OPINION: Turning a threat into an opportunity

OPINION: Turning a threat into an opportunity

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I have written in previous columns that one of the most gratifying parts of having been a state senator was constituent service. Most of the time constituent service is in the form of assisting individuals one-on-one. But sometimes a legislator can collaborate with a team to help the entire community. Such an opportunity presented itself to me shortly after I was elected in November 2016.

I was aware that the Middlesex Community College facility in Meriden was likely to be closed because of budget problems. In fact, the Board of Regents had voted to close the facility in April 2015 only to be thwarted by legislative action that stopped any closure at the time. But it was obvious that ongoing budget problems were increasing the pressure to close the facility.

Shortly after I was elected I did some research and learned that the lease on the facilities located on West Main Street was due to expire in January 2017. I realized that the pending expiration of the lease was very likely to renew the threat of potential closure of the MxCC Meriden Center. So, I sought a meeting with MxCC President Anna Wasescha to see what could be done before it was too late.  President Wasescha very enthusiastically welcomed the opportunity to meet and discuss the situation.

In early December 2016 I met with Wasescha and Board of Regents President Mark Ojakian at MxCC offices in Middletown to discuss what could be done to assure the ongoing presence of MxCC educational facilities in Meriden. As we discussed the problem the thought occurred to me that Meriden was in the midst of a major rehab of our two high schools and I wondered if there was any potential to relocate the MxCC facilities to one of the high schools. I mentioned this thought to President Wasescha who responded by telling me she was aware of such a collaboration between a community college and a local high school in Rhode Island. She was very positive about the potential to work together but she wasn’t certain how the Meriden BOE would respond.

Having served on the Meriden BOE for 14 years I knew all the board members and Superintendent Dr. Mark Benigni very well. Frankly, I was confident Dr. Benigni and the Meriden BOE would respond favorably. I told Wasescha and Ojakian that I would initiate an exploratory conversation with Dr. Benigni and the Meriden BOE.

A week later I met with Superintendent Benigni and he responded to the overture with his typical enthusiasm. Mark saw this as a win-win situation, potentially saving the MxCC Center while at the same time offering a unique educational opportunity to Meriden students and school staff as well. Mark suggested we meet with BOE member John Lineen who would act as a liaison with the BOE. Shortly thereafter we all met in Benigni’s office to discuss the concept. Everyone was enthusiastic about the idea. But time was of the essence, because if the BOE approved the move a considerable amount of planning and time would be needed to implement the plan of action in time for the Fall 2017 semester.

At that time, we invited the entire Meriden legislative delegation to participate in the process. We all met almost every week in early 2017 to work out the details and to develop a plan of action and by the beginning of March the Board approved a plan to locate the MxCC Meriden Center at the new Platt High School campus. In fact, the board approved a decision to dedicate a wing of the high school to the MxCC Center.

This truly was a win-win for Meriden and for MxCC. But it couldn’t have happened without teamwork. Key players were Benigni, Board member John Lineen, Wasescha, Ojakian and Dr. Steven Minkler of MxCC who handled the details with MxCC staff and coordinated planning with Meriden Public School officials, and finally the Meriden Board of Education itself.

To me this is a story that is particularly important in these times of budget crisis. This is a good example of how a threat became an opportunity: how a potential loss was the catalyst for a real gain for the community and its students. It shows that while there are still very real budgetary problems facing our state there is still the potential for very real constructive solutions when we work together.

Len Suzio is a former state senator.