Published June 25. 2014 4:00AM
While this newspaper is excited about the prospect of converting the New London school system into an all-magnet district, there are too many unanswered questions to rush through a $196 million bond issue in time to meet a June 30 target date.
The date's significance is that it ends the fiscal year. Having passed an ordinance authorizing the bonding by that date, the city could begin the formal application process for state assistance. It would mean school rehabilitation projects could get underway sooner and lock in state aid, avoiding the risk that next year the legislature, facing its own fiscal problems, could cut reimbursement levels.
After state reimbursements, the administration calculates the cost to New London will be $34.5 million. The plan is to renovate the New London High School and Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School "as new," completing the renovation in recent years of all city schools. It would also pay for building a science & technology middle school at the high school campus. Modern schools are critical to a successful magnet program that will attract students from surrounding towns.
The problem is the rushed nature of the process. On June 13 Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio announced his bonding request and urged approval by June 30. Contrast that with how school building projects are normally handled. Typically, a building committee will spend months and multiple hearings narrowing the scope of a school project. A consensus builds as the public learns of the project details, finds out what it will cost in higher taxes and receives a project timeline.
In this case, New London officials are attempting to compress that process into a few days. It became clear at meetings Monday the City Council does not have what information it needs to make an informed decision.
There is no debt service schedule - the cost of the borrowing over the life of the bonding - no details about what it will mean in higher taxes when other debt commitments are factored in. The council was given no opportunity to consider other options. With its accreditation in danger due to poor conditions; couldn't the high school renovations be bonded first, Bennie Dover following in a second phase?
Councilors were at a loss as to how the administration arrived at a $216 million bonding figure. There were no renderings, no detailed project plans. On Tuesday the administration dropped the figure to $196 million. Is a $20 million adjustment supposed to instill confidence?
There is confusion over whether a state commitment for $31 million to renovate the Garde Arts Center - in part to create learning spaces for the arts magnet curriculum but also for theater improvements - is tied to the bonding proposal or can stand alone.
This process should have started months ago. Mayor Finizio said he was awaiting specifics on expected state reimbursements and only in recent weeks realized the significance of the June 30 deadline. However, the administration could have laid out project plans months ago, while alerting the council to the significance of June 30 in locking in reimbursement rates. That annual deadline is common knowledge in municipal government.
This last-minute push puts the council in a terrible position. If it approves the bonding, it does so without the information it should have to make such an important decision. If it rejects the request, it could face criticism for stalling the magnet-schools plan and get the blame if reimbursement rates do drop.
After Monday's marathon meeting, the council appeared to reach a consensus that it could not proceed. However, on Tuesday, Council President Wade A. Hyslop Jr. called for a special meeting Thursday, with possible meetings Friday and Saturday, necessary for the required three readings of the ordinance if Mr. Hyslop can only get four votes on the seven-person council. A five-vote approval margin (or greater) requires no additional readings.
Mr. Hyslop says he is optimistic the administration can supply enough answers to proceed. It is hard to see how. He also notes that while the ordinance authorizes the borrowing, meeting the June 30 deadline, the level and timing of the borrowing could be adjusted. Voters could have the last say if they petition the borrowing ordinance to referendum.
While Mr. Hyslop's intentions may be good, rushing a decision of this magnitude is a bad idea. Only recently, the council on a 4-3 vote quickly pushed through a resolution expanding voting places in the city, only to learn state law did not allow it.
Take the time to do it right and build public support. Fight in Hartford to keep the promised reimbursement rate and maybe seek a bit more. This delay will not derail the magnet-schools plan.