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Darien: A year in review

Updated 3:43 pm, Monday, January 6, 2014

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  • Superintendent Stephen Falcone presenting the proposed building projects at Tokeneke and Royle Elementary Schools to the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, May 21. Photo: Megan Spicer
    Superintendent Stephen Falcone presenting the proposed building projects at Tokeneke and Royle Elementary Schools to the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, May 21. Photo: Megan Spicer

 

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Changing of the guard

The district administration underwent an almost total overhaul in 2013. First to leave was Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Schools Matt Byrnes, who became the head of the Wooster School in Danbury. Tim Canty, who was formerly in Wilton, replaced Byrnes.

Director of Finance Dick Huot retired in the summer from the Darien schools after six years of service. Michael Feeney replaced him.

Superintendent Stephen Falcone abruptly resigned Oct. 22 after the Board of Education learned he was in possession of a letter from September 2012 that revealed all of the issues within the special education department prior to a parents' complaint being filed with the state. He is now the human resources director for Stamford Public Schools.

Lynne Pierson was hired to serve as the interim superintendent while the Board of Education searches for a successor.

Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Education Judith Pandolfo is now the longest-serving member among the administrators.

Powder hoax

Darien and State Police came together to determine the origin of a mysterious white powder that was found in envelops in two mailboxes in Darien. The first was reported Sept. 2. The second was brought to the police's attention the following day.

The two houses -- one on Rainbow Circle and the other in the Tokeneke area -- had nothing in common.

Two teenage girls turned themselves in Sept. 4 and told police the residences they targeted were chosen randomly and that they had no connection to them. The girls told police the powder was a "nontoxic food product," which was later verified by the Department of Public Health Bio Response Lab.

Special education controversy

Darien Public Schools came under fire after a complaint by more than 20 parents was submitted to the state Department of Education alleging that there were illegal practices within the special education department.

After several investigations and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent, it was determined that what the parents' allegations were true. Individualized Education Plans were changed after Planning and Placement Team meetings -- a direct violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Deirdre Osypuk, the director of special education and services, has been on paid administrative leave since June.

In order to rectify the situation, the Board of Education hired attorneys Theresa DiFrancis, Sue Gamm and John Verre. DiFrancis was hired to rewrite special education policies, Gamm lead a three-month independent investigation into the department and Verre serving as the department's ombudsman in 2013-14.

Who's in, who's out

Democrats David Bayne and John Lundeen no longer are members of the Board of Selectmen following the November election. Bayne, on the board since 2007, chose to not to seek re-election.

Lundeen, who served one term, did not receive support from the Democratic Town Committee to earn a place on the ballot.

Democrats Ed Tierney and Kip Hall were elected to the Board of Selectmen.

On the Republican, David Campbell did not seek re-election. Susan Marks joined First Selectman Jayme Stevenson and Gerald Nielsen on the board.

Sticker shock

In the start of the calendar year, the Board of Education looked for ways to combat the ever-increasing enrollment in the elementary schools. It was decided that building projects at Tokeneke and Royle elementary schools would be the best course of action. A building committee was formed but when it presented the board with the estimated cost of the projects at $14 million, they were put on hold in order to identify most cost-effective solutions. Initially, the Board of Education thought the project was going to cost $4.7 million.

Sunny Day project shines bright

The newly formed Darien Athletic Foundation's prerogative is to improve the athletic facilities in town through the Sunny Day Fund, which at $7.5 million, is the second-largest fundraiser in town behind the library.

Part of its gifts to the Board of Education include a $250,000 scoreboard with a video display that was installed Sept. 5 -- but not flawlessly. One of the chains holding the scoreboard gave way, sending it to the pavement. The corner panel was dented and was fixed later.

In December, the Board of Education approved the construction of a $500,000 pavilion that will house the concession stand and bathrooms. The last phase of the DAF's project is the approval of five turf fields for the high school and Middlesex Middle School.

The foundation is comprised of all volunteers and all the funds were donated.

Darienites close

to Boston Marathon bombing

Tammy Hughes had just crossed the finish line at the Boston Marathon April 15 when the first explosion occurred. Hughes was walking to get her race medal when the sound turned her around to the sight of a "big building of smoke." The second bomb exploded as she was looking at smoke rising six stories, startling her into throwing the shirt she was holding.

The bombing killed three people and wounded more than 260.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has pleaded not guilty to a 30-count federal indictment that includes charges of using a weapon of mass destruction. Seventeen of the charges carry a possible death penalty. Authorities said Tsarnaev, 20, and his brother Tamerlan, 26, built pressure cooker bombs and placed them near the marathon's finish line. Tamerlan died following a shootout with police several days after the bombings.

The manhunt for the two brothers extended to Darien when authorities believed they may have escaped Boston on a train.

