Athletic facility closer to reality

By Rachael Scarborough King Register Staff
June 23, 2008

GUILFORD — Work is moving forward on plans to turn an old portable classroom at Guilford High School into an athletic training facility.

The Board of Education recently gave a group of parents working on the project permission to go ahead with plans to apply for town permits for the construction. And the various school parties involved have come to an agreement about how everyone will be accommodated.

The school’s theater arts department currently uses the building, which sits near the football field, for prop and costume storage. Custodial and maintenance workers also use it as an office space and for storage.

Clifford Gurnham, the district’s director of operations, told the Board of Education at its last regular meeting that work to turn the outbuilding into a weight room will involve two stages. In the first stage, the current uses of the structure will move into the existing weight room – underneath the gymnasium in the main high school building – or into a to-be-purchased outdoor shed.

In the second phase, the district will add new lockers in a hallway behind the auditorium for the theater arts supplies and another shed will accommodate the maintenance and custodial workers. The wrestling team will then gain the use of the current weight room.

Fred Trotta, a father involved with the effort to build the new facility, said that the group will now apply for town permits for the project. It has already done some work clearing out the building.

Several Guilford businesses, including A&W Sanitation and Pasquariello Electric Corporation, are donating services, and Trotta estimated that the total value of the work and equipment will be more than $100,000. Guilford’s volunteer fire department has also agreed to donate some used weightlifting equipment, Trotta said.

Trotta said the current weight room has problems including poor ventilation and lack of space. The idea to transform the outbuilding into a new training facility was proposed by another parent, Ken Horton, he said.

“It wasn’t being used well,” Trotta said. “With a little creativity and everyone coming together … by the time it’s done, we’re going to have a great facility.”

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200 Guilford seniors denied tax relief benefits

By Rachael Scarborough King Register Staff
June 23, 2008

GUILFORD — About 200 participants in the town’s Elderly Tax Relief Program were unable to receive benefits this year as the amount of money in the program exceeded its cap by more than $300,000.

The tax freeze for elderly Guilford residents sets their taxes at a certain rate when they enter the program. The town currently has a cap of about $360,000 for the amount of taxes that can be frozen through the program, Assessor Edmund Corapinski said.

Due to a revaluation that saw property values rise by an average of more than 30 percent, taxes for people in the program rose this year, causing it to exceed the cap, Corapinski said.

The program also went over the cap last year, Corapinski said, by about $30,000.

Residents in the program are broken into three tiers, depending on income. Corapinski said that the town had to remove all 215 people in the highest income tier from the program this year, meaning that they will pay normal taxes based on the mill rate and assessed value of their property.

About 675 people total participate in the tax freeze program.

Participants have to reapply annually, and the people who lost benefits this year could receive them again next year.

“They’ll be put back onto the program,” Corapinski said. “Hopefully, (town officials) fund the program with more money and they’ll continue their benefits.”

The Board of Selectmen met with Corapinski and a member of the Tax Stabilization Committee, which first developed the tax freeze program nearly 10 years ago, this week to discuss possible solutions. First Selectman Carl Balestracci said there will be future meetings and the Board of Selectmen may ultimately make a recommendation to the Board of Finance to change the system.

“We discussed everything from possibly increasing the cap, reducing the threshold for those who qualify, a combination of both or maybe have no cap at all,” Balestracci said. “All of these are a little complicated and they’re going to take some tweaking. Whatever the final recommendation is, it’s going to take some work for us to accomplish.”

Balestracci added that people who were eliminated from the program this year will still have their taxes frozen at the same level as previously if they reapply next year.

“Those people who lose the benefit for this year will go back on next year, provided they still qualify and whatnot at the old tax rate that they had, because it was through no fault of their own,” he said.

Corapinski said he expects the program to exceed the cap again next year if no changes are made.

“The amount of money that the town wants to put to this program has to be significantly increased,” he said. “If it’s not, this will happen again next year.”

Saybrook names Spera deputy chief

By Rachael Scarborough King Register Staff
June 19, 2008

OLD SAYBROOK — The Police Commission has promoted Lt. Michael Spera, the only applicant for the job, to deputy police chief.

The promotion comes at a time when the attorney general’s office is investigating the department and Police Chief Edmund Mosca is under scrutiny for his handling of a department fund.

Spera was sworn in Tuesday morning.

The commission last month decided to restructure the department and bring back the deputy chief’s job, which was eliminated four years ago. Commissioners said they did not intend to search outside the department for the new deputy chief, and Spera was the only one of the town’s three lieutenants to apply.

The motion to appoint Spera passed by a vote of 5-2, with Commissioners Rich Metsack and Ray Dobratz dissenting.

