Groton to seek $53 million more in state school construction funding to solve racial imbalance
Groton — Superintendent of Schools Michael Graner plans to seek special legislation that would grant Groton 80 percent reimbursement from the state for its proposed three new schools, reducing the cost to taxpayers to about $41 million.
The school construction proposal, called the Groton 2020 Plan, would build one new middle school adjacent to Robert E. Fitch High School, and two new elementary schools at the sites of Carl C. Cutler and West Side middle schools. Three of the district's oldest elementary schools would close.
The total cost is estimated at $191.7 million, some of which would be paid for by the state, leaving a net cost to local taxpayers currently estimated at $94.8 million.
But Graner told a liaison committee of the town and city councils, Board of Education and Representative Town Meeting last week that he believes Groton can make a compelling case that since the schools are necessary to correct racial imbalance, the district should receive a "diversity" reimbursement rate of 80 percent. He presented the idea Thursday to the Groton School Facilities Initiative Task Force and those present unanimously supported his effort in a straw poll.
"We've had years of racial imbalances that we've addressed with redistricting, and it has failed every time," Graner said.
Graner has also spoken to state Reps. John Scott and Aundre Bumgardner, both Groton Republicans.
"It sounds like it's something we ought to try to pursue," said Scott, who spoke briefly with Graner Friday morning. "We did decide that we would make official plans to get together and decide specifically what we're going to ask for in the next legislative session. If multiple local legislators buy into the plan, it could work."
The state cited Groton in 2014 for an imbalance at Claude Chester Elementary School, which had a minority population of 68.2 percent at the time. Graner then presented as a solution his plan to build one new middle school and convert the existing middle schools into elementary schools. The State Board of Education accepted the plan in January.
The issue of racial balance has been a longstanding one due to demographics. Of the 348 children attending kindergarten through grade 5 and living within a half-mile of West Side Middle in Groton City last year, about 74 percent were minority students.
By comparison, of the 184 children living within one mile of Cutler Middle School in Mystic during the same period, 23 percent were minority students.
The state considers a school out of balance if the percentage of minority students deviates by 25 percentage points from the district average in the same grades. Groton had an average of minority student population of about 43 percent when it was cited.
To correct the imbalance, the Groton 2020 Plan would build one middle school, placing all students in grades 6 through 8 in one building, thereby eliminating the issue in those grades. The two new elementary schools would replace three existing schools that would close, thereby drawing from a larger area. The elementary schools would also offer magnet programs to students from across Groton to reinforce balance.
The task force had initially planned to apply for the standard state reimbursement rate — which has fallen from about 48 percent to 44 percent — for two of the three new schools, Graner said. It then planned to apply for diversity reimbursement of 80 percent for one school, as one school was cited as out of balance.
Graner believes the diversity rate should apply to all three because the district has repeatedly redistricted but only shifted the problem from one school to another. The state mandates that racial balance be maintained, and Groton has tried for more than 10 years to correct it.
Less than a year before Groton was cited for the imbalance at Claude Chester, the district moved 16 percent of its elementary school students to deal with a racial imbalance at another school, Catherine Kolnaski Magnet School.
Both middle schools and S.B. Butler Elementary School also have been flagged in recent years for "pending imbalances," defined as a minority population of greater or less than 15 percentage points of the district average.
In addition, the state cited Groton for an imbalance at the former Eastern Point School in 2004 and again in 2007. The following year, the district opened Kolnaski Magnet School and Northeast Academy and closed four elementary schools, including Eastern Point.
The magnet plan didn't work. In 2009, Kolnaski Magnet was found to be imbalanced. School officials then proposed the Phase II school construction plan to address it, but voters defeated it at referendum. Students were redistricted in September 2012.
The special legislation would also seek a waiver of the state's $450-per-square-foot cap on renovating older schools as new. This would allow Groton to renovate the existing middle schools into elementary schools rather than tear down the middle schools and build new elementary schools. The change would reduce the overall price by about $20 million, Graner said.