposure to the soil or if [children] are eating it.” Schain couldn’t define what “prolonged direct exposure” means or for how many years and how often one would have to ingest the soil to be at risk.

In 2001, lead and other contaminants were discovered while digging up the ground to begin an expansion of the overcrowded middle school. Contaminated soil was then spotted in folks’ yards and at Rochford Field and Mill Rock Park.

And all hell broke loose. The DEP said the neighborhood would need a huge, unprecedented-in-Connecticut soil remediation -- even though there have been no documented or known health problems linked to the soil, according to the state Department of Public Health. A consent order naming the responsible parties for the cleanup was written in 2003. Millions of tax dollars have since been spent on consultants and public relations but there is still no remediation plan.

Yesterday, at Hartford Superior Court -- where the charter school’s receiver, retired superintendent Virginia Grzymkowski, was granted official temporary status and expanded power to do what’s necessary to open the school this fall -- the new charter school board chair, Chip Croft, said he and his board toured the old middle school a few times last week. (The charter school’s old board -- handpicked by Pitter who was kicked out of the school last spring after an 18-month state investigation found he had misused state funds and committed other misdoings -- did not contest the school’s receivership in court yesterday. But according to its lawyer, Douglas Evans of West Hartford, admits no wrongdoing. Meanwhile, Attorney General Dick Blumenthal said the investigation into Pitter and his board is ongoing.)

“We’ve been assured by the city [Hamden] there were no further environmental problems,” said Croft. He said both Mayor Craig Henrici and Acting Fire Marshal Brian Badamo gave him that assurance. In fact, Croft said it was Badamo’s idea for the 300 charter children to be schooled in the old middle school.

Messages left for Henrici and Badamo were not returned yesterday.

“We’d like to go to the middle school,” Croft said. “It’s got nice classrooms and a large auditorium.” Certain details still need to be ironed out between the charter school and the state before the deal is sealed, such as the rent and “other issues,” he said. The rent would go into the town coffers as the town owns the building.

Never Been About Cancer

According to an October 2006 DEP newsletter: “In the Newhall Street neighborhood, the chemical we are most concerned about is lead and cancer is not a concern from exposure to lead. With lead, we are most concerned about harmful effects on children’s growth, learning and development, not cancer.”

“We weren’t abandoning [the old middle school] because of contamination,” said Amento. “We couldn’t have expanded the size of it without getting into big expense of dealing with the contaminated soil around the school.” So a new $54 million-plus middle school was built on Meadowbrook, which opened last fall.

Inside the new middle school at the '06 open house. File photo

Amento said the old middle school can hold 800 children and there are roughly 1,100 middle school students in town. Some were put in the old Newhall Community Center. That was shuttered around 2003 and portables were rented as classrooms while the new school was being erected.

“What would you do with the kids while you were doing the building? People kept raising this issue. Why are we building a new school? It’s 50 years old for crying out loud,” the former mayor said. “People came up with bizarre solutions where the kids would go. ‘Why didn’t we use the old Pathmark building?’ ‘Why don’t we add two grades onto every [elementary] school? Some didn’t have the room. There were a lot of ideas but this [new school construction] seemed to be the best.”

DEP’s Schain said no one from the town or charter school has yet approached his department to discuss the safety status of putting 300, primarily very young, children in the former school.

July 30, 2007

Highville's 'Most Likely' New Home

By Sharon Bass

According to a top Town Hall official, the scandal-plagued Highville Mustard Seed Charter School will "most likely" move into the old middle school on Newhall Street in time for the fall semester -- the school deemed unsafe for Hamden's children, which allegedly prompted the building of the new middle school on Dixwell.

The town official said the deal with the state is about 99 percent sealed. The lingering issue as of last Friday was reportedly the amount of rent the state would pay Hamden to house the 300 charter children. (The state funds all charter schools.)

Last Friday, Dennis Schain, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, told the HDN he would get a statement from the department as to why the old school is suitable for small children but not the town's older kids. Highville goes from preschool to eighth-grade, but the majority of its students are in the younger bracket.

The DEP comment was promised by the weekend, but did not materialize.

