Budget watchdogs still hound BOE

NAUGATUCK — Last Thursday’s regular meeting of the Board of Education was slated to be just that: a regular meeting. The agenda comprised mostly routine, procedural items like subcommittee reports and a financial update—the kind of stuff that would stave off public attendance in a more placid time.

But the disappointment and sometimes downright anger displayed during two periods of public comment highlighted the fact that the board, despite closing this year’s budget gap with union concessions and promised town money, is not out of the doghouse yet.

About 100 people turned out to voice their concerns about one reconfiguration option the board is considering: the closing of Prospect Street School in Union City. And since the board held Thursday’s meeting in that very building, it stood to reason it would discuss that proposal.

Members of the group Our Kids Come First, like Smokey Regan, pictured at a December Board of Education meeting, are continuing to track school system spending, even though the current year's budget deficit was bridged last month.

Members of the group Our Kids Come First, like Smokey Regan, pictured at a December Board of Education meeting, are continuing to track school system spending, even though the current year's budget deficit was bridged last month.

But Chairwoman Kathleen Donovan repeatedly told dissenters the board would not discuss the reconfiguration plans because they were still being debated by the Facilities Planning Subcommittee. Once the committee brings forth a plan, Donovan said, reconfiguration will be discussed formally.

The explanation didn’t stop 10 representatives of the Prospect Street School Parent School Association from making their voices heard.

PSA co-Vice President Kristie Zembruski read a prepared statement, while supporters stood behind her at the podium. She acknowledged the school system’s hardships but insisted that closing Prospect Street School was not the answer.

“We … understand that the BOE, the town of Naugatuck and taxpayers have a daunting task ahead to try and rectify the problems within our school system that have contributed to the downfall of the school budget,” she said.

“Several questions come to mind: Will our children be provided with the same equipment, facilities, and attention they currently have at Prospect Street School? A lateral move and nothing less is acceptable for our students.”

Zembruski went on to address the potential effects of abandoning a school in the already-blighted Union City area. She also addressed the need for open communication between the board, the PSA, and the community.

“Our students deserve every alternative to be exhausted before closing or repurposing Prospect Street School. … we expect that you as the BOE keep open communication with us during this time,” she said.

The PSA’s statement, as well as the remarks made by other borough residents, were met with enthusiastic applause.

Bonnie Gerrish, a kindergarten teacher at Prospect Street, related her personal experiences with students.

“I’ve got 5-year-olds coming up to me and saying, ‘Mrs. Gerrish, my mother said our school would close.’ What do I say to that?” she asked.

Joseph Caputo, a Naugatuck High School junior who attended Prospect Street, said his experience there went a long way toward helping him deal with Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder.

“This school allowed me to get better,” he said. “They fixed me up and made me a better person. … I can’t even count on both hands how many friends I still have that I met in this school.”

Public anger seemed to reach a boiling point when Anne Ciacciarella, founder and spokeswoman of Our Kids Come First, a community organization dedicated to preserving the school system’s quality, shared a board expense report that surprised many in attendance.

According to the invoice, a copy of which Ciacciarella provided to Citizen’s News, the board spent $1,315 out of its professional services account on a photographer, who shot portraits of board members and principals as well as photos of borough schools.

“If you wanted photos taken, you could have asked me, and I’d have taken them with my iPhone,” she said sarcastically.

The invoice is dated Jan. 4 and is payable to Joseph Savarese of BestShot Digital Imaging in Naugatuck.

Ciacciarella expressed her anger that the board would spend the sum on what she viewed as a discretionary expense while asking schools to slash expenses.

“Our kids had no ink and paper, and you were getting your pictures taken,” she said, her ire subdued but noticeable. “How do you justify photographs when our kids’ educations are being threatened?”

The comment turned into an acerbic exchange when Ciacciarella asked Donovan directly if she’d had her portrait taken.

Donovan and the rest of the board didn’t respond Thursday to Ciacciarella’s apparent accusation of fiscal irresponsibility.

According to acting business manager Wayne McAllister’s monthly report, all accounts are on pace, except for maintenance and upkeep items, which stand at 85 percent of their allocation with some four months left in the fiscal year. Also on track for overage is the construction supplies account, but McAllister said the board is “working with suppliers” to secure better rates.