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A conflict of interest may delay the construction of a new school in Willington

A student works on math problems.
Julia Nikhinson
A student works on math problems.

The town of Willington needs a new elementary and middle school. Should they buy the property they need from the family of the first selectwoman?

WSHU’s Molly Ingram spoke with CT Mirror’s Andrew Brown to discuss his article, “This CT town might buy first selectwoman’s family’s land for a new school,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: The town of Willington is looking to build a new elementary and middle school, but they’re having trouble figuring out where to put it. Why is that?

AB: The simple answer is that this land acquisition that they are making or want to make for the school is a piece of property that is owned by the first selectwoman's family. Erica Wiecenski is in her third term as Willington's First Selectwoman, and last fall, a school building committee in which she was participating in, chose to sign a letter of intent for a piece of property that her mother-in-law owns. That 65-acre piece of property was chosen after a long process of going through potential properties throughout the town and the school building committee voted to sign that letter of intent last November. That's the short answer to why this school referendum has become so complicated.

WSHU: And what has Wiecenski’s reaction to all of this been?

AB: The first selectwoman has defended herself by pointing out that she recused herself or abstained from voting on the letter of intent that was signed between the town and her family. During a meeting last December, she addressed some of the concerns that town residents were raising over conflicts of interest and what some people have alleged to be corruption, saying that she tried to absolve herself and remove herself from any decision-making process that affected her family. And that, you know, she was simply trying to balance her role as first selectwoman and her family's involvement in this new school. So she very publicly, really addressed some of the concerns that residents had, but the issue has not gone away since then.

WSHU: In your article, you mentioned some of the reactions from other town officials. Can you tell us about those?

AB: Yeah. Many of the people who were on the school building committee, including the now chairman, Michael Makuch, have defended the town's process for selecting the first selectwoman’s family's land. He has explained publicly that they looked at over 120 different properties at a high level to try to figure out where to locate a new school. And he has since explained that you know, they had a shortlist of four finalists properties. And that after scoring those properties based on a bunch of different criteria, the first selectwoman's family's property was the best suited for a new school.

Many town residents, however, are concerned that much of the discussion about where to locate this new school and which property to purchase for a new school, those decisions were largely made behind closed doors. Most of the discussion over more than half a year was in an executive session. And so town residents really had no transparency into how the town selected this piece of property up until November. It wasn't even known that they were looking at the first selectwoman's property until that same month. And then word started to get out in town that the first selectwoman's family was somehow involved.

So at that point, a town resident actually brought it up during a meeting and it became a little awkward at the meeting. Everybody went silent and the town resident essentially explained to the school building committee that, you know, he wanted to see a new school built. But if that was going to happen, they would have to have good answers for the decisions that they made. And so that kind of started the debate in town and it's only progressed since then. So town residents are going to a referendum later this month to ultimately decide whether this school will get built and whether the property will get purchased. And so all the voters will get a say in all of this at the end of the day.

WSHU: To what extent do you think residents are also factoring in who benefits from the property sale in that referendum vote?

AB: I think the bigger issues that will likely weigh on the referendum are the age of Willington schools. Both of them are more than 70 years old. One of them is nearly a century old. They've been upgraded several times. So a lot of parents and school officials are very interested in upgrading or getting a new school. The other concern is just the tax rates in town. Willington is a rural community that has a lower mill rate or property tax rate on homes right now. And during public meetings, a lot of town residents spoke out about the potential tax impact on them. So those are the two main issues that will decide this, but I think it's undeniable that the choice to locate this proposed school on the first selectwoman family's property is influencing some people.

I asked Michael Makuch, the chairman of the school building committee, whether he saw that issue coloring the debate over whether Willington needed a new school and he adamantly said that yes, it is. And he said it's unfortunate that that is happening but it is becoming a clear sticking point for some people in town.

Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.