After nearly two years of investigating Highville and receiving great resistance from the old board of directors to cooperate with a corrective action plan based on findings of serious financial and other misdoings by dethroned director, Lyndon Pitter, and his ex-wife, Nadine Pitter, Attorney General Dick Blumenthal and the state Department of Education took the case to Hartford Superior Court. On July 12, Judge James Graham granted temporary receivership to Virginia Grzymkowski, a retired Plymouth school superintendent. The case was continued to July 19 to grant permanent receivership.

However, the defendants -- the old board members handpicked by the disgraced Lyndon Pitter -- appeared in court July 19 without legal representation. Judge Graham granted them an extension to 9:30 a.m. today.

Meanwhile, the former middle school has been held up in a battle between community activists and the state. Tens of millions of tax dollars have been questionably spent on state contractors to investigate the soil contamination and on public relations and other outreach. It would be Connecticut's biggest residential remediation by far.

Some community activists claim all the tainted soil -- once an industrial and residential dump -- should be shipped away and replaced with clean topsoil. Others feel the state has created needless hype to the situation and claim no one has become ill because of the lead and other toxins buried feet down. In fact, the state Department of Public Health's Meg Harvey announced at a July 2005 neighborhood meeting at the Keefe Center that there has not been one documented case of illness in the Newhall area linked to soil contaminants.

A 2003 consent order placed the residential remediation tab to be split 50-50 between the state and Olin Corporation, to the tune of about $80 million. The Regional Water Authority is responsible for the old middle school, and the town for the two fields.

The DEP announced a cleanup plan last August at Southern Connecticut State University, which would have placed dreaded land-use restrictions on some properties causing their values to plummet. But the community nixed the idea. As of last Friday, the DEP still had not finalized another plan. The situation was first discovered in 2001, when the old middle school was to be renovated. Soil testings indicated contamination.

At Hartford court this morning, the move to the abandoned Newhall Street school is expected to be discussed.

July 24, 2007

Highville Deja Vu

File photo

As the state had done numerous times, a Hartford judge gives Pitter’s people an extension

By Sharon Bass

HARTFORD -- “This matter is of the utmost importance,” Assistant Attorney General Gary Hawes told Superior Court Judge James Graham yesterday morning. Hawes was asking the court to turn over permanent receivership of the Highville Mustard Seed Charter School to the state so it can do what’s needed in order to open in time for the next school year.

Arriving a few minutes late, the school’s old board members said they couldn’t get a lawyer in time for the hearing and wanted an extension.

“Your honor, this is the first we’ve heard from them,” since they were served court summonses on July 15, argued Hawes.

Fatima Ennis-Grant, one of the old board members handpicked by embattled former Highville director Lyndon Pitter, told the judge she just received her summons the day before. She also said a new corporation had not been formed to take over the school of 300 children. And that Pitter’s corporation “has other programs under its umbrella” that are dormant since the locks were changed on the Leeder Hill Drive school to keep Ennis-Grant and Pitter’s other supporters out of the building.

On July 12 under Attorney General Dick Blumenthal’s request, Graham gave temporary receivership of the school to Virginia Grzymkowski, a retired Plymouth school superintendent.

Yesterday, upon Ennis-Grant's plea, the judge granted the defendants an extension to July 30 at 9:30 a.m.

In a written statement released Monday afternoon, Blumenthal said,  “My paramount goal remains assuring the school opens this fall for the children and their families. If necessary, I will continue this fight next Monday because the receivership is the surest path to saving and sustaining this school. I will employ every ounce of my office’s energy and authority to enable this school to survive and thrive."

Outside the courtroom, Ennis-Grant said, “We don’t have an attorney.” Asked why, she said, “Get out of my face.”

Apparently Ennis-Grant, whose children attend the charter school, wasn’t exactly forthright with the judge. According to the new board chair Chip Croft, a new corporation to govern the school has been established. And one of the “programs” Ennis-Grant referred to is Pitter’s private preschool, Global Kids Academy. That “program” is on hold for now.

Debra Johnson of the state Department of Public Health, which licenses daycare and preschool programs, said Global doesn’t have a license and may never have had one. In fact, she said she only learned of its existence when a complaint was recently filed with her department.

