New London still hopes for state funds for magnet school

New London — The city is working with the state Department of Administrative Services to determine whether the magnet school construction plan overwhelmingly approved by voters at referendum earlier this month could be among the school building projects recommended for funding to the General Assembly when its next session begins, Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio told the City Council on Monday night.

On Friday, a spokesman for DAS told The Day that the project will not be recommended to the General Assembly because it was not approved at referendum until after the June 30 deadline.

"We have been in communication today with the staff at DAS and we have been informed that no final determination has been made about the inclusion or exclusion of our school construction project in regards to their recommended priority list to the legislature," Finizio said Monday afternoon. "Our staff and DAS staff will be working on this and will continue to work on this over the next several days to try to reach a resolution on this question."

Only projects that had been approved at the local level by June 30 will be considered for the 2014-15 school building project priority list, which the state Department of Administrative Services presents to the state legislature by Dec. 15, the spokesman said.

Even though the City Council approved the project and the associated $168 million bonding ordinance before that date, the state did not consider local approval to be completed until the bonding referendum question passed on Nov. 4.

That the bonding ordinance to fund the project was petitioned to referendum "does have an impact in terms of whether or not the department brings forward that project for its priority list for the coming session," DAS Spokesman Jeffrey Beckham said Friday. "The town could go make a case to the General Assembly - the final call rests with the General Assembly - but that project would not be something submitted by this department."

But Finizio said he and Law Director Jeffrey T. Londregan interpret the law differently and contend that the ordinance became effective when it was signed, and that the referendum did not alter the status of the ordinance.

By email Monday evening, Beckham said "the matter is under review," but did not explain further.

During a June 26 meeting at which two City Council committees debated the bond ordinance, Capitol Region Education Council Project Manager Diana McNeil told the City Council members that if the ordinance were petitioned to referendum, the city would "no longer (be) in the queue for funding from the state," according to minutes from that meeting.

The General Assembly could add a project not recommended by DAS to its annual school-construction legislation, but no money can be expended on a project until it is included in such legislation.

Finizio said Monday he has already begun the process of lobbying legislators, including House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, to have the project included in the final school construction bill.

"I have spoken to our legislative delegation, I have meetings later this week with members of our delegation, other state legislators and I have a meeting Thursday with the speaker of the house," Finizio said. "If DAS ultimately makes a differing legal interpretation and this project is not included on the DAS priority list, we are already reaching out to legislators to make the argument for this project's inclusion through the legislative process as well."

On Election Day, voters overwhelmingly affirmed the City Council's approval of up to $168 million in bonding to complete the facilities portion of the transformation into the state's first all-magnet school district.

That the bond ordinance, which was petitioned by voters to referendum, passed with roughly 65 percent support, allows the city to set in motion its plan to renovate New London High School and Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, and construct a building to house a science, technology, engineering and math middle school at the high school campus.

c.young@theday.com

Twitter: @ColinAYoung

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