Bill allows for school board balance

Published: Friday, March 27, 2009
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

GUILFORD — Although nonpartisan boards of education are common in other parts of the country, they are almost nonexistent in Connecticut.

Earlier this year, state Sen. Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, introduced a bill that would give communities the option to make their educational bodies nonpartisan. He told a handful of town residents Thursday he did not think the bill has a strong chance of passing this year, but he would continue raising the issue in Hartford.

Meyer and Gary Brochu, chairman of Berlin’s nonpartisan Board of Education — the only one in the state — discussed the bill in an event presented by the Guilford Parent-Teacher Association.

The bill, “An act concerning members of local boards of education and repealing of minority representation requirements for boards of education,” was referred to the General Assembly’s Education Committee. Meyer said he hoped it would make it to the floor for discussion.

“This is a bill that looks to me as if it’s not going to be passed the first year,” he said. “People have to think about it, they have to take on a tradition, think about it in a broader way and see that nonpartisanship can be a good thing.”

The bill would allow municipalities to decide to have nonpartisan elections for the board of education, and would eliminate requirements limiting the number of candidates from one party on a board.

“It’s what we legislators call an enabling act — it’s not a mandate,” Meyer said. “It says among the choices you have you can do a nonpartisan board.”

Brochu said that Berlin has had a nonpartisan school board since the 1960s and was “grandfathered” in when the state passed laws requiring minority representation on the boards. He said he was not advocating that Guilford adopt a nonpartisan board, but that he is in favor of towns having the option to do so.

“I’ve seen wonderful partisan boards, I’ve seen horrible partisan boards,” Brochu said. “Things change — this is not any guarantee whatsoever.”

Brochu said that in Berlin, people run for the Board of Education by obtaining the signatures of 1 percent of residents; there is no nomination process for the positions. In Guilford and many other towns, local Republican and Democratic town committees nominate people for the posts.

PTA President Lisa Fiala said she thinks that — although independents can also run for seats by getting signatures from local residents — the party nominating process may discourage some people from running for the Guilford board.

“It’s very difficult, I think, to run and win a campaign in any town as an independent,” she said.

Meyer said that he hopes to continue the discussion about the bill even if it does not pass this legislative session.

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Board looks at new high school options

Published: Friday, February 27, 2009
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

GUILFORD — Preserving 25,000 square feet of space at Guilford High School would only shave $2 million to $4 million off the more than $112 million cost of replacing the school, architectural consultants told the Board of Education Thursday.

Board members had hoped to significantly reduce the cost of a new school by incorporating the math and science wing built in 1998. Architects from Fletcher Thompson said Thursday they will continue analyzing the numbers and hope to reduce the price.

The architects offered the board two options for including the 25,000-square-foot wing and saving the football field and track.

The first, with a cost estimate of $108 million, would be more compact, but place classrooms on either side of the building. The second plan, with a preliminary price of about $110 million, would have classrooms closer together and a large interior courtyard.

Board members did not make a choice between the options. Chairman William Bloss suggested holding a joint meeting with the boards of Selectmen and Finance next month to discuss a timeline for putting the project before voters at a referendum.

“I would remain hopeful that there is a greater savings” in preserving the existing space, Bloss said.

Initial estimates had put the cost of a new high school, built next to the current school and eliminating the football field and track, at $112 million. The school board voted last year to recommend replacing the school, and decided earlier this year to direct the architects to preserve the math and science wing and the recently installed football field.

The existing wing would need some renovations to make it part of the larger project, and there would be significant site work involved in replacing septic and sports fields, leading to the high cost estimates even with the reused space, the architects said.

The two options presented Thursday include between 220,000 and 230,000 square feet.

Superintendent of Schools Thomas Forcella said the initial goal was to look at the feasibility of building a new school off the math and science wing.

“I think we’re comfortable that it can be done,” he said. “We would hope to see more savings than $2 (million) to $4 million.”

Board members expressed enthusiasm about the architectural plans, but noted that they are likely to change. The current proposal has construction ending in 2012.

“I think that while this is all interesting, it’s still preliminary, and we still have a lot of work to do to move this forward,” board member Alan Meyers said. “What we end up with may not look anything like this.”

Board may borrow $1M for school projects

Published: Wednesday, February 25, 2009
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

GUILFORD — The Board of Education is considering borrowing $1 million to improve the air quality at Elisabeth C. Adams Middle School.

Board members discussed the proposed capital projects at a workshop meeting this week and are scheduled to vote on them Thursday night, Board of Education Chairman William Bloss said. The work would require voters to approve bonding at a referendum.

When the Board of Education voted in September to replace Guilford High School and continue studying whether to rebuild Adams, board members agreed that it was necessary to complete some health and safety improvement at the middle school right away.

Bloss said air circulation is one of the major issues at Adams. Last year, the school district conducted extensive drainage work at the school aimed at solving a persistent flooding problem. So far, flooding has not recurred, although administrators have said they are waiting for the spring thaw to see whether the problem has been solved.

The possible new work would involve adding capacity to the school’s electrical system so it could handle more air conditioners and circulators, Bloss said.