“We received a complaint on July 2 and it’s currently under review,” Johnson said. "The allegation is possible illegal operation. It’s a pending matter.” She couldn’t elaborate. Certain childcare centers are exempt from having to be licensed. However, Pitter’s preschool doesn’t seem to fall under any of those exemptions. (Click here for the state exemption list.)

Acting Hamden Fire Marshal Brian Badamo also said he just recently learned of the private preschool, which he has never inspected. He was one of many who attended Monday’s hearing. Badamo was subpoenaed to discuss the school’s fire code violations.

On Aug. 22, 2006, he said he sent the school a letter citing several violations. Some were taken care of but the most serious one was not -- the construction of “continuous walls” to separate classrooms, he said. Badamo said he gave the school a year to correct the problem.

“The walls haven’t been done,” he said. In March 2007, he said he and Fire Chief David Berardesca met with Pitter and Councilman Curt Leng, who was a Highville consultant at the time.

“I felt Curt was on board. I felt Mr. Pitter danced around the issues at hand,” said Badamo. “[Pitter] said, ‘We’ll take care of it. ‘We’ll call you.’”

The acting fire marshal said he never heard from Pitter after that meeting.

What’s their agenda?

Folks such as Croft wondered what the old board’s motive was to delay the receivership from going through. Before Grzymkowski was named temporary receiver, the old board seemed to employ tactics to delay handing over school records and allowing the new board to take over. Conjecture has been that Ennis-Grant and fellow board members Richard Riley and David Lee want to see Highville die. Blumenthal and the state Department of Education had ordered Pitter and his ex-wife, Nadine Pitter, to have nothing to do with the school after an 18-month investigation that revealed serious mishandling of money and other improprieties. Part of the state’s corrective action plan called for a new board to be seated with no influence from the old one.

But yesterday inside Hartford Superior Court, Riley said their motive is not to shut down the school. “There’s a lot of mistrust on the state’s part because of prior boards,” he said. “It’s not a fight. It’s issues that need to be resolved in the best interest of the kids. At the end of the day, we all want to keep the school going.”

Riley said the old board is simply trying to follow “proper procedures.” In late April, Ennis-Grant signed two checks to Pitter after the state said he cannot receive a dime. The old board has also refused to hand over financial, student and personnel records as ordered.

Contradicting Ennis-Grant’s statement to Judge Graham, Riley said he was served his court paper on July 15.

Before being removed from the school last spring, Pitter appointed teacher Kimberly Childress as acting chancellor. At the old board’s last meeting July 2, Childress and former school administrator Allen Jones were given two-year contracts to co-run the school. However, the state said those contracts are most likely invalid.

“I’m sure I’ll be hired at least as a teacher,” Childress said in the courthouse yesterday. She said after Grzymkowski was given temporary reins, she called Pitter about a vendor to whom the school owes money.

“Pitter said, ‘Thank you,’” said Childress.

July 13, 2007

Bye, Bye

Dethroned Highville director Lyndon Pitter. File photo

By Sharon Bass

Yesterday afternoon, Hartford Judge James Graham wrested control of the scandal-infested Highville Mustard Seed Charter School from the old charge and gave the reins to a retired school superintendent.

Until July 23, that is, when there will be a full hearing in Hartford Superior Court to make a permanent receivership. Former school director Lyndon Pitter and his handpicked board of directors -- who have been seemingly trying to destroy the school -- will have a chance then to argue their case.

If Graham hadn't granted the state's 11th-hour wish, the 10-year-old school could have lost its charter.

“I think we just saved the school,” Highville’s new board chair Chip Croft said moments after hearing the judge’s decision. “All week we’ve been in active mode. We’re ready to move forward. We’ve been putting a huge amount of work into this.”

Croft said the newly established board of seven has met four or five times for three to four hours at a clip in the last week. (Click here for the roster of new board members.)

“Our focus is not looking backward,” he said of the myriad financial and other misdoings of Pitter and his handpicked board. “Our mantra at all our meetings has been, ‘300 kids. 300 kids.'”

One of those kids belongs to Allen London. While the news was encouraging, the man said he’s bitter. Like many other parents who say they feel betrayed by Pitter, he is skeptical and weary.

