Published June 13. 2014 10:49AM Updated June 14. 2014 12:43PM
New London — When the city’s metamorphosis into an all-magnet district is complete, city and school officials say, New London has a chance to be a model for education reform in the region, the state and the country.
But the city must first address a handful of problems: Its high school will lose accreditation and federal funding if there is no plan to renovate it; the heating and other mechanical systems at its middle school are beyond their useful lives; and enrollment is expected to rise in the next decade.
On Friday morning, Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio announced he will propose a $34 million bonding ordinance to fund a school construction project that would resolve the city’s need to fix the antiquated New London High School, renovate Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School and transform the Garde Arts Center into an arts magnet high school.
In total, the project would cost about $216 million, though the state legislature has approved reimbursement rates of 95 percent for the Garde project and 80 percent for each of the other two buildings, leaving the city to pay the balance.
The plan would involve building a new STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — middle school adjacent to the current STEM magnet high school on Jefferson Avenue to create a STEM campus.
New London High School would be renovated as new to accommodate the leadership and public service pathway. Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School also would be renovated as new, to house grades six through 12 of the dual language pathway.
“Changing our education system does not just provide better education for New London, it fundamentally transforms our city and allows us to take advantage of the full potential New London has,” Finizio said.
The mayor made the announcement at a breakfast hosted by the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut. In his address, he laid out a number of projects that he hopes will have a positive economic impact on the city in the coming years, like the National Coast Guard Museum and development on Parcel J on Bank Street.
None, he said, will have as significant an impact on the city as its ongoing conversion to an all-magnet school district. “This affects every aspect of our city’s development,” he said. “This is the key to our success.”
Councilor Erica Richardson said Friday she thinks improvements to the city’s school facilities are necessary, especially if the city is to be the host of a sought-after magnet district. She added, however, that it will be important for the City Council to be vigilant when it comes to selecting contractors to do the work and filing for state reimbursements.
“If I’m going to support bonding millions of dollars, I want to know that we will not be paying for additional repairs within 10 years of a school being built,” Richardson said.
Finizio will officially present the ordinance to the City Council at its regular meeting on Monday. He said he has met with some councilors in recent weeks to discuss the bonding ordinance, which must be approved by June 30 to “lock in” funding commitments from the state.
Finizio said he “unfortunately could not have acted earlier because we needed to wait until the end of this legislative session to know exactly what our reimbursement rates would be.”
If the city does not pass the ordinance by the end of the month, it would have to wait until the end of the next legislative session and would not be guaranteed to receive the same amount of state support.
Councilor Martin T. Olsen, who is also a member of the School Building and Maintenance Committee, said he would be comfortable waiting until the city’s newly appointed superintendent has had a chance to weigh in on the proposal before moving ahead with any funding. “It may be prudent to get our new superintendent settled in and get him to be part of this process,” he said. “We’re not that far along that we shouldn’t be incorporating his thoughts into this process.”
Whether it is part of a larger plan or not, the city must have a plan in place by Sept. 1 in order to salvage the accreditation of New London High School, which has not been compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act since 1988.
The building plan, which matches closely one proposed earlier this year by the Capitol Region Education Council, working as a consultant to the city, is “at least three years to fruition,” said Special Master Steven J. Adamowski, who accompanied Finizio at the announcement. Adamowski is completing his second year as state-appointed overseer of the city’s school governance.
The school system conversion, which CREC foresees being completed in 2018, will have a “tremendously positive” impact on the city’s businesses and will vastly improve property values across New London, the mayor said.
Though the bonding ordinance will have an impact on city taxpayers, Finizio said he believes the cost will be “acceptable and one that we must bear if we are to take advantage of this tremendous opportunity” to become the state’s first all-magnet district.
“The impact on taxpayers will be lessened by the fact that this bonding will not be done until a significant amount of city debt is retired in the coming two and three years,” he said.
Finizio said the city is now in a position to fund the project because “at long last, New London’s financial crisis is indeed over.”
The city will end this fiscal year with a balanced budget “barring any miraculous meteors from space or unforeseen circumstances in the next two weeks,” he said.
By investing in the city’s schools, Finizio said, New London could finally realize a more complete revitalization.
“New London, for as long as I have been alive, and I know longer than that, has been discussed as a city with great potential,” he said. “Although the city has improved over time from where it was, it has not taken that giant leap forward that everyone has been waiting for.
“This is the opportunity to do just that,” he said.