This CT town might buy first selectwoman’s family’s land for new school
Community leaders in the small eastern Connecticut town of Willington have been debating what to do about their aging elementary and middle schools for years.
But the town’s plan to build a new combined school for its roughly 400 students is now being colored by a decision to locate that proposed project on a piece of land that is owned by the family of Erika Wiecenski, the town’s first selectwoman.
The potential for Wiecenski’s family to profit from the project and the process the town used to select the site has raised concerns among citizens in Willington and prompted several residents to question the motivations of their elected leaders.
Unlike some municipalities in Connecticut, Willington doesn’t have an ethics policy to guide public officials like Wiecenski, a Democrat, in how to avoid using their positions to advantage themselves or their family members. And despite recent complaints from Willington residents, state ethics officers have no authority to review the actions of town officials.
The proposed school project is currently estimated to cost more than $62 million, with 40% to 50% of that money potentially coming from grants funded by state taxpayers.
Members of the town’s school building committee, of which Wiecenski is a member, approved a letter of intent to buy her mother-in-law’s property late last year after months of closed-door discussions about where the town should build a new school. The document was then signed by Aliza Bortiz, another member of the board of selectmen who resigned shortly thereafter.
Wiecenski, who declined to be interviewed for this story, abstained from voting on that agreement. But she was present in the private meetings where other committee members — many of whom she helped to appoint — debated potential sites for the proposed school and discussed the letter of intent.
That letter, which was obtained by the CT Mirror, shows that the town is prepared to pay Wiecenski’s mother-in-law around $270,000 for a 65-acre property that has been in the family for decades. That proposed price was set by an appraisal the town paid to conduct on the vacant lot.
The deal would also allow Wiecenski’s mother-in-law to harvest the timber on the property prior to the sale, and it would award the family the naming rights to a portion of the new school.
The entire project now hinges, however, on whether Willington’s residents vote in favor of a referendum later this month to authorize the town to borrow more than $62 million through government bonds.
That’s a big decision for Willington, one of Connecticut’s smaller municipalities.
The town’s roughly 3,500 voters will need to consider the current condition of Willington’s existing elementary and middle schools, both of which were built more than 70 years ago.
Willington residents will also need to weigh the potential tax implications on the town’s roughly 2,577 households, which earn an average annual income of roughly $78,000.
Those two issues are most likely to determine whether Willington moves forward with the plan to build a new 76,000 square-foot school and an additional 8,000-square foot auditorium.
But the proposed property deal is now deeply intertwined in the referendum as well.
Jim Bulick, the only Republican on Willington’s three-member Board of Selectmen, said he is opposed to the construction of a new school, due to the property tax increases that will be required to finance the project.
Even so, he said, Wiecenski’s involvement in the school building committee and her participation in the executive sessions has caused some residents to question the process.
“In the private sector, they teach you if there’s an appearance of an ethics issue, then there probably is one, and you should avoid it,” said Bulick, who said he has never seen the agreement between the town and Wiecenski’s mother-in-law. “People are rolling their eyes when they hear about this, thinking it’s government as usual.”
A new school
At this point, Willington’s town leaders have studied and debated what to do with their elementary and middle school students for more than a decade.
According to town presentations, Willington officials considered as far back as 2009 whether the town needed to consolidate its elementary and middle schools with other municipalities in the region. They also went through a similar exercise in 2016, when they analyzed whether to send the town’s students to schools in neighboring Mansfield.
Those discussions about consolidation didn’t lead anywhere, but the impetus behind those talks has not gone away. The town’s population continues to decline, and neither of its existing schools is getting any newer.
In 2001, the Center Elementary School and Hall Memorial School had a combined student population of roughly 612, according to state enrollment statistics.
By 2010, that number was down to 542, and it has continued to slide since then. The most recent enrollment numbers from this year place the total elementary and middle school population at fewer than 400 students.
It’s with that backdrop that Willington’s leaders formed a school building committee in December 2020.
The committee began exploring the town’s options in early 2021 and contacted the Connecticut Office of School Construction Grants & Review, which administers statewide funding for school construction and renovation projects.