Local man wins national award

Dean Coots, a Darien native, became the first double award winner in the national Sprite Films Competition. He won the Green Ribbon Panel and Fan Favorite Awards for his film "Break the Night."

As the Green Ribbon Panel Award winner, Coots won a $30,000 contract job to work alongside Sprite and The Coca-Cola Company brand executives to develop content. He also won a trip to the American Film Institute's film festival for winning the Fan Favorite Award.

Along with Coots' awards, Sprite will donate $5,000 to the Elon University film department. Elon University is Coots' alma mater.

New parking pay system implemented

The scratch-off vouchers at the train station lots were scrapped in lieu of a new electronic pay system. Along with the new system came new parking regulations.

The proposed regulations, which were discussed at a special Board of Selectmen public hearing Sept. 16, would do away with the scratch-off voucher system that had been in place since 1999, according to Administrative Officer Karl Kilduff.

In its place would be electronic stations, where commuters would be able to pay in person or by way of a pay-by app for smart phones.

Additionally, the new regulations would increase the daily parking fee from $3 to $5, which is more in line with the surrounding towns' market rates, according to Stevenson. The daily voucher rates have not increased since 2004.

There will be light

Instead of installing sidewalks along Hoyt Street to improve pedestrian safety, Stevenson had lights installed as a temporary safety measure. The neighbors along Hoyt Street weren't overly pleased.

Neighbors negatively responded to Stevenson's request for feedback regarding four test pilot lights that were installed on Hoyt Street on back-to-back street posts.

In short: They were too bright for a residential neighborhood.

The lighting plan eventually was changed so that there only would be lights on every other street pole, but Stevenson knew the residents would not be fully satisfied.

"I have no confidence that this will satisfy the needs of the neighbors because the neighbors want sidewalks," Stevenson said.

Metro-North death

The MTA didn't suspect foul play in the death of 55-year-old Kevin Murphy, who was struck and killed by a train March 4 in Noroton Heights, according to MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan. After months of waiting, toxicology reports from the state medical examiner's office were returned and the Metro-North police, based on the report, have listed the cause of Murphy's death to be blunt force trauma. The manner of death is still undetermined, according to Donovan, and the investigation remains open.

Crime in 2013

Several crime stories generated multiple page one stories in Darien.

Former CBS news anchor Robert Morrison faced charges of second-degree strangulation, second-degree threatening and disorderly conduct following a domestic violence incident with his wife, Ashley, also a CBS news anchor, at their Darien home. At 1:30 a.m. Feb. 17, Darien police received a phone call from Robert Morrison's mother-in-law reporting that there was a domestic altercation occurring at her daughter's residence. The couple is living together again in Darien with their son. Morrison pleaded guilty to the charges. The charges would be cleared from his record if he completed two family violence programs.

A Darien woman who used her position as an executive at Tiffany & Co. to steal $1.3 million worth of jewelry was sentenced Dec. 20 to a year and one day in prison. Ingrid Lederhaas-Okun, 47, of 1 Timber Lane, was also sentenced to one year of supervised release and was ordered to forfeit $2,114,873 and to pay $2,239,873 in restitution to Tiffany.

Dirk Heideklang, 19, who lives alone at 37 Catalpa Terrace, was arrested May 23 and 25 following a tumultuous series of events in Darien during which he fought back against police, told them he had taken multiple drugs and yelled at members of Post 53 and Stamford Hospital employees, according to court documents. A search of his house yielded several firearms, all registered to him, and the discovery of a marijuana growing room, according to court documents. He pleaded not guilty to the charges and his lawyer filed a motion with the courts claiming the search of Heideklang's home was illegal.

Christian Garnett, a 32-year-old Darien coach who lives in Stamford, was arrested Oct. 31 after police saw him speeding on three tires and one rim on Connecticut Avenue in Norwalk on charges of interfering with a police officer, assault on a police officer, possession of drug paraphernalia and driving under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. He's accused of kicking an officer who was trying to arrest him. According to the report, Garnett was punched in the face by another officer and subdued by a stun gun. He was placed on leave from his coaching position following the arrest. He and his lawyer filed a complaint with the Norwalk Police Department. No pleas have been entered.

Hollis Ross, 68, of Pennsylvania, was held on $500,000 bond Aug. 11 and faced two counts of attempted manslaughter after attempting to hit his two adult stepchildren with his car. Police said Ross drove a late-model Lexus sedan across several neighborhood lawns at a high rate of speed before striking his estranged wife's late-model Lexus SUV. Ross' manslaughter charges were reduced to first-degree assault charges, to which he pleaded not guilty. Ross was also charged with violation of an out-of-state protective order; first-degree reckless endangerment; first-degree criminal mischief; operating under the influence of liquor and or drugs; and breach of peace. He's out on bail.

mspicer@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6583; @Meg_DarienNews