“I think we’re heading in the right direction. But I do have concerns. How many disgruntled teachers won’t be returning?  Those things need to be told to the parents,” London said. “I’m concerned whether or not the school will run efficiently. Who’s going to run the school? Who’s going to determine what the curriculum is going to be? Are they going to do a whole new hire for the teachers? Is the pay going to be competitive? Will it attract good teachers?

“The fact that the school has been embroiled in all this turmoil I don’t see all the parents bringing their kids back. Parents are pulling their kids out left and right,” he continued. “I still have some real concerns because it’s not the same atmosphere that existed before all this. That camaraderie. Especially if the state or anybody comes in and instills their ideas and their approaches. It’s not going to be the same thing that attracted me to Highville.”

London said he’s thinking of putting his daughter in a parochial school.

Highville’s enrollment has been around 300, and Croft said there are over 300 students who want to go to the school this fall.

After a special state Board of Education meeting Thursday morning where the Highville situation was discussed, Attorney General Dick Blumenthal asked the court to grant temporary receivership.

“ … to take control of the school’s assets, records and property from the old board,” Blumenthal wrote in a press release. “We take this unprecedented step as a last resort -- faced with continued resistance to responsible management and renovations necessary for fire code compliance, as well as other steps essential now to keep the school open. We must stop cronyism and corruption -- and wasteful internal conflict.”

Graham’s order says no money can go to Pitter or his family members, and all tangible assets -- desks, computers, school supplies -- the lease, and student and personnel records must be transferred to the appointed receiver, Virginia Grzymkowski, a retired Plymouth school super. Many times the state Deparment of Education ordered the same things, but the old board would not comply.

The ruling also states that Pitter and his board of devotees be “permanently enjoined” from making any decisions about the school, including hiring personnel -- like the co-chancellors the old board named at its last meeting. It voted to give acting chancellor Kimberly Childress and Highville administrator Allen Jones two-year contracts to co-run the school. In the first year, they would be paid $90,000 apiece.

State Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan said in a press release also issued yesterday: “Unfortunately, the current board of the charter school has failed to provide critical information and has failed to take action to correct these problems. We have given this board several ‘second chances’ but they can not [sic] or will not comply with the terms of their probationary letter.”

A couple of calls seeking comment from former board member Fatima Ennis-Grant resulted in hang-ups. “What are you calling my number for?” she said and hung up.

Cleaning House

Croft said one of the top issues the new board will tackle is the contracts given to Childress and Jones. The board is developing new policies on commingling of funds, conflicts of interest, etc. -- stuff that Pitter and his people violated for years, according to an 18-month state investigation that was released in March. And the board is also trying to resolve asset and debt problems.

But Croft said it’s been hard working on some of these things because Pitter’s board did not hand over staff, student and financial documents as state ordered.

The new chair said he wants to retain the current faculty but was unsure how many teachers might have gotten other jobs because of the uncertainty of the school’s future.

The new board will begin official meetings once the new charter is established.

Asked if he knows Pitter, Croft said no. He said he saw the former director several years ago at a Highville event but never talked to him or any old board members.

“This board has been carefully picked and has no ties to the old board,” Croft said. A search committee of parents, a teacher and community school officials chose the new board. None of Pitter’s people was allowed to be involved.

“The real winners today are the students and their families,” Blumenthal said in a written statement after the court decision. “This extraordinary step gives the school a new lease on life, an opportunity for renewal and reform. The receiver will have full authority to reorder the affairs of the school, readying it for transfer to a new board and new management that will seek academic excellence and integrity. The receiver, working with parents and the new board, will act expeditiously to address the school’s problems and prepare it for the fall.”

While Blumenthal and the new board have worked hard to keep the school from drowning, perhaps the biggest kudos go to the parents of the 300 children.

After realizing that Pitter and his board seem to be working against the charter school’s survival, they vigorously organized. They actively participated in board meetings. They filled out petitions to unseat Pitter’s board. And on July 2, they traveled to Hartford to meet face to face with Blumenthal to implore his help in keeping Highville alive.

