As Region 4 Retires Debt, School Officials Contemplate Ambitious Borrowing for Athletics

REGION 4 — A turf field, a cross country trail, repairs to tennis courts and renovations of the soccer and baseball fields are a few of the possible middle school and high school athletic projects being considered by the Board of Education that together could cost as much as $11.3 million, though the board is expected to approve significantly less spending. At a meeting of the Board of Education on Tuesday, Superintendent Brian White said that the needs of the district’s athletic program should be considered alongside a review of the school facilities. Earlier in May, White suggested that only

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Local Leaders Discuss Dramatic Declines in the Number of Young People in Connecticut

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According to the latest national census data, Chester, Deep River and Essex experienced dramatic declines in the number of residents under the age of 18 living in the towns — a drop that leaves local leaders with little to offer in the way of solutions. In Deep River, the loss of young residents since 2010 totals 25 percent — from 975 to 735. Chester experienced a drop of 29 percent. And in Essex, where there were 1,390 children living in the town in 2010, now there are just 949 — a drop of 32 percent. Deep River First Selectman Angus

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New Region 4 Assistant Superintendent Believes in Teaching Kids to be Critical Thinkers and Collaborators

“When am I going to use this in real life?” Dr. Sarah Brzozowy, Region 4’s new assistant superintendent who is starting today, loves it when her students ask this question. In an interview with CT Examiner in March, Brzozowy explained that the question has been the foundation of her philosophy as a teacher and an educator. Her goal, she said, is to equip her students with practical skills that they can put to use in the real world.  Brzozowy began her career as a middle school science teacher in the Plainville Public Schools, where she spent seven years in the

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Schools Across the Region Outline Varying Ideas for Spending Federal Dollars

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School districts across southeastern Connecticut are in the process of drawing up plans for how they intend to spend millions of dollars of federal funding that will be available over the next two years. The money comes in the form of two anticipated grants, known as ESSER II and the American Rescue Plan.  The proposals include a variety of projects, from outdoor classrooms to bilingual therapists, summer enrichment and chromebooks.  Here is a rundown, district by district:  Lyme-Old Lyme Ian Neviaser, superintendent at Lyme-Old Lyme schools, said the district won’t be using the combined $1.48 million in federal aid for

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Chester, Deep River, Essex Schools Adopt Remote Learning until Nov. 30

Multiple exposures of students and staff to Covid-19 cases have led schools in Chester, Deep River and Essex to transition to remote learning until November 30.  There are currently 23 staff members and 123 students in the district who are in quarantine, according to a letter from Region 4 Superintendent Brian White. In addition, the letter said, the district is investigating a number of new cases in conjunction with the Connecticut River Area Health District. Both Valley Regional High School and John Winthrop Middle School dismissed early on Thursday after the schools learned about a positive case of a student

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Finance Director Resigns After 4 Months with Region 4 Schools

ESSEX/DEEP RIVER/CHESTER — After less than four months on the job, Kelly Sterner, finance director of the Region 4 Public Schools announced her resignation.  “Our Finance Director, Kelly Sterner has announced her intention to resign from the position later this fall,” said Brian White, Superintendent for the Region 4 School District. “Ms. Sterner is committed to supporting the district through this period of transition.” Sterner’s resignation comes after a year of frequent turnover in the district. The last full-time business manager, Kimberly Allen, resigned in November of 2019 following the departure of the former Superintendent Ruth Levy and the Facilities

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COVID Forces Temporary Closure of Valley Regional High School

ESSEX/DEEP RIVER/CHESTER — Two positive cases of COVID-19 among students at Region 4’s Valley Regional High School forced the school to shutter and resume fully-remote learning for Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.  “We closed VRHS for two days this week, yesterday and today, to allow for contact tracing and the deep cleaning of the building,” explained Brian White, superintendent of Region 4 Schools, in a statement to CT Examiner. “This decision was made in concert with local health authorities and the State of Connecticut DPH.” In an effort to reduce the spread of COVID, the district is following a

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Region 4 Schools Attempt to Move Beyond Years of Poor Accounting

With $245,745 to go, the Region 4 Board of Education voted to appropriate $158,215 from a surplus in the 2018-2019 budget to cover a deficit created by years of poor accounting practices in the district. The remainder of the 2018-2019 surplus, $43,000, will be returned to Chester, Essex and Deep River. Once returned, however, the board will be requesting that money back to help cover the cost of the deficit. “To designate the one percent statutory limitation you would have to have an unexpended balance operation in excess of the one percent to be able to transfer up to one

