Many changes involving town schools last year

Superintendent of Schools Michael Graner, center, talks with students from Fitch, Ledyard and the Science and Technology Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut during the 'More Than Words' workshop on Dec. 18. Graner left Ledyard to become Groton's superintendent.
Superintendent of Schools Michael Graner, center, talks with students from Fitch, Ledyard and the Science and Technology Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut during the "More Than Words" workshop on Dec. 18. Graner left Ledyard to become Groton's superintendent.

Ledyard - The school district dominated headlines in a news-heavy year in town, with the hasty scrapping of a long-awaited building project, the departure of Superintendent Michael Graner and closing out the calendar year facing a significant budget deficit.

In January, following a well-attended forum on school security weeks after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, a $27,000 security upgrade project for Ledyard Middle School was swiftly approved, and construction wrapped up in April on new walls and doors to close up the school's open-classroom setup - a popular educational model in the 1970s, but one that precluded modern lockdown procedures.

The project was meant to act as a stopgap measure before the approval and eventual completion of a $45-million, renovate-as-new plan for the school. But in April - just a few weeks before the annual budget referendum during which the project was slated to be approved by voters - Graner asked the Town Council to remove the proposal from the ballot two weeks after councilors approved it.

Graner said he was told by a state education department official that the cost did not meet guidelines that dictate that a renovate-as-new project must cost less than a new building, disqualifying it from the 62 percent state reimbursement rate.

It turned out that the numbers Graner gave the official were incorrect. But as councilors had raised questions about the steep cost weeks prior, most treated it as a blessing in disguise that the project would have to start again at square one. For now, a new proposal is planned to be back on the ballot in the spring.

At May's referendum, a $50.1-million budget passed handily, but a $6.3 million plan for a new police station, which will be built next to Town Hall, split voters nearly in half, passing narrowly with 413 "yes" votes to the 374 "no" votes. Voters also approved the town's first tax increase in four years - about three-tenths of a mill, bringing the tax rate up to 28.22 mills.

In October, Graner's announcement that he would be leaving after 10 years to become superintendent of Groton Public Schools in January rocked the school district. But the community enthusiastically welcomed his successor, Assistant Superintendent Cathy Patterson, with whom Graner has worked for years in a close partnership.

In another loss of a longtime public servant, Town Councilor Sharon Wadecki ended her 14-year run when she lost her seat in the November municipal election. The council's sole newcomer was Lou Gabordi, former principal of Ledyard High School.

Though administrators, parents and Board of Education members alike heaped plaudits on Graner and his legacy in the district, calling his exit a huge loss, his final board meeting wrapped up on a sour note. Facing what Patterson called a "fiscal crisis" - a projected $116,000 budget deficit - the Board of Education voted in December to reduce the hours of more than 100 paraprofessionals, tutors and academic coaches.

Citing yet another flat-funded school budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year, board members said years of reductions and zero-increase budget plans had finally caught up to them, leaving them with few options. The cuts, yielding a projected savings of $96,000, will go into effect in February and last at least through the end of the academic year.

A.ISAACS@THEDAY.COM

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