The New Board

Chip Croft, chair, of New Haven, runs a video production company and is teaching at-risk New Haven children in a summer program

Alexis Highsmith, vice chair, of Hamden, attorney

Dawn Scott, vice chair, attorney

Dave Thompson, treasurer, account examiner for the state Office of Consumer Counsel

Rona Scott, secretary, Highville parent

Robin Pizzuto, member, Highville teacher

Zakiyyah Baker, member, Highville parent

Alternates: Highville parents Regina Martin and Flora Newton

Board attorney: William Bouton of Tyler Cooper

July 11, 2007

Out With the Old

Fighting till the bitter end, Highville board members David Lee, Richard Riley and Fatima Ennis-Grant. File photo

By Sharon Bass

The end is finally near for the remnants of the old Highville Mustard Seed Charter School board. The few remaining members have been tenaciously clinging onto the school, using various tactics to keep a newly chosen board from taking over.

July 9 was the old board's latest and reportedly last deadline to submit a proper corrective action plan to the state Department of Education in response to a nearly two-year ongoing investigation of the Leeder Hill Drive school and its former director, Lyndon Pitter, and his ex-wife, Nadine Pitter. The plan was submitted just in the nick of time Monday, but is apparently incomplete.

Tomorrow, the state Board of Education will hold a special meeting. Highville will be on the agenda.

“The corrective action plan is fairly incomplete,” said Tom Murphy of the education department. “It called for a number of reports and information as well as some actions by the old board. The resolutions [given to the state Monday] do not provide information the state required. There are some deficiencies.”

Murphy said he couldn’t elaborate further.

“This is un-chartered waters,” he said. Asked if the education commissioner could remove the old board, Murphy said perhaps.

If the Department of Ed deems the old board -- Pitter loyalists who seem bent on keeping the school from trading hands and surviving -- did not comply with its demands, the matter will go to the attorney general for possible legal action.

“We have found a number of deficiencies and problems in the information that was provided,” said AG Dick Blumenthal. “There seems to be an intent to interfere with the new board and its exercise of authority. They have to transfer assets and property and are not doing so.”

Also, Blumenthal said, they have failed to provide “key information about payments made to Lyndon Pitter and other information about assets and liabilities. We’re reviewing what was submitted to see if the compliance is sufficient or additional actions need to be taken. We will reach a conclusion very promptly.” Asked how promptly, he said in a day or two.

Because the school of 300 children -- not quite 100 from Hamden -- is considered a good learning facility by parents and teachers, state officials say they want to see the school survive.

“We’re going to take every action possible within our authority to preserve and enhance this school for the sake of the children and their parents,” said Blumenthal. “We’re going to do everything possible to make sure the school opens this fall. One of the reasons for the state Department of Education acting carefully and deliberately is to make sure the children and their families are the first and foremost priority.”

Unfortunately, the old board members seem to have put Pitter as their first and foremost priority. He’s not allowed to have anything to do with the school he founded because of findings of financial and other improprieties. The state and U.S. attorneys’ offices are reviewing the report from the investigation and could press criminal charges against Pitter, his ex-wife and the few remaining board members.

“We’re trying to give them the benefit of the doubt to have a transition to the new board,” said Murphy. “We just don’t know at this time. We’re still reviewing.”

July 3, 2007

Maybe, Hopefully

Board of directors David Lee, Richard Riley and Fatima Ennis-Grant with attorneys Stephen Sedor and Donald Houston. Photo/Sharon Bass

“God help us so our school don’t shut down. Please help us.” Highville parent Robin Godwin’s 7-year-old daughter to Attorney General Blumenthal on July 2.

By Sharon Bass


Hoping for definitive answers at Monday evening’s board meeting of the Highville Mustard Seed Charter School, parents got few. They wanted to know when the newly chosen board would come on and the current board be forever severed from school business. They wanted to know if the teachers -- all of whom have been fired -- would be rehired. They wanted to know if the school of 300 children would survive.

The tail end of Monday's meeting. Highville parent Robin Godwin at podium tells board chair Lee that he is self-serving, among other things. Click arrow to watch.

And they were fed a bunch of maybes with a couple of definites.

Board chair David Lee announced that the development corporation, formed 10 years ago to start the school, was suing five parties (not named) and the board gave two current employees contracts to co-run the Leeder Hill Drive school for the next two years.

