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New London - Anxiety, tension and, at times, confusion hung thick in the air on the third floor of City Hall on Thursday night as the City Council and two of its committees met to take up the proposed ordinance that would authorize roughly $200 million in bonding to fund a school construction project.
Ultimately, after some amendments and political maneuvering, the City Council approved two separate ordinances that totaled $196 million in bonding for a project that will complete the facilities portion of the city's transition to an all-magnet school district.
"This is one of the greatest days in the city's history," Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said after Thursday night's meeting. "I look forward to signing the ordinance tomorrow."
The plan will involve renovating as new Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School and New London High School, and constructing a building to house a science, technology, engineering and math middle school at the high school campus.
Some facilities of the Garde Arts Center, as part of its own capital improvement plan, also would be expanded and renovated to accommodate an arts magnet high school downtown.
The state legislature has approved reimbursement rates of at least 95 percent for the Garde project and 80 percent for each of the other two buildings, leaving the city to pay the balance of roughly $34 million.
"I'm happy, very happy," a visibly relieved Board of Education President Margaret Mary Curtin said after the meeting. "I thank all the councilors, and I understand where they were all coming from with their questions."
Curtin, five other members of the Board of Education, Superintendent Nicholas A. Fischer and Special Master Steven J. Adamowski attended Thursday's meeting to answer any questions councilors had for them.
The ordinance concerning the high school and middle school passed 5-1 with Councilor Martin T. Olsen dissenting. Olsen said he wanted the council to split the two school projects into separate ordinances so he could have voted in favor of the high school project but not the middle school project.
The ordinance governing funding for the Garde passed 5-1 with Council President Wade A. Hyslop dissenting. Hyslop said he voted in opposition because he did not support the Garde piece being spun out of the original ordinance. The full council approved an amendment earlier in the evening to split the Garde project from the high school and middle school projects.
Councilor Michael J. Tranchida was out of town and could not attend Thursday's meeting.
Before the council met to vote on the funding requests, its Finance Committee and Education, Parks and Recreation Committee met to vote on passing the ordinance on to the full council.
After more than an hour of debate, the ordinance passed through the Finance Committee. But when Education, Parks and Recreation Committee Chairman Anthony Nolan moved to recommend it to the council, his motion was not seconded by Olsen and therefore could not advance.
As the committees adjourned their joint meeting, City Council Chambers was abuzz with questions about whether the ordinance was dead in the water.
"This is the deal of a lifetime, they can't let it slip out of our hands," Curtin said before the full council meeting began. "I'm going to say a few prayers before this next meeting starts."
When the City Council convened, Hyslop moved to discharge the Education, Parks and Recreation Committee from considering the ordinance. His motion passed and the matter was then in the hands of the full council.
Finizio on Thursday called the all-magnet district concept "an education dream come true" and "an economic driver that the city cannot even begin to calculate the benefits of."
Finizio stressed to the council that their approval Thursday night would not be the final approval of the projects or the bonding.
"Before anything actually happens, a lot of different votes are going to have to be taken, a lot of different conditions are going to have to be met," Finizio said.
First, the ordinance will almost certainly be subject to a voter referendum. If the ordinance passes at referendum, the next steps would be for the city and the Board of Education to sign memorandums of understanding agreeing to consolidate the city and school system finance and maintenance departments.
Additionally, Finizio said, the city's finance director, bond attorney and financial advisers would have to provide sufficient evidence to the mayor and the City Council that the city can afford to fund the project and shoulder the debt associated with it.
"We lock in the good deal without having to actually move any money and with the protections to not move money down the road if this doesn't wind up working out," Finizio said.
The project would then proceed in stages, and the city does not expect to bond all of the money at one time, he said.