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The New Fairfield Board of Education is fully-seated with the addition of Stephanie Strazza, who joined the board at their regular meeting on October 4. A New Fairfield resident of over five years, Ms. Strazza brings much experience in special education to the board. She has children in both elementary schools and says that she is “…familiar with educational laws and procedures” which she hopes will be a boon to the board.

When she was asked, Ms. Strazza confirmed that she is a registered Democrat and that she has voted on the town budgets in the past. She also confirmed that though she has a busy schedule with full-time employment and a young family, she is happy to take on the time commitments of being on the board and subcommittees.

New Fairfield residents, Tom Weisenberger and Denise Fucito both raised a hand for the position but failed to secure the votes necessary to sit on the board. Board members thanked all the candidates for stepping up.

New Fairfield High School Principal, Dr. Richard Sanzo, and the high school’s science department chair, Jean Gephart, took to the podium to discuss last minute preparations for the upcoming New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) accreditation visit, which will be occurring October 21 through October 24.

They reminded everyone that a 16-member committee will be visiting with board members, faculty, students, and more for the school’s decennial accreditation evaluation. Dr. Sanzo described the importance of earning accreditation status stating, “By earning continued status as an accredited high school, we provide assurance to members of our community and outside institutions, including colleges and universities, that our school offers a quality learning experience and that the earning of a New Fairfield High School diploma has substantial meaning and value.”

Ms. Gephart explained that the accreditation review has been quite an experience for the educators, both through the self-study that they’ve created over the last two years and through the upcoming evaluation visit. She likened the planning for the visit to what someone goes through in planning a wedding.

One of the greatest parts of the preparation was the collaborative self-study that the school’s faculty undertook over the last two years.Ms. Gephart describes the self-study as having been a bonding process for the staff, plus being very open and transparent, “…being able to look at how we can do things better is something we’re very proud of.” Dr. Sanzo imparted that the self-study is “an honest, accurate reflection of where we are now.”

Dr. Sanzo stated he expects that the accreditation will be continued, but that the district should expect significant recommendations from the committee, in particular regarding facility improvement. Obvious areas for improvement continue to be the school’s auditorium and   locker rooms.

The board unanimously approved an international language immersion and humanitarian trip to Puerto Rico. Mr. Fabrizio-Garcia, NFHS Spanish teacher and language department chair, explained that the students would be travelling over the February break, leaving Friday and returning Tuesday. The students would have educational stops bookending the trip in Old San Juan but would spend the bulk of the trip helping rebuild homes in Puerto Rico and immersed in the language. The cost is $1100 plus airfare, and the students plan to extensively fundraise for the trip.

Dr. Cosentino will be attending the NF Board of Finance meeting on October 17 to request 100% of the unexpended funds to the cap and non-recurring budget which amount to $82,766.65 from the 2017-18 budget and the closeout of 2016-17, to be used for security enhancements and ADA compliance. Mr. Ed Sbordone explained that by state statute, the BOF may grant that the surplus be put only into the cap and non-recurring fund.

Phil Ross gave an update on the three capital projects that are going on, including the culinary arts renovation which is almost done at $65K under budget and the high school’s lower parking lot repaving, which came in $100K under budget. The tennis court project has been vetted out and the Buildings crew is looking to change the scope to a post-tension concrete system court, which includes a generous warranty. Originally, the project was estimated to be $240K, but the new project’s scope would cost $400K. Mr. Ross proposed that the savings on the first two projects would offset the upgrade of the tennis court project.

The board voted to modify seven policies on a range of topics from allowing parents to request that paraprofessionals attend special education PPTs and live animals in the classroom to grade weighting at the high school level and alternative education programs following suspension. They also accepted a DIRKs foundation grant in the amount of $8K for continued stipend funding for the Middle School’s breakfast and newspaper clubs.

There were brief updates for the subcommittees and liaison reports, among them included the news that the RFQs for potential building improvements have been opened and are up for review. Also, Ms. Mannion explained that the board will be reviewing another version of the School Security and Safety Committee’s Memorandum of Agreement with the state police and is looking into an interoperability grant.

There was discussion regarding the creation of an ad hoc school start time subcommittee. Board members, Kathy Baker, who has been one of the organizers of the group, and Samantha Mannion discussed the pros and cons of having this be a board subcommittee or a school subcommittee. The advantages of it being a board subcommittee are that the process would be more formalized, with future meeting dates, set agendas, and recorded minutes. Ms. Mannion explained that the group would need to set an end date at which time the district would either start working toward changing the school start time or the group would disband.

The board members debated the merits of how heavily to weigh the school start time feedback that comes out of the recent family survey. They are getting mixed reviews from parents on the topic of school start time changes. Dr. Pat Cosentino explained that there are a lot of factors to consider, that there are many positive points, and that there are passionate committee members. Given the differing opinions on the topic, both on the board and in the public, more feedback, exploration, and conversation are needed. In the end she said, that “…bottom line is change is hard. Change is hard for people…If this were to take place, it would not take place August of 2019.”

In their Chairman and Superintendent’s reports, both Ms. Katkocin and Dr. Cosentino acknowledged that they are aware that there is a conversation going on in the community about the school calendar and the remarkable amount of time off that the students have had in the first several weeks of school. Given the significant weather events in the last five years, there is frustration with what is perceived to be excessive time off before the holidays, which eventually leads to a snowball of time and a longer school year. In the early spring, the board and Dr. Cosentino plan to gather research about what other local regional schools are doing and consider other plans for the calendar.

The next regular Board of Education meeting is scheduled for Thursday, October 18, 7:00pm.

By Sarah Opdahl