Metsack said he voted against the promotion because of the shortage of candidates.

“We just didn’t have anyone to choose from,” he said. “We’re going to have him in there forever because he’s so young and that happened once before with Chief Mosca, and after someone is in a certain seat so long, it’s almost like they own it.”

Mosca has been chief for more than 37 years.

Last month, Metsack voted against the reorganization plan because he wanted the commission to require the deputy chief to have a college degree, which none of the three lieutenants had.

Spera said most of his role will be to oversee the day-to-day operations of the department and serve as its second in command.

“It’s an honor to be selected by the commission and appointed as the deputy chief, and I look forward to continuing to serve the people of Old Saybrook,” he said. “The recent reorganization provides a lot of opportunities for us to build on a very strong foundation in our police department.”

But some in town questioned the move while Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s investigation is ongoing. Blumenthal is looking into Mosca’s use of the McMurray-Kirtland Memorial Fund, which the chief initially termed a private fund used at his discretion for department expenses.

In March, the Freedom of Information Commission ruled that fund’s records are in fact public documents.

Blumenthal said the investigation is continuing.

“Our investigation is active and ongoing and we’re seeking additional documents and possibly other evidence but we will conclude as soon as possible,” he said.

Town resident Mary Hansen, who filed the FOI complaint for information about the fund, said she thinks the commission should have delayed making a decision on the deputy chief position until Blumenthal finishes his investigation.

Hansen read a statement criticizing the commission at a meeting Monday night at which Spera was promoted.

“I made my comments and it did nothing,” she said. “These people just seem to think that this investigation by the attorney general is just something that you talk about, that it doesn’t really exist.”

Hansen said she will look into challenging the meeting, because she believes Commission Chairwoman Christina Burnham should have recused herself. Burnham said she represented Spera in his application for a subdivision before the town Planning Commission, but she added she does not believe it created a conflict of interest.

“It’s been completed, it’s closed,” she said. “It has absolutely nothing to do with the police department and I was never in a fiduciary relationship with him.”

Hansen said she also plans to investigate whether it was proper for the commission’s entire interview of Spera to be conducted in executive session. The commission returned to public session to vote, but there was no chance for input from the audience.

Spera, 33, started in the department as a dispatcher when he was 18 and became an officer when he was 21. He will earn $88,000 a year as deputy chief, including overtime.

“His resume showed us that he had education and training suitable for the job — he’s had 13 years of experience on the job,” Burnham said. “He successfully answered all of the commissioners’ questions and we decided that he was the appropriate person to promote.”

Spera’s lieutenant position will not be filled. As part of the restructuring, the commission decided on a system with the chief, one deputy chief, two lieutenants and five sergeants. The commission is now working on hiring three new sergeants to fill the jobs.

Grads go forth with lessons from past

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
June 17, 2008

NORTH BRANFORD — The top two students in North Branford High School’s class of 2008 looked to their childhoods for inspiration as they addressed their classmates at graduation Monday.

Valedictorian Corey Dwyer evoked the “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” TV show, while salutatorian Samantha Flanagan discussed the lessons of Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham,” in their remarks to the 175 graduates.

“He influenced the Rangers into doing what was just,” Dwyer said of a character on the show, “similar to what our parents, teachers and counselors have done for us.”

Flanagan said the Dr. Seuss story “still has important lessons for us today.”

“The moral of the story is that you should always try new things because you never know what you are going to like,” she said. “It is in trying new things that we discover who we are as individuals.”

Even Superintendent of Schools Robert Wolfe got in the spirit, quoting from a Curious George story.

He noted that the character’s traits, such as ingenuity, imagination and, of course, curiosity, are ones that students should cultivate as they address the challenges of today’s society.

Alex Bode, 18, was among the excited graduates Monday. Bode faced particular challenges during high school, as she uses a wheelchair due to a condition called Friedreich’s ataxia.

The inherited neurological disease causes degeneration of the spinal cord.

Bode, who took some classes at Southern Connecticut State University this school year, will attend Southern in the fall. Her sister, Sam, also has Friedreich’s ataxia and attends Southern.

Their mother, Mary Caruso, said she is nervous but happy to see Alex move forward in life. “It’s exciting — my last daughter graduating,” Caruso said. “It’s been a tough year for her. She’s had some medical obstacles, but she’s still graduating with honors.”

Principal Michele Saulis said that 85 percent of the class of 2008 is going on to higher education, with 70 percent of the graduates going to four-year colleges.

“You have made (your family) very proud by earning your way to this ceremony tonight,” Saulis said. “Isn’t it great to fulfill a dream? It’s great to fulfill your own dreams, but even better to fulfill someone else’s.”

