STAMFORD – The board focuses on raising revenue; the department on how best to spend it.
So it’s not surprising that a 20-year, $1.5 billion school construction plan has the finance board and the education department at odds.
It was clear during a special meeting called by the Board of Finance last week to question school officials about an ambitious program to renovate or replace the city’s aging halls of learning.
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Under the program, two middle schools and two elementary schools will close. Two other elementary schools will be expanded from K-5 to K-8. Two new K-8 schools will be constructed. The city’s largest school, Westhill High, will be entirely rebuilt. Stamford High will undergo a major renovation. Another middle school will be enlarged. And the remaining schools will be repaired.
But, minutes into the 3 ½-hour special meeting, the discussion veered off. Finance board member J.R. McMullen wanted to know about busing.
“Will there be a school to serve the West Side, so those kids aren’t on the bus for … 45 minutes each way?” McMullen asked.
Superintendent Tamu Lucero said her office looked for a site on the West Side but was unable to find one.
“There are a bunch of kids in younger grades who live on the other side of I-95 who are on buses for way too long. I see them go by my work every day,” McMullen said. “The buses are wild. It’s kids of all ages, they’re not seated, not safe. They’re going crazy on those buses.”
Cindy Grafstein, who helps oversee school building operations, said it’s her understanding that no school bus ride exceeds 30 minutes.
“So you think the kids that are coming from the West Side and going up to Springdale are only on the bus for 30 minutes?” McMullen asked.
“I understand what you’re saying, but I’m not sure this discussion is about the bus rides,” Grafstein replied. “Our charge was to look at the school facilities.”
“But the bus rides are affected by where you put the schools. If you put the schools in the same footprint that they are currently in, you’re not fixing anything,” McMullen said.
Grafstein, a special assistant to Mayor Caroline Simmons, said that’s a greater discussion about demographics, which the district is reviewing.
“We’ve been doing this for a year and a half,” she said. “If you can find us a spot …”
“It’s not my job to find a spot. It’s your job to find a spot,” said McMullen, a Republican. “You guys are all talking this equitable stuff. It’s not equitable for all the black and brown kids to spend an hour and a half every day on the bus when we want them to do better in school. You’re taking an hour and a half away from their studies. That’s not equitable.”
“I think you’re wrong,” Grafstein said.
“Well I think you’re wrong,” McMullen replied.
The discussion progressed.
Kemp Morhardt, an executive with the SLAM Collaborative, an architectural firm contracted to draw up the schools plan, had some bad news for the finance board. Though the state has promised to reimburse the city for 80 percent of the $258 million cost of rebuilding Westhill High School, the actual reimbursement will be 76 percent, Morhardt said.
Certain aspects planned for the project, such as auditorium seating and lighting for ballfields, are not eligible for state funding, Morhardt said.
The same holds true for smaller renovations, called “deferred maintenance” projects, he said.
The state is supposed to reimburse the city for 60 percent of the costs of maintenance work, but because of eligibility restrictions, the city should count on a reimbursement rate closer to 40 percent, Morhardt said.
“As projects unfold, we will maximize the reimbursement as much as possible,” he told the board.
Morhardt went through the various projects, using charts to explain the sequence and estimated dates of closing old schools as new ones are built.
Then Board of Finance Chair Richard Freedman shared charts of his own. According to the sequence, next year’s projects will cost $22 million, Freedman said, but it takes the state about four months to reimburse the city.
That’s a third of the year, so the city will need to have cash on hand equal to a third of the $22 million – about $7 million – to pay the general contractor as work is completed.
“We’re going to have to float that while we wait to get the money back from the state,” Freedman said.
The city will have to float larger amounts in subsequent years, he said, because work will escalate.
In the second year, project costs will be about $46 million, so the city will need $15 million on hand. The year after that, work will cost $70 million, so the city will have to float $23 million; and costs the year after that will be $85 million so the city will need to have on hand about $28 million.
“We need to make a provision for this,” Freedman said.
The Board of Finance, with help from the Board of Representatives, has partially done that. In May, members of both boards voted to create a school construction fund by increasing property taxes by 1 percent. The fund contains about $20 million, enough to float construction costs for two years.
After that, the finance board can seek a line of credit from a bank, Freedman said, or it can ask taxpayers to dig deeper.
“We can put it into the tax rate,” Freedman said.
The Board of Education will have to do its part, he said. The school board annually requests $5 million to $8 million for capital projects, but that cannot be the case for the next several years, Freedman said.
“Why do we have this long-term plan if we are funding that but the regular capital spending doesn’t change, or goes up?” he asked. “If the Board of Education will be up at its old level, that’s not going to work out very well.”
The school board is already at that level, said Theresa Dell, who attended the meeting as chair of the Planning Board, the first body to see capital requests.
“We’re well over $6 million with the Board of Ed so far,” Dell said.
Frustration surfaced again.
“There is a lack of coordination between what the Board of Ed is saying and what we are trying to accomplish,” finance board member Dennis Mahoney said. “There has to be complete transparency, and sometimes I don’t sense that from the Board of Education.”
Mahoney said he was under the impression from an earlier discussion with school finance officials that some of the $55 million in COVID-19 relief funds the district received would be used for school construction.
But the school district used nearly $9 million of the money to create 120 positions, including teachers, kindergarten paraeducators, technology specialists, security guards and parent facilitators. The funding expires at the end of the 2023-24 school year, so if district officials want to keep the positions they will need $9 million to pay for them.
“We are setting ourselves up for a budget problem when these funds run out,” Mahoney said. “I am the biggest supporter of doing this construction plan but I think there have to be controls, because there is way too much money at stake and if we don’t do it right, if we don’t find savings, then we will not succeed. Money is not endless. Taxpayers cannot be assumed to be cash registers on this.”
Because school buildings are owned by the city, “this has to be a city project, not a Board of Ed project,” Mahoney said. “The Board of Ed is the tenant. They told us what they want, now it’s up to the city to run the show and be the policeman.”
Lucero, the superintendent, said she does not want “a combative relationship” with the finance board, but she did not signal that she is thinking about budget cuts.
Her budget was cut during the pandemic, and “at that time we said to everyone that we were going to have to put back some of these positions … and we laid out a plan for how we were going to do it but then the cuts kept coming to our budget,” Lucero said. “At some point I have to defend our children and the need for them to be educated properly.”
Everyone needs to see things “from each other’s point of view” and not “play the blame game,” Lucero said.
“It really isn’t fair to point fingers at us when we clearly laid out for you the concerns we would have moving forward in educating students, especially in the pandemic,” she said. “You are talking about the fiscal piece in all of this and the rest of the community is talking about, why are test scores so low? Why are all these things not in place? Why are kids not getting what they need socially and emotionally? We are committed to being partners with you but you have to understand that we have to educate children also.”