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Proposed School Budget for Essex, Chester and Deep River Calls for a 2.87% Increase over 2019-20

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ESSEX/CHESTER/DEEP RIVER — At $21.1 million, the revised proposal for the Region 4 Board of Education budget includes a 2.87 percent increase over the 2019-20 fiscal year.  In a public hearing and special meeting of the Board of Education held on Wednesday via Google Meet, Superintendent Brian White said the proposed $21,153,741 budget, which represents an increase of $591,066 over the previous year, was the result of work done in a series of budget workshops held from Jan. 21 to March 4.  “That is the budget that is before the board for consideration and that is a result of the

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Virtual School Budget Meetings Scheduled Across Lower Connecticut Valley in Wake of Coronavirus

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On March 10, as part of the state’s emergency response to COVID-19, Governor Ned Lamont signed Executive Order 7L, releasing regional boards of education from their statutory obligations to hold in-person meetings and referenda, prior to adopting fiscal year 2020-21 budgets: “[A]ny regional board of education shall adopt a budget for the July I, 2020 – June 30, 2021 fiscal year … without complying with any in-person budget adoption requirements, including but not to limited, annual district budget meetings requiring votes, referendum, and special district meetings.” The change follows a number of other restrictions on social gathering that have been

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Declining Populations, Enrollments, Call into Question Viability of Elementary Schools in Essex, Chester and Deep River

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The proposed Deep River Elementary School budget jumps by 5.08 percent this year compared with just 3.28 percent for Essex and 2.01 percent for Chester. The increase for all three towns is driven primarily by the 5.5 to 8.5 percent increase in employee benefits, in particular the long-underfunded health insurance reserve. Re-negotiated union salaries and a town energy efficiency project loan are also contributing factors in the budget growth. Yet, despite this large increase, Deep River’s $5.53 million budget brings the projected cost per pupil to $23,538 — that’s more than $3,000 less per pupil than Chester’s projected cost. Essex,

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Board of Education Debates Funding, Equity, of Cooperatives, School Sports

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ESSEX/DEEP RIVER/CHESTER — Region 4’s Board of Education debated sharp disparities in budgeting for regional cooperative school sports at a Monday night meeting In one instance, members of the boys and girls hockey team pay $900 and $1,100 each, while athletes in 28 other sports offered by Valley Regional High School don’t pay to participate. “We have a responsibility to make sure it is equitable and correct this,” said Rick Daniels, a board of education member and Deep River resident. The boys co-op with East Haven began in 2018 and the girls’ program began this year with Daniel Hand High

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After Essex, Deep River and Chester Selectmen Set 3 Percent Cap, School Board Debates Budget Choices

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The proposed Region 4 Board of Education budget includes a 2.47 percent increase compared with last year’s budget, but after Wednesday night’s meeting, that number is likely to increase to 3 percent. That would bring the total budget for 2020-2021 to between $21.1 and $21.2 million. “The process this year was making up for the gaps, we wanted to provide for the programs, but also make sure we covered what has been missed in years past,” said Superintendent Brian White. “In the future, we want this discussion to be more value-based, but right now we are working with what the

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Depleted Insurance Fund Spurs $2.1 Million Increase in Region 4 School Budget

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ESSEX/DEEP RIVER/CHESTER — The amount allocated by Region 4 member towns to a health insurance fund for employees will likely increase by 18 percent, or $2.1 million, in the 2020-21 school budget. The increase comes after several years when the regional school district depleted the reserve due to a combination of increased medical expenses and a decrease in funding allocated to the account. Across all four school districts in the region and the Supervision Committee, the proposed increase to the budget item will grow from $6.5 million to $8.6 million. “Right now, given the claim history we need to build

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Regional Complexity, Declining Enrollments, Weigh on Region 4 Budget Talks

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Declining student enrollment, shared staff and shortfalls in Regional School District 4’s reserves are expected to be significant topics of discussion as school boards of Chester, Essex, and Deep River craft five interconnected budgets for fiscal year 2020-21.  The district is anticipating a dramatic 5.2 percent drop in student enrollment heading into next year — but that doesn’t necessarily mean the district will be able to save costs as a result — Superintendent Brian White told the Supervision District Committee at a Wednesday night budget workshop. As of October 1, 2019, the district had 1,610 students enrolled in kindergarten through