From jail to Yale Law: 1 man’s inspiring story

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
June 17, 2008

When Andres Idarraga appeared before a parole board in Rhode Island in 2003, he had a powerful argument on his side: an acceptance letter to the University of Rhode Island.

The board granted his request for early release, and four years after leaving the Adult Correctional Institute in Cranston, R.I., Idarraga is a Brown University graduate headed to Yale Law School this fall.

Idarraga, who transferred to Brown following his freshman year at URI, served more than six years of a 14-year sentence for extortion, blackmail and possession of a controlled substance, according to the Rhode Island Department of Corrections.

Now 30, he is getting ready to attend the top-ranked law school in the country.

“I received a call and I had to sit down for a second — I was in shock,” he said of learning he had been accepted at Yale. “I really did not know how to react. I had to think, ‘This is my life, this is me.’”

He became interested in attending law school during his junior year at Brown, he said, when he studied a 2007 Supreme Court decision dealing with school segregation. Yale was his first choice for law school, in part because of its Education Adequacy Clinic, which works to ensure equal educational opportunities for children.

Applicants to Yale Law School are asked whether they have been convicted of a crime, and if so, to explain the circumstances. A previous conviction “is not an automatic rejection,” Director of Public Affairs Jan Conroy wrote in an e-mail.

Ashbel Wall, the director of Rhode Island’s Department of Corrections, graduated from Yale Law School in 1980 and said he had a classmate who had also served a drug-related sentence in a state prison. Wall got to know Idarraga after his release, and wrote a letter of recommendation for his Yale application.

Idarraga’s story has proved to be a strong example for others incarcerated or out on parole, Wall said. Last week, Idarraga spoke at several graduation ceremonies for inmates who had completed GED or other degree programs.

“I have a chance to watch the inmate audience — they are rapt with attention and inevitably give him a rousing standing ovation,” Wall said. “He represents hope and the possibility that if you do the right thing, the future can be brighter.”

But Wall said that Idarraga’s trajectory is remarkable. He noted that 60 percent of the inmates at the ACI have not completed high school or a GED program, and 68 percent can only read at an eighth-grade level or lower. About half of the inmates are back in police custody within three years of being released, he added.

“It’s an enormous triumph for an inmate even to earn the GED,” he said. “Andres’ accomplishment is the equivalent of shooting the moon.”

Idarraga was a smart kid growing up in Pawtucket and Central Falls, R.I., earning a scholarship to a prestigious preparatory school in Providence. But, he said, the lure of the quick cash available through drugs proved to be too strong a temptation.

“Instead of hitting the books a little harder, which I should have done, and saying, ‘This is the way to get through it,’ I saw the rewards of education so far off and so abstract,” he said. “I saw the rewards of the street and doing some hustling so much more concrete, and being a young kid I said, ‘I want the rewards now.’”

In 1998, when he was 20, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison. After serving some of his sentence, he began using the time to educate himself and tutor others working toward their GED.

He applied to college from prison — asking friends and family to call colleges and request applications — and was accepted at the University of Rhode Island. In 2005, he transferred to Brown, where he pursued a double major in literature and economics.

While at Brown, Idarraga became deeply involved with RI Right to Vote, an effort to restore voting rights to people on probation and parole. A constitutional referendum on the issue won voter approval in November 2006.

Ariel Werner, a friend from Brown who worked with Idarraga on the effort, called him “more than a poster boy” for the cause.

“He was a spokesman and an incredible spokesman, and he was juggling his academics during his first year at Brown with that role,” Werner said. “I was immediately incredibly impressed with him, and I came from a D.C. suburb where I was too sheltered from a lot of the issues that I’m now principally interested in, so Andres’ story was sort of groundbreaking for someone like me.”

Friends and mentors described Idarraga as a genuine, motivated person with strong intellectual ability and curiosity. Angel Green, a professor at URI who encouraged Idarraga to apply to Brown, called his scholastic ability “outstanding.”

“He was able to develop a very introspective view of himself that said he wanted to be his very best and in order to be his very best, he had to have access to the very best,” Green said. “For me, he possessed a very rare intellectual capacity that was very indicative of an inquisitive, imaginative, logical genius.”

Oscar Beltran, a childhood friend, said Idarraga was “a bright kid.” Beltran visited Idarraga while he was in prison, and his friend always asked him to send books.

“When your family is struggling financially and you can see a way of making a quick buck here and there, sometimes your nearsightedness can cause you to lose track,” Beltran said. “Even though it’s a tough lesson to learn being locked up, I said (to Idarraga), ‘You had 6½ years to mature mentally and learn from the mistakes that you made when you were younger.”

