General Assembly OKs $31 million to transform Garde into arts magnet school

Hartford — The state Senate unanimously passed a bill Tuesday night to provide up to $31 million in state aid for the creation of a new magnet high school at the Garde Arts Center in New London.

The vote was followed at by a 142-2 vote of the House of Representatives shortly before midnight. The bill now goes to the governor for his signature.

“This school will be a major component of New London’s K-through-12 arts pathway as the City of New London becomes the first all-magnet district in the state,” said Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford. “This project maximizes the historic facilities of the Garde to create a downtown cultural and high school campus, saving the city money and building on existing arts-based infrastructure. This is a huge development for education and the arts in southeastern Connecticut.”

In total, Senate Bill 475 would provide $325 million for school construction costs across the state, according to the report by the Office of Fiscal Analysis. The bill now moves to the House.

In New London, the funds would be used to renovate the existing facility, including making enhancements to the main theater and the Oasis Room, and building a backstage addition and an additional 244-seat theater. The $31 million also could be used to turn vacant offices into multi-purpose studios, classrooms and workspaces.

The $31 million should cover the needed renovation costs, Stillman said, but the bill also allows the school — called the New London Magnet School for Visual and Performing Arts — to obtain private funding as well.

In order to access the funding provided by the bill, the Garde Arts Center, the New London Board of Education and the state’s Department of Education would have to sign a memorandum of understanding about the parameters of the school, according to the bill.

As part of New London’s move toward an all-magnet district, the New London Public Schools also have been working with the Garde and the Interdistrict School for the Arts and Communication in the city to create middle and high school facilities for the visual and performing arts magnet “pathway.”

New London is developing four magnet pathways — science, technology, engineering and math; visual and performing arts; dual language; and leadership and public service — with a projected total enrollment of 4,600 students.

As of March, the city had three new elementary schools, one to house each “pathway,” but hadn’t figured out exactly how to create enough middle and high school facilities.

The renovation of the Garde should resolve the need for visual and performing arts space, Stillman said. As of March, the plan was for students enrolled in the arts magnet pathway to attend elementary school at Nathan Hale Arts Magnet, middle school at the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication (ISAAC) and high school at the Garde.

Renovating is much cheaper than building a new facility, she said, and will save taxpayers money. The request for funding came from state-appointed Special Master Steven Adamowski, Stillman said, and representatives of the Garde contacted him to see how their facility could help.

State Rep. Elissa Wright, D-Groton, called the deal a “win-win proposition” for the children’s academic success, the nonprofit performing arts center and the community.

The Garde was built by Hartford businessman Walter Garde, who had a summer home on Mott Avenue. The 1,472-seat theater opened in 1926 and included storefronts on State and Meridian streets and offices on the upper floors. In 1929, Warner Bros. bought the theater for $1 million. It closed as a movie theater in 1977.

In 1985, a group of private citizens bought the building for $300,000 and turned it into a nonprofit performing arts center.

The Garde Arts Center is a great location for an arts magnet school and was the “culmination of hard work on behalf of New London,” said Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London.

“I look forward to another successful school that will add to the educational vibrancy of our city and will piggyback on New London winning a national award for being one of the best schools in the nation,” he said.

j.somers@theday.com

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