That spring, town officials hosted Konstantinos Diamantis, who was then the director of the state’s school construction office, for a walk-through of the Hall Memorial School.
At that point, some of the members of the school building committee were still interested in renovating Hall Memorial School into a combined elementary and middle school. But Diamantis quickly dismissed those ideas.
Following his tour, Diamantis told the local school building committee the existing middle school was not a good candidate for renovation and was unlikely to receive state funding. He later advised Willington officials to find at least 20 acres of land on which to build a new school.
“I don’t see that building being a consolidation candidate by the state, and I think you need a new school,” Diamantis said.
Diamantis, who stepped down from state government in late 2021 amid multiple investigations into his conduct, later cancelled two state grant applications to replace the roofs on the towns existing schools.
Wiecenski and the other members of the school building committee responded to those actions by creating a subcommittee to evaluate properties in Willington where a new school could be sited, and they appointed Michael Makuch, who was then the chair of the town’s board of finance, to lead that search.
That evaluation process, which included a high-level review of more than 120 public and private properties scattered throughout the 35-square-mile town, eventually resulted in Willington signing the letter of intent with Wiecenski’s mother-in-law.
Town officials continued to consider the potential cost of renovating the Hall Memorial School through last year. But the estimates provided by the town’s consulting firm showed that renovating the existing school would likely cost local taxpayers more than it would to build a new facility, largely because of the state reimbursement rates for each project.
Armed with that information, the school building committee voted 8-2 earlier this year to proceed with the plans for a new school.
A public warning
Wiecenski, who is in her third term as the town’s first selectwoman, has been one of the biggest advocates for building a new school in Willington. As the former chairwoman of the town’s board of education, she is well versed in the earlier discussions regarding Willington’s schools.
But the pending purchase of her family’s property has confronted Wiecenski with questions about her ongoing role in the town’s push for a new facility.
Willington’s residents first learned about the proposed land deal between the town and Wiecenski’s mother-in-law in November.
By that point, members of the school building committee had spent months reviewing and comparing potential sites, including several properties that were already owned by the town.
James Marshall, a Willington resident who was appointed to the town’s board of finance this year, told the building committee during that November meeting that there was “speculation” in town about one of the committee members’ families benefiting from the proposed school.
Marshall, who voiced support for a new combined elementary and middle school, told the committee members they should be prepared to publicly address that issue if it was in fact true. Otherwise, he warned, the town would be forced to spend the coming months discussing that potential conflict of interest instead of debating the merits of a new school.
“As somebody who supports a new school, I worry about the next four months of discussion,” Marshall said.
“If it’s not true, then I only wasted a minute of your time, but if it is true, you’ve got time to prepare, because I think it’s important that there be a solid response,” he added.
Those worries have largely come true.
Since that meeting, Wiecenski and other town officials have been repeatedly questioned about how and why the town chose her mother-in-law’s property and what role she played — if any — in the closed-door negotiations.
Wiecenski addressed some of those ethical concerns during a meeting in December. She noted how she abstained from voting on the letter of intent and said she never attempted to hide that conflict.
“I don’t want there to be any assumption that we’re trying to hide from a connection. There is absolutely a connection to someone on this committee, and that someone is me,” Wiecenski said.
“As this committee knows, I’ve stayed silent in the process and abstained from votes because of the owner of the property and the connection. I wanted to make sure this was above board and ethical,” she added.
The public trust
Several residents defended the first selectwoman in public meetings, arguing that personal conflicts were unavoidable in a small town like Willington.
“I’ve heard many of my neighbors proclaim their love for small towns and then apparently be surprised and suspect conspiracy when there is overlap in family, property and committee membership,” said Katherine Kenyon, a Willington resident, during a January town meeting. “We are a small town made up of close families, neighbors and generational connections. I do not believe these connections are evidence of wrongdoing or ethical conflicts of interest.”
Others, however, have continued to criticize the first selectwoman for her participation in the executive sessions where the proposed land deal was discussed.
In the face of that public backlash, Wiecenski stepped down as a voting member of the school building committee in January, but she has continued to play a role in advancing plans for the new school.
At a joint meeting of the town’s finance committee and the board of selectmen in February, Wiecenski cast a tie-breaking vote to approve the town-wide referendum for the new school, despite the fact that the potential purchase of her family’s property is contingent on that referendum passing.
