New London fails to claim millions in school funding

New London - Although students have been attending the Science and Technology Magnet School for six years, the city has yet to collect about $2 million in construction reimbursements because the state still lists the project as unfinished.

The city also has failed to collect about $3.6 million in state reimbursements from other school construction projects that date back at least seven years. City and school officials have been working with the state for the past year to get the $3.6 million. The city counts that money as deferred revenue in the fund balance, a rainy day fund used for emergencies.

"We need to resolve these outstanding reimbursement issues with the state, with regard to the schools, as soon as possible,'' City Councilor Adam Sprecace said Wednesday. "Given the uncertainty of the city budget, we need to be collecting every dollar that is owed to the city."

The administration and City Council are trying to decipher the state of the city's finances. Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio announced last month that the city could be facing a $12 million deficit spread across three years, including a projected $4 million deficit in the current budget. Sprecace has estimated the deficit for the current year could be closer to $1.1 million and may be as low at $400,000.

The $2 million reimbursement for the magnet school, which is not accounted for in the city's fund balance, could go a long way in addressing the deficit.

On Tuesday, at the request of Superintendent of Schools Nicholas A. Fischer, the council agreed to hire a "commissioning agent" to go through the magnet high school so the project can be closed. The state holds on to some of the reimbursement money until the project is considered finished.

The cost to hire a professional engineer to serve as commissioning agent is $30,000. Funds to pay for any work that needs to be done would come from the project's budget, Fischer said.

In 2002, the city agreed to build a science and technology magnet school at New London High School with a commitment from the state to provide $18.7 million for construction and equipment. A combination of state and local funds supports the operating budget. Half the students at the school are New London residents and the other half are from surrounding communities.

A commissioning was requested when the magnet school was completed in 2006. But Fischer, who has been superintendent for the past three years, said the request "was not followed.''

The review is also needed, according to Fischer, to look into problems with ventilation, heating and electrical systems at the school.

There are 48 digital lights in the $18.7 million school building that do not work, according to minutes of the School Building and Maintenance Committee. Debris in the air ducts appears to indicate the system is coming apart, the minutes said.

Fischer said the commissioning agent would go through the building to identify problems and figure out if the blame lies with a contractor, engineering negligence or owner error.

As far as the $3.6 million that is still outstanding from other school building projects, Fischer said a majority of the money is from the construction of the Jennings Elementary School, which re-opened in 2008. The cost of that project was $25.5 million.

Two weeks ago, Fischer, city Finance Director Jeffrey Smith, Council President Michael Passero and other city employees met with the state Department of Construction Services to discuss the outstanding reimbursements.

Passero said the state representative explained what paperwork is missing and what needs to be submitted. He said he left the meeting optimistic the city eventually would be reimbursed all of the $3.6 million.

Passero said he never got a clear answer from the school department as to why the reimbursement requests were never submitted.

Fischer said the issue has been documentation and follow-up. "There's been differences of opinions on responsibilities on documentation,'' he said. "Who was responsible for documentation? We're trying to work it all out.

"There's a lot of learning that's going on,'' he added.

k.edgecomb@theday.com

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