Like Idarraga, who emigrated from Colombia when he was 7 years old, Beltran has a Colombian background.

“He learned a tough lesson, and now he’s in a position where he can be a positive example for millions of Latin American people in the community, and as well for felons,” Beltran said.

Wall said he believes Yale Law School will be a good fit for Idarraga because of the intellectual community that is formed by members of the small school.

“It really provides its students with an atmosphere that encourages creativity and very broad thinking about the role of law in society,” he said. “I’m proud that my alma mater has the confidence to accept someone like Andres. I think that he will reflect great credit on Yale Law.”

Idarraga said that he found the Brown community very supportive when some students and professors learned of his experiences.

When he moves to New Haven later this summer, it will be the first time he has lived outside Rhode Island.

“It is a new beginning,” he said. “I’m very much looking forward to it. I’m nervous, but it’s a good nervous.”

Boys learn what ‘dads’ really do

Program teaches kids how to be successful men, good fathers

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
June 15, 2008

NEW HAVEN — The 30 boys standing in a classroom at Church on the Rock on Hamilton Street Saturday spoke loudly in unison.

“When I am a father, my family will be able to depend on me,” they said. “When I am a father, I will let my family know how important they are to me.”

The boys were preparing for a special Father’s Day service at Church on the Rock today, when they and mentors in the church’s Boys 2 Men program will appear in front of the congregation. The boys, led by Boys 2 Men director Michael Brooks, will make a series of vows related to an acronym for “father”: Faithful, affirming, trustworthy, honorable, engaged and responsible.

The Father’s Day activities have included discussions of what it means to be a good father.

“The boys are gong to be reciting what it means to be a great dad,” Brooks said. “They’re going to be affirming what it means as a dad to be faithful to your children.”

During Saturday’s rehearsal, the mentors in the program also taught some of the children how to tie a tie, which they will wear today. The boys range in age from six or seven years old to early adolescence.

“The whole objective is to work with them as early as possible so when they’re blessed to have their own children they’ll be as successful as possible, said Brooks, whose 7-year-old son Michael is a participant.

The Boys 2 Men program has been in place for a few years, but this is the first year the roughly 35 participants have worked on a special Father’s Day element, Brooks said.

“We’re working with the boys to transition them into manhood, giving them the skill sets they need to be successful in school (and) to be successful in life,” he said.

On Saturday, several of the boys in the program said they have enjoyed talking about the role of fathers.

“Being a good father means being there for you family, like if your child gets hurt as school, you’ll be there to pick them up,” said Lonzo Reed, 11. “If they have a cold, (you) get them some chicken noodle soup.”

Edwin Rodriguez, 11, said he thinks he has learned more about how to be a good father.

“I’ve learned that there’s more to being a father than meets the eye,” he said. “You think that fathers are just there to teach their sons how to live, but they’re there to help kids do what they need to do — get them to school, help them with school activities.”

Not all the participants in the Boys 2 Men program are members of Church on the Rock. For more information on the group, call the church at 498-2687 or e-mail cotr@snet.net.

Hit-run victim, 11, laid to rest

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
June 15, 2008

HAMDEN — Hundreds of people filled the Edgewood Park Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses Saturday t o lay to rest 11-year-old Gabrielle Lee.

The hall overflowed with mourners for Gabrielle, who died June 5 after being struck by a hit-and-run driver while crossing Whalley Avenue in New Haven. In the entrance to the hall, poster boards filled with smiling photos of the girl stood as a tribute to “Gabby.”

In the parking lot outside, her second cousin Jose DeJesus remembered Gabrielle as a vibrant child.

“She was a very happy girl, very outgoing,” he said.

Maurice Daylie, who described himself as her aunt’s boyfriend, said that the services Friday night and Saturday were a show of support for the family.

“It’s just a very tough situation in regards for her mother, father, brother and sisters, grandparents, aunts and uncles,” he said. “She comes from a very loving family and everyone is just trying to be supportive.”

Daylie described Gabrielle as “an angel.”

“She was a beautiful child, very intelligent,” he said. “It’s hard to put in words what everyone’s going through right now because this was so unforeseen.”

Police are still looking for the driver of the Volkswagen Jetta that hit Gabrielle, and Gov. M. Jodi Rell has authorized a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the driver.

Gabrielle was a fifth-grade student at Elm City College Prep and lived in Westville with her family. She is survived by her parents, Jeffrey and Martha Lee, as well as a brother and two sisters.

Memorial contributions for Gabrielle can be sent to 1234 Forest Rd., New Haven, 06515.