Two new committees exploring problems at Stamford school buildings met in private this month

Students enter school on the first day of the 2020-2021 school year at Westover Elementary School in Stamford, Conn. Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.

Students enter school on the first day of the 2020-2021 school year at Westover Elementary School in Stamford, Conn. Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

STAMFORD — Kate LaVigne has waited months to hear an update on the plan put forward last year to demolish five schools in the district, so she was disappointed to find out that a recently-formed committee to discuss the topic was doing so in a private meeting.

“That’s extremely disheartening and also pretty typical of the experience I’ve had,” she said.

LaVigne’s daughter is a second-grade student at Toquam Magnet Elementary School, which is one of the five aforementioned schools along with Hart and Roxbury elementary schools, Cloonan Middle School and Westhill High School.

“Information is not freely available,” said LaVigne. She said it’s particularly problematic at Toquam, where the majority of the families are Spanish-speaking. “They are intentionally keeping parents in the dark and are hoping that we are expecting them to take care of the problem.”

One day after that facilities meeting, held earlier this month, another ad-hoc committee, focused on mold issues at Westover Magnet Elementary School and created by Mayor David Martin, held its first meeting, also in private. Like the facilities meeting, it was not posted publicly.

Stamford Board of Education member Nicola Tarzia serves on the Westover committee, and he said the first meeting on Oct. 16 was mostly organizational. Part of the discussion, he said, was about having someone take minutes of the meeting.

Thomas Hennick, a public education officer with the state’s Freedom of Information Commission, said ad-hoc committees — those formed for a specific problem — created by either a board or public official should meet in public.

“If the ad-hoc committee was formed by the board or any other public agency, that committee falls under the definition of a public agency and should notice its meetings, meet in public and create meeting minutes,” Hennick said this week.

Arthur Augustyn, spokesperson for the mayor, said that doesn’t apply to the Westover committee because it is an “administrative group.”

“The mayor has formed an administrative task force to ensure that the students and staff at Westover School are safe and to identify the steps that need to be taken to permanently correct the mold problem at the school,” he said.

The committee includes members of the Board of Education and Board of Representatives, as well as Superintendent Tamu Lucero.

“The task force is considered an administrative group which would not be subject to public meeting rules,” Augustyn wrote. “The groups’ documents or reports are public documents.”

The 25-member group assessing school buildings, dubbed the Long-Term School Facilities Committee, includes Lucero; Martin; City Engineer Lou Casolo; and Board of Education members Andy George, Tarzia, Mike Altamura, Jennienne Burke and Fritz Chery; as well as members of the Board of Representatives, Board of Finance, Planning Board and wider community.

Five members of the Board of Education would constitute a quorum for that board. Board president Andy George defended the inclusion of the five members by saying that members are essentially on an information-gathering mission, and not casting any votes.

“The whole board can attend an information session,” he said. “We can all go to Stamford High School and if we’re listening to a presentation, we’re not conducting business as a board.”

George said certain meetings don’t offer much value to the public, which could explain why the two newly-formed committees did not put out public notices or were made available for public viewing for their first gathering.

“When informational or organizational, I don’t think that there’s much that needs to come to the public’s attention,” he said.

The agenda for the first meeting of the facilities committee had seven items, including a summary of work completed and scheduled at the five schools.

That information was later presented to the full Board of Education this past Tuesday.

An emailed statement from Lucero stated that the initial meeting of the long-term facilities committee “was held to discuss the goals and purpose of such a committee and to gauge interest of and suggestions for committee members.”

The statement continued, “Now that the committee has been established, the meetings will be noticed.”

Board of Education member Jackie Pioli said she believes such meetings should also be public.

“One of my reasons for getting on the board was for more transparency and accountability and I haven’t met that goal as a board member,” Pioli said.