If those two-year contracts the outgoing board unanimously approved for acting chancellor Kimberly Childress and administrator Allen Jones are not contested, the new board will have no say in who runs the school. And considering that the current board members seem to be -- and have been accused of -- continuing to carry out dethroned and disgraced former director Lyndon Pitter’s orders, many felt it was illogical and unsound for them to be allowed to do the picking. Each chancellor is to be paid 90 grand for the first year.

For the umpteenth time, the state Department of Education gave the current board another extension to wrap up its business and separate from the school. The latest deadline is July 9. A new corporation, named Highville Charter School, will be formed and the Highville Mustard Seed Development Corporation, run by Pitter, is to have nothing to do with the state-financed charter school.

“I think everyone will be pleased after tonight’s meeting,” said Lee, who replaced Hamden lawyer John Gesmonde as board chair at a meeting last week. He said the corporation will continue “to empower.” Pitter’s private preschool Global Kids Academy, housed in the same building as the public charter school, will multiply, Lee said. Plans are for four new preschools in New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford. Enrollment would go from 20 to 130 children.

About 50 parents showed up for what may have been this board’s final meeting. No one knew for sure. Parents waited nearly an hour for the 6:30 p.m. meeting to start. Then waited another 40 minutes while the board went into executive session with Childress and Jones.

But waiting doesn’t deter this determined group. It’s been waiting for months to know if Highville will see the next school year, and has been strung along as the board seemed to employ delay tactics.

When no board members showed up for a scheduled meeting last week, parents organized to save the school. As a result, 25 went to see Attorney General Dick Blumenthal yesterday afternoon to let him know how much the charter school means to them and their children.

They left the meeting saying they felt they were heard. That the AG understood their love for the school.

“They did listen. You feel they are committed to saving it,” said parent Cecilia Thomson-Jones, wife of Allen Jones. She said Blumenthal, a half-dozen attorneys from his office and state Department of Education officials attended the 80-minute meeting.

Thomson-Jones said one ed official said, “It appears the board had had a change of heart.”

“I thought it went good,” said parent Lorenzo Foreman. “They are going to hold the board accountable.”

“They told us to give them a call [today] to tell them how tonight’s meeting went,” said his wife, Toni Foreman.

“They were confident that these guys [current board] will do the right thing,” said Lorenzo. “They’re going to give them a last shot and this is it.”

But Monday’s board meeting ended quite differently. During public input, parents let out their anger at the board. Chairman Lee shouted back and the room erupted in hollering. Lee ended the meeting.

A mother had asked if Monday night was the board’s last meeting.

“We hope this is,” Lee answered.

“Because we want to clap you so hard when you leave,” she said.

Parent Robin Godwin, a lead organizer in yesterday’s trip to Hartford, asked why the board hired two chancellors and no teachers.

No response.

“You started off saying the parents will be happy when they leave the meeting, but I’m not happy,” Godwin said. Again she asked why the teachers haven't been rehired.

Lee responded that he had said “may be pleased.”

Godwin had more queries.

She wanted to know about the “$120,000” that was given to a “former employee” as severance pay. “You’re still not being honest with us tonight,” Godwin said.

“You’re out of order,” Lee said.

“You are self-serving. You yourself are being investigated,” Godwin said to Lee, who allegedly embezzled from the New Haven church he was with until recently.

“You have some nerve” wanting to do criminal checks on the new board members, she said. (The state said that was unallowable; parents had interpreted the checks as a mechanism to stall the process to allow the school to change hands and continue.)

Other parents began venting.

Lee adjourned the meeting.

Though the ending was rough and uncertainties remained, attorneys said the board did its job last night in giving permission for them to finalize legal papers and such to establish the new corporation and new board. The corrective action plan, as written by the state, was finally approved with an addendum saying the plan should not supersede federal, state or local law.

Corporate attorney Michael Brown said he would bring the incorporation certificate to the secretary of the state’s office today. But he said it would likely be the end of next week before the new board of seven is seated because he’s going out of state at the end of the week and won’t be able to complete the process before then.

“I think the board has done all the authorizations and resolutions to effect the complete separation,” said Bridgeport attorney Donald Houston.


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