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In persuading the City Council to move forward with a $196 million plan to complete the renovation of city schools and lay the pathway to conversion to an all-magnet school district, New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio obtained arguably the greatest policy victory of his administration.
The mayor was racing to win approval by June 30, locking in promised state reimbursements that will cover about $162 million of the project cost. After meetings this past Monday, it appeared his proposal was in serious trouble, with council members troubled by the lack of details and the administration unable to spell out what the investment would cost taxpayers over the life of the bonds.
However, with a couple of days of intense lobbying, Mayor Finizio and City Council President Wade A. Hyslop were able to gather the votes they needed. On Thursday, the council approved the bonding package by 5-1 margins in two separate votes.
This newspaper remains concerned about the rushed nature of the proceedings. The vote came less than two weeks after Mayor Finizio announced the level of investment he would ask of city taxpayers. We remain perplexed as to why the mayor and Board of Education did not begin sooner to build support for the project with the council and the public.
Now the task of persuading the public about the merits will have to come after the council vote. Rather than dealing with a citizenry that is excited and well versed in the plan, the administration may well face a public that is skeptical and wary.
The goal is a good one - completing the upgrading of all city schools in anticipation of the planned conversion of New London Public Schools into the state's first all-magnet district. New London will in effect become a regional school system with 25 percent of students coming from surrounding communities, diversifying enrollment racially and economically. The change will also attract increased state aid.
From grades kindergarten to 12, students will have several career pathways available - public service, arts, science and technology, and dual language - while receiving the same core curriculum. The plan offers the best chance to improve education performance in the city's struggling schools, building on the advances made in the past few years.
To make the program work, the city needs modern schools. The bonding package approved Thursday calls for reconstruction of the high school and Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School as new and the addition of a second middle school on the high school campus. Those projects total $165 million.
Approved as a separate ordinance were plans to renovate the Garde Arts Center and outfit it for use in the arts curriculum pathway. The state has pledged to cover the cost of that $31 million project.
The school project ordinance - and potentially the Garde segment as well - is likely to be petitioned to a referendum vote in November. The list of ballot initiatives grows. Petitioners have also forced votes on the $1.1 million borrowing plan to help rebuild the city's fund balance and on the $85.3 million operating budget.
Mayor Finizio persuaded the council to support the school bonding ordinances with the assurance that before any construction loans are obtained the city's finance director and its financial advisers will still have verify that the city can handle the debt. This or future councils will remain in control and could amend or withdraw support, he said. The project will roll out in phases, said the mayor, easing the fiscal burden.
Having won the council's confidence with those explanations, the administration may face a bigger challenge in winning the trust of a majority of voters if indeed this matter heads to referendum.