New London poised to begin $98 million high school project

New London — With state funding for a $98 million high school construction project in jeopardy, the school district is rushing to get a shovel in the ground and meet a summer deadline to mark the start of a nearly $150 million overhaul of its high school and middle school.

The July 6 state deadline pertains to the start of work at the so-called north campus at New London High School, the first of two projects; the second is a $48 million overhaul at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School.

Because the design of the north campus still is evolving, the district has decided that rehabilitation of the high school track will meet state requirements mandating the start of construction.

The design of the campus remains in flux as the district copes with a state directive to essentially build a high school and middle school instead of two school campuses each housing sixth- through 12th-grade students. The state also apparently has ended the district's goal of creating four magnet schools all open to out-of-district students. A new state directive would instead allow two interdistrict magnet schools, open to students from outside of New London, and two intradistrict schools, open only to New London students.

The City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a contract amendment with Antinozzi Associates, the company designing the new high school, allowing it to gather design costs to repair the track and address drainage issues there.

The approval, however, came with a healthy dose of criticism from some city councilors.

Councilor Martin Olsen said, and others agreed, that Tuesday’s vote appeared to be an emergency measure in which a “no” vote could doom funding for the north campus. He also voiced frustration over the apparent lack of movement of a project whose funding — up to $165 million — was approved by voters in 2014, when the school district still was under state supervision. At an 80 percent reimbursement rate, the city’s cost was expected to be about $33 million.

“To date, the amount of progress — if you can call it that — is minimal at best,” Olsen said. “We have no plans. No bid documents. We’re not ready to go.”

“I’m just very, very, very disappointed we haven’t had any positive movement,” he said.

Olsen said the project also had diverged from what initially was approved by taxpayers.

“The community four years ago was buying in to building a brand new school. We’re not getting a new school. We’re getting two additions. That’s quite different from what was sold to us four years ago,” he said.

The council was poised to vote on authorizing up to $1.1 million for the track project. Councilor Don Venditto, however, amended the motion to include just the $83,000 in fees to conduct the study on costs at the track, which was damaged during a storm in 2015, and $24,750 in preconstruction costs. Total costs will come back to the council for authorization.

While the $98 million school building project is approved by the state at an 80 percent reimbursement rate, the track will be reimbursed at 40 percent, though the drainage work could yet be tied to the construction project and the higher reimbursement rate.

Councilor John Satti, who also is chairman of the School Building Maintenance and Facilities Committee, said he expected the costs associated with the track to be far less than the $1.1 million, which is the worst-case scenario figure. The final cost will determine how much of the $98 million is left to spend on actual construction at the high school, whose final design is now underway but yet to be approved at the state level.

Construction at the north campus was supposed to have started last year, but the district obtained a one-year extension because of project delays that included the end of negotiations for a $31 million performing arts campus at the Garde Arts Center downtown, said Diana McNeil, a senior project manager for the Capitol Region Education Council, which is overseeing the project.

There were also several months spent pursuing a portion of that $31 million in funding to be applied to another part of the project. Mayor Michael Passero eventually declined a $17 million offer from the state, since it involved a new appropriation from taxpayers.

The loss of the Garde and subsequent delays associated with state mandates have led to a scramble to reorganize the school project and find a place for each of what was envisioned to be four magnet themes in two sixth-through-12th-grade schools that could attract out-of-district students and funnel state magnet funds into the district. The themes include performing and visual arts, STEM, language and culture, and leadership.

New London, poised to be the state’s first all-magnet district, already has established magnet programs at its elementary schools and converted Bennie Dover to accommodate a mix of magnet themes.

The state Department of Administrative Services, which manages the school building projects, and state Department of Education, which manages the magnet school grants, thrust the most recent conceptual plans into disarray when in December it directed the district to put the brakes on the idea of housing sixth- through 12th-grade students in two schools.

Instead, it has directed the district to reconfigure the layout of the schools, allowing Bennie Dover to stay a middle school and, except for the arts magnet pathway, keeping ninth- through 12th-grade students at the high school.

The arts magnet pathway would be housed at the north campus, McNeil said. Early conceptual designs for the north campus had included a 25,000-square-foot addition for things like dance studios, band and chorus rooms.

Bennie Dover would host an international baccalaureate program and the STEM and leadership magnet pathways under the new plan. The baccalaureate and leadership programs would remain as intradistrict magnet pathways, available to New London students only, under the new plan. A school district representative was not available to comment on how that directive might affect estimates on future state magnet funding.

“The state was requesting a complete different direction: Let’s go back to the model of the middle and high school versus the six through 12 model that was on the grant application in 2014,” McNeil told councilors on Tuesday.

“That was the model we had been programming, designing and cost estimating all along since essentially the Garde situation came to an end,” she said.

Interim Superintendent Stephen Tracy, who has led the district for the past six months, said he met with state officials on Tuesday for a “productive meeting” focused on three issues: ensuring adjustments to the north campus project fit within the $98 million spending limit, allowing more flexibility in pathway themes to accommodate more students, and minimizing the number of sixth-graders mingling with high schoolers.

Tracy said the state felt that two schools with their own administrative structures would be more economical than four different magnet pathways each with its own administrators and staffing.

“I actually think there are some good ideas in the proposal, but the problem is here we are in February trying to adjust to the changes ... and meet the state’s deadline,” Tracy said.

The changes to the school plans may also address some concerns raised about whether some students would be eligible to play sports for New London High School.

Tracy said the district will pursue an aggressive schedule to ensure the track project starts before the state deadline. He said the next major step is coming to a consensus with state officials on exactly what the high school project will look like.

g.smith@theday.com

Editor's note: This version of the story corrects the amount of money offered by the state to the city after the loss of the $31 million Garde Arts project.

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