(Overly) dramatic news for NL schools

Things are getting exciting for the New London school system, even a bit dramatic.

On Thursday came news that the Board of Education had made its choice for the next superintendent of schools. Terrence P. Carter comes with a history of working to turn around poorly performing schools in the Chicago system. He is the chief academic officer of the Academy for Urban School Leadership, managing 29 Chicago public schools with 17,000 students.

Then on Friday, at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast, it became clear that plans to convert the New London public school system to an all-magnet district are quickly moving from concept to reality. As Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio correctly noted, there is no other project - including plans to bring a National Coast Guard Museum to the city - that has greater potential to be transformational.

Currently, Mayor Finizio noted, many parents are reluctant to enroll their students in city schools because of their past academic struggles. Families leave or don't move here. A city offering modern schools, with challenging and engaging curriculum choices, and a diverse student body, could change all that. Fix the schools and, in many ways, you fix New London by increasing property values, generating greater business interest and, most importantly, offering a ladder out of poverty for many of its children.

But no good news, it seems, can be delivered without a bit of drama from our city's mayor, and so it was Friday at the event presented by the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut at Ocean Beach Park.

Mayor Finizio said the city must be prepared to effectively bond $34 million, its share of $313.5 million in improvements to city schools, work that has included the complete renovation of its three elementary schools in the last few years. Moving forward, the renewal of the New London school system will include reconstructing as new its high school and the Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, as well as the $31 million investment (95 percent from the state, said the mayor) to expand upon the mission of the Garde Arts Center, utilizing it as an arts magnet school.

We use the phrase "effectively bond," because the ordinance the council will be presented with Monday actually calls for appropriating $219 million - gulp - to complete the rebuilding of city schools, most of it offset by the promise of those state reimbursements.

While the figure is big, the news is not entirely startling. New London officials have long known the city would have to shoulder some of the burden for this massive undertaking. Percentagewise, the state is asking New London to contribute far less than any neighboring towns that have undertaken school projects.

The real drama came via the deadline Mayor Finizio set for City Council authorization - June 30. That deadline is necessary, he said, to lock in the generous state contributions. Miss that date and there is no guarantee the plans will survive the 2015 legislative session, he warned. And there is an election for governor in November. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's administration, Mayor Finizio frequently noted, has been very aggressive in helping the city's school system.

Mayor Finizio said he made no earlier announcement because his administration was trying to pin down the reimbursement numbers that were a product of the recently concluded legislative session.

It does get tiring, however, that it is always this way with the Finizio administration - we need it and we need it now or disaster will strike. The administration should have been more on top of the game to know this was coming, even if the numbers were inexact, and provided the council and public with more warning.

Yet it does make sense to pin down these reimbursement levels now by approving the ordinance. New London's charter provides a backup. Voters can petition to force a referendum on the bonding. We suspect they will. This would provide the chance for the thorough airing of the bonding proposal that Mayor Finizio's two-week deadline does not offer.

The city cannot afford to let the drama derail a plan that can bring increased state aid to the city, diversify enrollment by attracting students from neighboring communities to its new magnet schools and provide parents and students academic choices. On balance, the news is very good.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.


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