“The old part of the building has no air circulation at all — it was built in the days before they had any kind of air handling system,” he said. The original part of the Church Street school dates to 1938.

The projects under consideration are expected to cost about $1 million, Superintendent Thomas Forcella said. The board is also considering asking voters to approve bonding to repair roofs at several schools, which is maintenance work that the district does annually.

The town’s budget referendum, which would include any bonding questions approved by the Board of Finance, is tentatively scheduled for April 14, according to the town Web site.

Bloss said there were projects left off the list because of the adverse economic climate this year. Last year, voters approved about $3 million in bonding for the drainage work at Adams, a new roof at A.W. Cox Elementary School, reconfiguring the parking lot at Abraham Baldwin Middle School and digging new wells at Melissa Jones School.

“There’s one roof at the high school that we think we can put off, and anything like that that we can do (we will),” Bloss said. “Anything that can be delayed without conditions deteriorating to a degree that far greater expense would be involved, we’re postponing.”

Also at Thursday’s meeting, board members will receive new proposals for the high school replacement that incorporate the building’s most recent addition, done in 1998.

The board has asked the architects, Fletcher Thompson, to preserve the 25,000-square-foot math and science wing in the hope of reducing the anticipated $112 million cost of the new school.

Thursday’s meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. in the Adams Middle School chorus room.

Saybrook group wants revaluation put on hold

Published: Monday, February 23, 2009
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

OLD SAYBROOK — A group of residents is hoping to postpone the implementation of the latest revaluation, saying that the nationwide real estate slump has rendered the values inaccurate.

The Old Saybrook Taxpayers Association is asking the Board of Selectmen to delay putting the revaluation into effect, OSTA Chairwoman Jean Castagno said.

“What we’re asking the selectmen to do is to petition the (state) Office of Policy and Management to rescind the evaluation of 10/1/08 and/or delay it because the economy has changed so dramatically since last September,” Castagno said.

First Selectman Michael Pace said he considered options in case the revaluation was “severely flawed,” but after reviewing housing sales data since the revaluation was completed in October, he believes the values are accurate.

“I did have some concerns that we didn’t get caught in the middle of really a swing cycle here,” Pace said.

Residents and the Board of Selectmen discussed the revaluation at the board’s meeting last week.

State Rep. Marilyn Giuliano, whose district includes Old Saybrook, has introduced a bill to allow towns to postpone revaluations. The bill, which has been referred to the Committee on Planning and Development, does not specify whether it would include towns that recently completed a revaluation.

Pace said he testified before the General Assembly regarding the legislation earlier this month.

State statute requires municipalities to conduct regular property revaluations. A town’s legislative body can choose to phase in the increased assessment over a period of time, according to the statutes.

Property values rose 32 percent in the October revaluation, Assessor Norman Wood said. The process was a statistical revaluation, meaning that it did not involve a physical survey of properties. The revaluation takes place every five years.

Wood said he has monitored prices on the roughly 30 home sales in town since October, and the town’s revised values from October were “within 2 percent of what they sold for.”

“During the summer, it was obvious that the sale prices were sliding a little bit … (but) it hasn’t been as bad here along the shoreline as it has been across the country,” he said. “I started tempering the values in July because it was obvious something was going on.”

He added the town already has a large increase in homeowners appealing their revaluations, with 1,500 people making appointments to discuss the values. Following the last revaluation in 2003, about 550 people appealed, Wood said.

Pace said there would have to be evidence that the revaluation was off by more than 5 percent to ask to delay the implementation.

“Looking at what is the current law to vacate, I don’t think there is any standard that would allow me to go to OPM and say, ‘This revaluation was flawed,’ because the numbers that (the assessor’s office) just did show that it’s not,” he said. “If it’s within the legal ranges, then that’s a decision that I’ll have to make. You don’t always make popular decisions, but you have to make legally correct decisions.”

Castagno said the OSTA group is continuing to meet and is encouraging more residents to get involved. The members meet every Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Acton Public Library, she said.

The group is looking into whether residents can directly petition OPM about the revaluation, Castagno said.

“The interest in delaying this is very, very strong,” she said. “People are very, very angry about the whole thing.”

Land trust buys ‘Soundview’ with intent to sell to state

Published: Thursday, February 19, 2009
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

GUILFORD — The Land Conservation Trust has completed the purchase of the “Soundview” property near the mouth of the East River, but is planning to sell the land to the state in the near future.

Stephen Besse, president of the Land Conservation Trust, said that the organization moved to buy the land, fearing that a deal could fall through while the state Department of Environmental Protection waited to secure funding for the purchase.

The 45-acre parcel of salt marsh and forest is surrounded by the East River Marsh Wildlife Management Area, which the DEP owns.

It lies south of the train tracks near Soundview and Saw Pit roads.

The Land Conservation Trust has agreed with the DEP to sell the property to the state once it secures funding.

“This has been a priority piece for the DEP for a long time, but they don’t stay as up on local things, so it was really the Land Trust that approached the owners and put the deal together,” Besse said. “We talked with DEP, but DEP wasn’t willing or able to close on it in the time frame the owners wanted.”

