The 'A' Team
WOODBRIDGE - Despite the overwhelming financial challenges the Amity Regional School District has faced over the last year-and-a-half, many new changes have been implemented to set the district on the right track.
These new adjustments are the result of a new administration made up of experienced educators. Superintendent of Schools Helene Skrzyniarz and Director of Finance and Administration Keith McLiverty have steered the school district in the right direction, according to local officials. And even those who are the most vocal critics are giving the new team high grades.
"I am impressed with Dr. Helene's hands on attitude with the school and (of her) being aware of what's going on as well as being open and keeping the selectmen informed," said Bethany First Selectman Craig Stahl.
Stahl was equally impressed with McLiverty.
"He has had a monumental task to unravel the financial past and has done an excellent job," Stahl said. "I hope when he is through he'll be able to recommend to the Board of Education a significant reduction in the budget."
"They have tackled some of the most challenging problems," School Board Chairwoman Sue Cohen said. "Unfortunately, the problems came fast and furiously. It's very refreshing to see a team that works so well together."
The new team
McLiverty started at Amity in July of 2002 while Skrzyniarz began her new job in October 2002. Skrzyniarz was the superintendent of schools for Region 16 and during her tenure there, she was instrumental in building the region's first high school, located in Beacon Falls. McLiverty was the Finance and Operations Manager for Regional School District #12.)
Both said they were not aware of the depth of problems Amity faced.
"I knew there were high walls to climb and challenges to face. As time went by I realized the problems were more wide-spread than we originally anticipated and the solutions to the problems became more complex than one would think," McLiverty said.
"Although I knew the challenges would be great, I now realize the biggest difficulty is not how we change procedures, it's changing how we think to do business," Skrzyniarz said.
Both agree there has been a culture that doesn't support the mission of the school district. They believe this exists because people were not educated on the proper procedures they needed to follow.
Both believe the faculty and staff should be able to focus their attention on educating the kids, not worrying about their supplies.
"We should be the wind beneath their wings," Skrzyniarz said. "Our hope is to build a very good house. Right now we're doing extensive excavation and foundation work. It's taking a little longer but we want to make sure the foundation is done right."
"They (teachers) need to know that if they order something they don't have to chase it down," McLiverty said, referring to the process that was in place where there was no follow-through on requests.
Amity - which encompasses Bethany - Orange and Woodbridge, has faced financial trouble since August 2001 when a two-year, $2.8 million deficit was revealed. While state, local and school officials continue to investigate how the gap occurred, voters in district towns have refused to approve a spending plan for fiscal year 2002-2003. To date, $120,000 has been spent on referenda.
While McLiverty and Skrzyniarz have been busy developing a product that is user-friendly, they acknowledge that some new policies have been implemented and others were in existence, but never followed.
"One of the biggest hurdles is that our staff never knew the policies. Now, administration and staff are beginning to see how the policies work," McLiverty said.
In addition, the new administration has eliminated all miscellaneous checkbooks and centralized operations as well as initiating zero-based budgeting for the 2003-2004 fiscal year.
Today, the administration from the top down is involved in the day-to-day operation of the schools.
For example, every item purchased for the schools now goes through a reporting structure and chain of command where a request is made in writing for an item, it is signed off by the department head, and up the food chain.
Bi-weekly meetings with the principals are now held. For example, the bathrooms in one of the schools need new sinks, toilet seats and a stall partition; while this need has existed for some time, it is now being addressed in the new budget process.
No one works in a vacuum anymore, Skrzyniarz said.
"What happened at Amity was not unusual. Many school systems operate in strict compartments and it becomes difficult for people to communicate," she said. "My goal is that the superintendent knows all."
"Since Dr. Helene has been here the administration has been brought more into the process. Communication is key to our success and Dr. Helene has done a lot already to fortify that," McLiverty said.
Work order system
The staff and students now have a way to report problems whether it is a leaky faucet or a leaking roof.
They now simply go to the main office and enter their concern into a data base which is electronically sent to the facilities manager who in turn reviews the problem, creates a time frame for repair and enters that information. Once the repair is made that information is also entered into the database.
"It's hard for people to trust us. The good part is I still come to work excited to do my job," Skrzyniarz said.
"There hasn't been a day since I started that I haven't come to work with a positive feeling that we're going to fix this place, turn it around and regain trust and credibility that has been lost," he said.
"Truthfully, its tougher here than any place but that is what's going to make achieving the goal of getting Amity back to being respected as the school district it was," Skrzyniarz said.
"Right now, we're known statewide for the wrong reasons, soon we'll be known for the right reasons again," McLiverty said.
Woodbridge Board of Finance Chairman Matthew Giglietti has spent a good deal of the past two years absorbed in the Amity crisis. He believes McLiverty and Skrzyniarz are on the right track.
"Keith has been doing a great job under tough circumstances. He has kept the three boards of finance satisfied. They are now approving his monthly requests with little problem," he said.
Giglietti was equally complimentary of the superintendent.
"I like her style. She has taken control of things and is aware of how things were done in the past. She has had to be the quarterback," he said.
Russ Von Beren, chairman Bethany finance board and a strong critic of the board of education, gives McLiverty a lot of credit.
"He seems to know a heck of a lot of what is going on and seems to be digging in and making changes," Von Beren said. "He seems to be finding ways to correct deficiencies that have been there for years," he added.
Orange First Selectman Mitchell Goldblatt said Skrzyniarz has done a great job under difficult circumstances.
"She has come into an extremely difficult time and it's difficult for her to be critical of the board that hired her yet she has tactfully worked with everyone on all sides of the budget controversy to try to move Amity forward," Goldblatt said. "I am equally impressed by her openness and honesty with everyone."
"Keith has taken a refreshing approach to Amity finances by instituting policies and procedures that had been abandoned," he continued.
Orange Finance Chairman Anthony Nastri also believes the new team is working out.
"Keith is trying very hard to do honest cash flows and the boards of finance are pleased with his efforts," Nastri said.
Woodbridge First Selectwoman Amey Marrella, who called for the resignation of the former superintendent, spoke highly of the new team.
"Dr. Helene has faced extraordinary challenges in her first three months and has met every challenge with calmness and common sense. Contaminated water, oil spills and mold problems have been handled openly, methodically, and energetically. She offers Amity a much needed breath of fresh air," Marrella said.
"In the past six months, Keith has made great strides restoring fiscal accountability to Amity. The WBOF members have been impressed with his dedication and expertise," she said of McLiverty.
Co-chairman of the Finance Committee Ken Downey said he believes the new team is on the right track.
"They are doing a great job under difficult circumstances," Downey said.
Co-chairman Greg Egnaczyk also believes the new team is making progress.
"Although they have been with us a short time, during that time they have dealt with some major crisis's. I think both of them handled those situations well. I believe the students and parents have been pleased with the way these situations were handled. Right now they are working to initiate zero-based budget procedures for the upcoming budget. It has taken immense training of the staff to accomplish this. I am definitely pleased with their performance," Egnaczyk said.
Both agree their jobs are tough and challenging. But they believe the school system is salvageable and the students deserve their support.
"I am tied up with minutia dealing with issues that keep me tied to an office instead of allowing me to see how Amity is doing its job with the kids. I almost feel like a kid in a bubble," Skrzyniarz said.
"When the days are tough and goals get obscured I take a walk to see the kids," McLiverty said.
"I take a walk into the cafeteria. These are exceptionally great kids here at Amity," Skrzyniarz said.
Both agreed the reason they continue to try so hard to get Amity back on its feet is for the sake of the children.