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Region 4 Debates Equity, Funding, for AP and IB Testing

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Out of a budget of about $20 million, the Region 4 Board of Education spends 0.2 percent, or $36,000, to subsidize half the cost of Advanced Placement exams, or $47 per test for every student. At Tuesday night’s board of education meeting that funding was called into question. “We bring this up because most schools do not pay for the actual fee for the testing, the idea was to get in line with other schools,” explained Jane Cavanaugh, vice chair of the Region 4 Board of Education. Across Connecticut such subsidies for AP exams on the district level are uncommon.

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Region 4 Board of Education Seeks Fresh Start with New Year

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ESSEX-DEEP RIVER-CHESTER — Hope for a fresh start was evident at Tuesday night’s meeting of the Region 4 Board of Education, after months of tense meetings and board turmoil, beginning with the announcement of an interim business manager, Richard Hewitt, replacing Kimberly Allen, who resigned from the post in November. “Mr. Richard Hewitt will support us through our day to day operations and budget season. Meanwhile, we are going to be talking more about what a process should look like for hiring the next business manager, or what that position should even look like. Is it a business manager role

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Region 4 Schools Draft New Finance Rules, Tackle Unanswered Questions

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Earlier at a November 4 special meeting of the Region 4 Board of Education, board members and members of the public peppered the district’s attorneys with questions about the $380,000 purchase of the Mislick property in 2017. Last week, superintendent Brian White reported back with some – but not all – of the answers. Although the district did pay $14,295 in legal fees for the 13-acre property prior to the official purchase, according to Shipman and Goodwin, the district did not pay any of the nearly $20,000 of legal fees incurred after the closing, as some members of the public

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Deep River Taxes Still Accruing on Region 4 School Property

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When the Mislick Property was purchased in 2017, the first selectman of Deep River – the town hosting all of the Region 4 school properties — broached the topic of the district paying taxes to the town. “The reality is I believe and Deep River believes that there should be some sort of compensation for the schools that are all located in our town,” said First Selectman Angus McDonald. At the Wednesday night meeting, after an executive session discussion with legal advisors from Shipman and Goodwin, the Region 4 Board of Education said they would be working with the three

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High Costs, Diverse Outcomes for Educational Special Needs in Connecticut

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Sarah Tyszka’s son is in sixth grade, but reads at a preschool level. He has dyslexia, a condition that typically requires one-on-one reading instruction to learn to read and write, according to the Dyslexia Society of Connecticut. Last year Tyszka’s son received one-on-one instruction, but this year his school does not have a teacher certified for that instruction. “He clearly needs intense intervention to be successful, yet they lie and say he’s getting small-group instruction, when in reality that means he sits at a table of four in a classroom of thirteen,” Tyszka said. “He’s not learning to read in

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Attorneys Offer Timeline, But Few Answers on Region 4 Land Purchase

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DEEP RIVER — Residents and elected officials from Chester, Essex, and Deep River asked questions and offered criticism of the Board of Education for Region 4 schools, and its attorneys, at a special Monday night workshop devoted to a controversial 2017 land purchase for $380,000 that board members later discovered had not been budgeted. “You don’t have much of an answer to anything,” Charlie Barton, a Chester resident, told the board and their attorneys. “That’s one of the problems here. I want to know who said to go ahead with this. That should be forthcoming — either the regional superintendent, the

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Letter: Mounting Legal Fees, Blurred Lines in Region 4 Schools

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This Monday, November 4, at 6 p.m. in the John Winthrop Middle School library in Deep River, three lawyers from a Hartford law firm will explain the nuances of the property purchase next to the high school over 2 years ago. Hopefully they will explain why they charged fifteen thousand dollars to close a three-hundred-fifty-thousand-dollar cash deal — with no bank work. Since the closing — again over 2 years ago — we have spent at least another fourteen thousand plus on this same purchase and same firm to clean up title problems, and fight with Deep River over the

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Letter: After Legal Fight Without Clear Cause, Region 4 Shows Better Judgment

