Sunday, June 13, 2010
Eminent domain is the third rail of politics in Wallingford. There is no more thankless task for the public official here than to request a rational discussion of its use, for he has thus waded into a political swamp that is almost impossible to navigate. Within minutes, any sought-after calm, methodical discussion of the subject quickly disintegrates.
Which is why you saw otherwise lucid and articulate elected officials rhetorically head for the exits when asked about the use of eminent domain to force a conclusion of negotiations over the 10.3-acre Chichowski parcel they voted to purchase some months back. Never mind that the discussion took place in executive session. Their real reluctance to speak to this issue springs from their honest fear that no matter what is said, how articulately it is stated, or how logically the argument is made, they will be accused of being insensitive, power-hungry, rights-stealing political thugs that would steal bread from the mouths of babies if given half a chance.
This predicament is the result of two factors, one uniting and the other divisive: 1) the Kelo vs. City of New London decision having aroused the inherent skepticism Americans have of governmental power that is part of our political DNA and 2) a bit of recent history here in town when the subject last arose.
First of all, the Supreme Court decision in Kelo vs. City of New London sent a shockwave through the national political psyche. To most Americans, the decision legitimized the notion that government power may be used to seize the property of one private party and turn it over to another private party. The concept of “public purpose” was absurdly expanded at the expense of our Constitutionally-guaranteed right of due process, giving rise to a legitimate hypersensitivity to and skepticism of government and its use of power over the individual.
It is worth noting that is was a 5-4 decision, with the conservative, originalist justices decrying the decision of the liberal, Constitution-as-an-evolving-document majority. The positive we can take from this decision is that many states, including ours, have rewritten their eminent domain statutes in such a way as to prevent a recurrence of this travesty.
Secondly, the last time that eminent domain was raised here as an issue was a few years ago when the mayor, in an effort to do some long term land use planning for the town, sought to survey property in the northeast corner of the town. It was thought that possibly, in the distant future, expansion of the I-5 zone allowing industrial parks might take place assuming [note carefully] that this outcome might be the desire of the property owners at that time. At the mere mention of this request, the mayor’s primary political opponent at the time, to further his own narrow political career interests, weighed in, accusing the mayor of attempting to condemn their property. Through blatant distortion of the real issue at hand, he shamelessly manipulated the property owners into believing that they were in danger of having their property taken from them. The discussions in the Town Council were a sad three-ring circus, with the frightened, lied-to, trusting property owners railing against the innocuous survey request while he stood in the back of the auditorium smugly viewing his handiwork. It was politics at its worst, and it has poisoned the well of discussion of land use in that area to this day.
So this is the table that has been set for any discussion of eminent domain in Wallingford. Somewhere there is a balance between our individual rights as property owners and the responsibility of the community to plan its future. We can find this balance, but only if we are willing to approach it as the sophisticated, complex topic that it is. Those who will be living in our town fifty years from now are depending on our ability to do so.
As Published in the Record Journal Sunday June 13, 2010
By Samaia Hernandez
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WALLINGFORD — In his first year as superintendent of schools, Salvatore Menzo has found himself in a position many heads of school systems could only wish for: the ability to assemble, and not just inherit, his administration. Last June, former school superintendent Dale Wilson — a 36-year veteran of the system — was handing the baton over to the highly ambitious 38year-old Menzo, just one year removed from completing his doctorate in education at the University of Connecticut, who was hired by a then-Democrat- controlled Board of Education.
Wilson’s departure set in motion a wave of administrative retirements that have allowed Menzo to have a say in filling a total of nine management roles this school year, including the two in his three member Central Office team: assistant superintendents of personnel and instruction.
Though some internal candidates applied for several jobs, all but one were filled with professionals from outside the district, including Parker Farms Principal Michael O’Neill, who came all the way from Northern California. Cindy Lavallette, chairwoman of the English department at Lyman Hall High School, was the only district employee to be promoted in the process to assistant principal of a high school.
The turnover of management roles and out-of-town appointments speak to the district’s new direction. All of the leaders have some, if not ample, experience in a host of initiatives that Menzo charted this year, including federally mandated models for struggling students, assessing student performance and new technology for collecting and analyzing student performance data — all of which will be easier to set in place this fall under the new elementary school reconfiguration, according to school officials.
“All the positions we are filling are from retirements,” Menzo said. “We wanted to replace them with people that definitely have an understanding of where we’d like to go as a district, in terms of professional development, curriculum, instruction. We wanted people who had a breadth of experience.”
Wallingford, being a large suburban school district, has often appealed to seasoned out-of-towners, making it hard for some internal candidates to beat out the competition. And aligning a team of people who share the vision of the top leader is nothing new in the world of public education.
“I found as superintendent, and I think this is still the case, it’s a very attractive school system, so you tend to get people who have done a good job elsewhere,” said town-resident Joseph Cirasuolo, who served a 12-year term as Wallingford’s superintendent and hired more than a handful of administrators during that time. Cirasuolo is the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.
“Superintendents are trying to find the best people they can find,” he added. “Most of the people I hired were from out of town.”
Ellen Cohn wasn’t even in the market for a new position, let alone working for any single district; she was content consulting with systems across the state, including Wallingford, as they adopted new models such as Scientific Research- Based Interventions, which she helped pioneer in the state. But when Cohn, a consultant with the Capitol Region Education Council in Hartford and a trained social worker, learned that Martin Taylor, the assistant superintendent for instruction, was retiring, she jumped at the opportunity.
“I was a consultant in the district this year and I was very impressed with the open-mindedness of the staff. You don’t find that everywhere,” said Cohn, who was been working with teachers and principals on data team training across Wallingford’s 12 schools this year. “The other big appeal,” she said, “is Sal Menzo. I really like his vision. As an action-oriented person myself, I really like strategic planning.”
Board secretary Michael Votto, who was chairman when Menzo was hired, knows turnover is not uncommon at all in town. It just doesn’t usually happen as quickly as it did this year, he said. “I think a little bit of it is just plain coincidence,” Votto said. Since there were few internal applicants, the board and Menzo focused on finding people who were in line with new initiatives and district goals.
“There are two schools of thought,” said Chet Miller, a Republican member of the board. “Like a lot of people, I’d like to think that we’d promote from within, but there’s another school of thought that bringing outside ideas, perspectives, experiences can be good for a school system. I kind of go along with that latter school of thought.”
With pressure from the federal government and mandates including No Child Left Behind, it only makes sense for superintendents to assemble administrations of people who understand their goals and objectives, said Roch Girard, president of the Connecticut Federation of School Administrators, a roughly 1,000-member union of department and school heads. In the end, keeping up with all of the mandates will fall on administrators, he said. “Nothing is simple in education anymore,” Girard said. Menzo admits that with the retirement of almost 10 administrators, the district will not be able to replace the history it is losing, not to mention the rapport with parents, students and teachers, but he’s confident about taking the school system to the next level.
“It’s about the best fit for the school district,” Menzo said, “and moving the district forward.”