The Land Conservation Trust paid $360,000 for the property and the DEP has secured a $261,250 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service toward the purchase, but the money has not yet become available, Besse said.

He added that he expects the trust to sell the land to the DEP for $360,000 later this year.

Several other groups have also committed funds toward the state purchase, including the Land Conservation Trust and The Nature Conservancy, both of which have pledged $15,000, Besse said.

“This is not really a public-access piece so much as it is going to be wildlife preserve,” he said. “It’s wonderful habitat.”

The property is also known as the “Guilford Sluice” and “Saw Pit,” according to the Land Conservation Trust.

A proposal was put forward several years ago that would have seen the land developed with high-end housing, but there were issues with access to the area requiring a bridge over the railroad tracks, Besse said.

“The project didn’t go forward at that time and so we approached the landowners and came to terms with them,” he said.

The area is visible from the Guilford marina at the end of Old Whitfield Street.

“It’s a view that people probably take for granted but it would certainly be very missed,” Besse said.

Town releases e-mail addresses at resident’s request

Published: Thursday, February 19, 2009
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

OLD SAYBROOK — A local man who requested a list of all the e-mail addresses that have been entered into the town Web site said he did so to make a point about the availability of government-related information.

Richard Goduti requested the e-mail addresses late last year, and the town posted a notice on its Web site last month saying it had released them. Goduti said he has not used the addresses and has no plans for them.

The town’s Web site has a section called “Subscribe to News” that allows people to enter their e-mail addresses in order to receive the minutes and agendas for boards and commissions.

“I don’t think it’s information that the town should have and not share,” Goduti said. “If it was available to the town, it should be available to anybody.”

Goduti added that, as a registered Democrat, he thought the addresses should be equally available to all political parties.

The addresses did not have names attached to them, Goduti said. He added that he has not counted the number of addresses, especially as there may be duplicates for the different boards and commissions.

Roland Laine, executive assistant for the selectmen’s office, said that he did not know how many addresses were released. He noted there were more than a dozen people on the list to receive agendas from the Board of Selectmen, and 30 to 40 people receiving the board’s minutes.

Laine said the town has had the e-mail option on its Web site for “at least three years.”

The town received a request for the addresses after Goduti contacted the state Freedom of Information Commission to see whether the information was public under the Freedom of Information Act, Laine said. He added that he spoke to an official at the commission before releasing the lists.

Laine said he had not previously considered whether the addresses would be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The act states that “all records maintained or kept on file by any public agency, whether or not such records are required by any law or by any rule or regulation, shall be public records and every person shall have the right to (1) inspect such records promptly during regular office or business hours, (2) copy such records … or (3) receive a copy of such records.”

The town has not changed the input section of its Web site to explicitly inform residents that the names are public information, Laine said.

“I hadn’t thought about that, but it’s probably something we should do,” he said. He added that he had received one inquiry about the issue since informing people about it through the Web site.

Goduti said he was not sure why the town put a note on its Web site about his request.

“Any and all information is available through FOI, and it bothered me that they even bothered to put that up on the town Web site,” he said. “(That) basically is the reason that I wanted it to begin with. It keeps them clean, that’s all.”

N. Branford planning new use for grant

Published: Wednesday, February 18, 2009
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

NORTH BRANFORD — Town officials are considering ending the program that has provided funding for businesses to redo their fa硤es, and using the money elsewhere.

Town Manager Richard Branigan said at Tuesday’s Town Council meeting that interest in the fa硤e program, which began in 2006 with a $500,000 Small Town Economic Assistance Program grant, has faded in recent months.

“The interest in it seems to be sliding off as we go,” he said.

Branigan said he recently met with officials from the state Department of Economic and Community Development to discuss continued funding for the fa硤e rehabilitations.

“The recommendation that I received from the DECD was that the fa硤e program should wind down in the next six months or so,” he said.

At that point, Branigan said, the program is projected to have about $230,000 remaining in it.

The town could then reapply for a new STEAP grant to use that funding toward a longtime goal: moving Wall Field and renovating the town property next to the Police Department on Forest Road.

Branigan said it is best to apply for the grants with a project that is close to “shovel ready.”

“The more complex the project, the longer it takes, the more difficult it may be to get approval or the more strings that may be attached,” he said.

The state issues STEAP funds for capital projects, including those aimed at economic development, which was one of the goals of the fa硤e program.

Town estimates have put the cost of moving Wall Field at more than $1 million, and the town is expecting about $400,000 in funding from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Branigan said the STEAP and DEP money would cover the first phase of the project. He added that the town Public Works Department has already done preliminary site work at the location for the new field.

With the state looking to expand Route 80 beginning in 2010, the town has been planning to sell the old Town Hall site at 1599 Foxon Road and move the baseball field that is next door.

Town Council member Vincent Caprio said he would like to see the relocation project get off the ground before the Department of Transportation begins work so that the field is not eliminated.

“We already don’t have enough fields for our kids as it is,” Caprio said.