That type of action would potentially violate the ethics codes in other towns in Connecticut where laws exist to help police conflicts of interest among public officials. Some of those local ethics codes prohibit even the appearance of a conflict.
But Willington doesn’t have its own ethics codes, and the Connecticut Office of State Ethics has no power over municipalities. That means Willington residents have nowhere to turn if they think a town official acted inappropriately by helping to benefit themselves or their family members.
That’s a problem, according to Delaney Marsco, who serves as the senior attorney for the Campaign Legal Center, a national group that advocates for government ethics.
“All of our institutions rely on public trust,” Marsco said. “We need the public to trust that government officials are acting in the best interest of the public, not in the best interest of their stock portfolio, their mother-in-law’s bottom line or their brother’s bottom line.”
In a perfect world, Marsco said, the questions about Wiecenski’s involvement in the school project would already be resolved by an ethics code. People would know when it was appropriate for Wiecenski to participate in the executive session meetings and when she needed to recuse herself from votes.
“You wouldn’t have to wonder if this was a legal or ethical action taken by this person,” she said.
“When these questions come up in our communities, we should be able to focus on the issues,” Marsco added. “If this debate is dominating the discussion, it’s clouding people’s ability to meaningfully participate in government and to trust our officials. And that’s the problem.”
An objective evaluation
Makuch, who led the town’s property search for the new school, told the CT Mirror that the town’s decision to authorize the letter of intent with the first selectwoman’s family is further complicating an already heated debate over the proposed school. And he agreed that was problematic.
Still, Makuch defended Wiecenski’s actions as first selectwoman and the choices that were made by the other members of the school building committee.
“We were very vocal from the beginning of the subcommittee that our process had to be defendable,” said Makuch, who is now serving as the chairman of the school building committee. “I had no idea that we would one day be having this conversation, but I wanted the process to be defendable and legitimate.”
Makuch, who was also recently chosen by Wiecenski to fill an open seat on the town’s board of selectmen, said he didn’t know for certain how the town first became aware of the piece of land owned by Wiecenski’s mother-in-law. But Makuch said he’s been told that it was the town’s consultant that brought the property to the town’s attention.
According to Makuch, the consultant spotted the property while he was examining a nearby lot, and he quickly realized that it was large enough and flat enough for the proposed school.
“The consultant noticed this piece of property and started researching it,” Makuch said. “And so that is how that came into the conversation.”
“He had no idea who owned the property or anything,” Makuch added.
By that point, Makuch said he and other members of the school building committee were communicating with local realtors and sending out informal notices in town to try to find other potential sites.
The town never put out an official request for proposals asking for landowners who would be willing to sell their property.
Still, the property owned by Wiecenski’s mother-in-law, Makuch said, was considered in the same way as the other properties.
The town’s consultant and members of the land assessment subcommittee assembled a list of which lots in town had enough space and access to roads and utility lines. That high-level analysis, Makuch said, eventually allowed the subcommittee to narrow the list down to four finalists, which were scored based on their location, their topography and whether there was enough room to potentially expand the school in the future.
Two of those parcels, including the lot owned by Wiecenski’s mother-in-law, were private property. The other two included the current site of the Hall Memorial School and a 36-acre public lot on the east side of town.
The public lot on the east side included enough available space for the new school, was free of wetlands and was already owned by the town. But Makuch and the other members of the subcommittee issued the property a lower score largely because it included a slightly steeper slope, because there was less room to expand in the future and because the closest power lines were roughly 2 miles away from the site, according to the document.
The final scoring sheet for those properties was not released to the public prior to the school building committee voting on the letter of intent last year.
Makuch said he can understand why members of the public may want to question how the building committee settled on the lot owned by Wiecenski’s family. But he argued the property was clearly the best choice for a new school.
“Honestly, from my point of view, I kinda hoped that we were going to hate the property, just because it would eliminate dealing with it,” Makuch said. “The fact of the matter is once we started looking at the property, based on an objective evaluation, it had factors that we couldn’t ignore.”
In hindsight, Makuch said he would make the same decision again.