New London bond referendum to tackle school buildings' shortcomings; board hears advice on getting word out

New London - On a typical day at New London High School, at least one of the school's three boilers is not functioning. If it is a stormy day, wind and rain get into classrooms through windows that do not properly latch shut. If the wrestling team has practice, it takes place in what used to be the school's swimming pool.

To get to the cafeteria, students who use wheelchairs have to navigate through a janitor's storage area to get to a service elevator because the school has not been compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act since 1988.

Principal William "Tommy" Thompson III and Interim Superintendent Richard Foye on Thursday night guided the Board of Education through a presentation outlining the myriad problems with the city's high school and Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School.

For more than five years, the high school has been on probation with the agency that accredits New England secondary schools due to the problems with the building. And that agency has told the city that the schools accreditation will be revoked if nothing is done soon.

"Some of you may wonder, 'Why would a school be recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of the top performing high schools in the country but yet not meet the standards of an accrediting body?'" Thompson said. "The facility is what is keeping us on probation."

The purpose of Thursday's presentation was to start the board on the process of an informational campaign ahead of the Nov. 4 referendum on the City Council's approval of up to $168 million in bonding as part of a school construction plan, which would 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.

Ira W. Yellen, president and CEO of the Glastonbury-based First Experience Communications public relations firm, and district staff prepared the presentation, which was "scrubbed" by attorneys and election law experts, Yellen said.

Yellen advised the board that its individual members can and should distribute facts about the construction plan to voters, but that the board as a body cannot advocate in favor of the plan.

"Your role would be to explain the benefits of this program in terms of how doing this will be a benefit to the community," he told the board. "What's important is that you give them the vision and idea of what this represents for their family and future generations."

Yellen was hired by state-appointed Special Master Steven J. Adamowski and the state Department of Education to "help the district with communication issues," he said.

On its website, Yellen's firm lists as clients about two dozen public school systems, the state Department of Education and Capitol Region Education Council, which serves as a consultant to the city on school construction projects.

The presentation touched only briefly on the price tag of the construction plan, though board member Rob Funk, who is also the chairman of the city Finance Board, said the city is currently working on compiling information about the impact the project would have on taxpayers.

The state legislature has approved a reimbursement rate of 80 percent for the high school and middle school projects, which would leave the city to pay the balance of roughly $34 million.

"There are still many, many steps of approvals and development of the program. It's not like an approval that comes through the referendum means that we can spent this money on a vague concept, but rather that money cannot be spent until very detailed plans are developed and voted on by elected officials," Funk said. "It is not by any means a blind approval."

The school construction project would complete the facilities portion of the city's transition to an all-magnet school district.

"In the long run, this has to be done, so the funding is going to come from either the bonding or other sources, which is taxpayers," board President Margaret Mary Curtin said.

The district also announced Thursday that it will hold a similar informational presentation for the public at 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 21 in the auditorium at New London High School.

c.young@theday.com

Twitter: @ColinAYoung

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