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    Sunday, March 26, 2023

    Don’t punish city for acts of Diamantis

    State regulations governing public school building projects are complex, to say the least, and can be confusing to the volunteers who serve on school building committees. School officials in New London waded through this confusing regulatory tangle in the best way they knew how - by following advice and directives from those in the state’s school construction program - as they oversaw a $108 million reconstruction and expansion of the city’s high school that began in 2020.

    For trying to follow these directives, the city was threatened in 2022. State officials said the city would not receive state reimbursement for more than $4 million in demolition and abatement work on the school project. New London is set to be reimbursed 80% of the costs of most of the project and 95% of a $10 million portion added in 2019.

    In making the threat to withhold reimbursement for the demolition work, state officials cited the city for failing to put that work out to bid. City officials say they were told to remove the demolition work from among those parts of the project scheduled to be bid after state officials - those they trusted were supposed to be in the know about such things - advised them to do so. Instead of bidding the demolition, they were instructed to choose a firm to complete the work from a list of pre-approved state contractors.

    While it appears the state’s threat to withhold reimbursement funds may be an empty one because legislation rectifying the situation is pending, the threat never should have been made in the first place.

    Mayor Michael Passero told The Day recently: “It was not a problem created by the city. The city cannot be expected to pay.”

    Bryan Doughty, a member of the Board of Education and School Building and Maintenance Committee, offered this perspective to The Day: “I felt like we went about this contract the correct way through guidance from the state and now the state is in a sense washing its hands of the situation.”

    We agree with Passero’s and Doughty’s sentiments.

    School officials in numerous towns, including Bristol and Groton, had reported being pressured to steer school building work to particular contractors, actions that were at odds with state regulations. So it’s curious, indeed, that the state thought threatening a municipality with losing a significant amount of money was an appropriate way to smooth over some of the highly questionable practices of the Office of School Construction Grants and Review dating from when it was under the direction of the now-disgraced Kostantinos Diamantis. Diamantis resigned from his high-paying state job in 2021.

    The mess that resulted in an FBI investigation of the state’s school construction office was one made at the state level. The state needs to clean up the mess at that level. It cannot and should not be rectified on the backs of municipal leaders who were simply doing their best to follow the rules.

    We hope New London officials’ confidence that the legislative process will remedy this issue is well placed. Forcing a cash-strapped city to suddenly find millions of dollars to make this right is hardly a solution.

    Editor’s note: This version corrects the spelling of Bryan Doughty’s name.

    The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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