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Two concerns about Region 4 are raised in Julia Werth’s article about recruiting fee-paying Chinese students through SPIRAL. One will likely prove to be unwarranted; the other seems to require a more fulsome explanation. We should not be too worried that Asst. Superintendent Kristina Martineau was reimbursed to house summer campers once the district was contractually obliged to accept them. Region 4’s contract with SPIRAL set a modest reimbursement rate that was available to anyone willing to provide a similar service. Thus far, based on publicly available records, Dr. Martineau doesn’t appear to have received special treatment, nor does she

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Shoreline Schools Look to Foreign Students to Meet Enrollment, Diversity Goals

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IN THE REGION — For the past five years, East Lyme High School has welcomed between six and ten international students from China into their community. The students are recruited by SPIRAL International, a Vermont-based student exchange program, which pays East Lyme High School $19,000 per student. This year, however, just one student is participating in the program. “Due to the big political climate between the two countries, a lot of students are afraid of coming to the U.S. this year,” said Jia Shi, the program director at SPIRAL International. “For this year, yes it is becoming harder to recruit

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Region 4 Essex-Chester-Deep River Schools Omitted Boys Activities, Costs from Title IX Compliance

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ESSEX – CHESTER – DEEP RIVER — Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 was passed to prevent discrimination in any education program or activity, including sports, based on sex. The idea is that boys and girls are given equal opportunity to participate in all federally-funded activities. To be in compliance with Title IX, districts not only need to keep track of expenses, they also need to monitor use of practice fields, gymnasiums, locker rooms, team rooms and timing of games. The district needs to show that they are making an effort to provide equal opportunities in sports

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Navigating Local Education for Students with Special Needs in Connecticut

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There are 77,000 students in the state of Connecticut with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), nearly 15% of the total student population of about 530,000 in 2018-19, according to the State Department of Education. For students with various disabilities that can impact their learning in a traditional school environment, an IEP is a written agreement between a school district and a family that provides a modified plan of education, services and resources. “It is supposed to be everyone looking at the information and making a decision about what is appropriate for the child together,” said John Flanders, the executive director

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After Spending $23,771.50 to Challenge FOI Request, Region 4 Drops Appeal, Institutes Reforms

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ESSEX – CHESTER – DEEP RIVER — On Thursday, the Region 4 Board of Education voted to drop an appeal of a two-year-old freedom of information (FOI) request by an Essex resident. The litigation had cost the district $23,771.50. The request was originally made of the Region 4 board of education and superintendent on September 12, 2017 by James Carey. According to the Freedom Of Information Commission which was handling the appeal, Carey requested “all external and internal communications regarding the district’s plans to, and subsequent engagement of, SPIRAL International to provide foreign student services to the District, including, but

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As Details of Land Deal Come to Light, Region 4 Schools Look to Move Forward

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ESSEX – CHESTER – DEEP RIVER — In August 2017, Regional School District 4 purchased the 13-acre Mislick property without an independent appraisal. The district relied instead on a seven-month-old appraisal completed for the seller, Essex Savings Bank. That appraisal was labeled “for Estate Planning Purposes and, the only intended users are Rogin Nassau LLC and Essex Savings Bank and/or designated affiliates.”  The appraised value was for the full 38-acre property, including the buildings, of which only 13 undeveloped acres were purchased by the school district. And because the purchase was a cash transaction with funds thought to be set

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Letter: Focus on Region 4 Superintendent “misplaced and distracting.”

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To the Editor: Singling out newly-hired Superintendent Brian White as the focal point for your editorial about Region 4’s finances is misplaced and distracting. (“Hard look at Region 4” September 29. 2019.)   Mr. White became superintendent of Region 4 Schools in July 2019 (only three months ago) when Dr. Ruth Levy retired after 11 years in office with two years remaining under her current contract. By the time of his arrival, the district had also changed facilities directors, business managers and many board members from those involved in the Mislick property purchase and decisions about capital accounting. So it

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A Hard look at Region 4 — Essex, Chester and Deep River

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Perhaps you don’t live in Essex, Chester, or Deep River and have decided to skip over Julia Werth’s remarkably damning news story detailing years of failure to follow state law and to exercise adequate financial oversight, both by the superintendent and the school board. Well don’t. If ever there was a learning moment, it would be a forensic analysis of how the Region 4 school district managed to spend more than $379,000 on a piece of property, without a public vote as required by law and without having money set aside to pay for it. We’ll have more on that

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