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41st District candidates differ on Groton school proposal, state budget

New London — The two candidates running for the legislature's 41st District House seat expressed different views on the proposed $184 million school construction plan in Groton and how to deal with the state budget crisis.

Republican incumbent Aundre Bumgardner and Democratic challenger Joseph de la Cruz met at The Day on Tuesday to debate the issues.

Bumgardner said he does not support the proposed school construction plan in Groton, which goes to voters at referendum on Nov. 8.

Taxpayers won’t be able to afford the project, he said. A lot of people don’t realize they would pay debt service as well as construction costs, he said. He said he would support a piecemeal approach that looks at smaller projects, rather than the large one proposed. 

“As of now, I’m not supportive of it, but I certainly will continue having an open mind about future building projects in a way that is far more affordable for the taxpayers,” Bumgardner said.

De la Cruz said hundreds of Groton students are traveling to New London to go to school, and the three Groton schools to be replaced are 65 years old. If voters reject the school proposal, the cost of building later will only rise and the district will have to invest in old buildings to maintain them, he said.

“This is something that, it’s our education, and we’re going to have to find a way to fund it. And that’s what I plan on doing when I get (to Hartford),” he said.

Bumgardner said he wants to discuss the racial balance law, one reason Groton needs to build new schools. The law considers a school out of balance if its percentage of minority students deviates more than 25 percentage points from the district average. The state cited Groton for racial imbalance at Claude Chester Elementary School in 2014 and is expected cite the district again this year.

“If that’s the issue, I really think at the state level, we need to have a comprehensive discussion about that statute. Especially as it relates to Groton’s situation," Bumgardner said. Given the presence of the Naval Submarine Base and high mobility of students, the law may apply in a way it was not intended, he said.

De la Cruz disagreed. He said the racial balance statute is “kind of a blanket for the whole state, and you can’t pick and choose where it works and where it doesn’t.”

The school construction proposal would solve the imbalance and cut the number of Groton schools from 10 to 8, he said. The plan would create one middle school and eliminate the problem of having two middle schools on opposite sides of town with different demographics, de la Cruz said.

“Also, this is going to set Groton’s tone for the next 65 years,” he said. The town built the existing schools 65 years ago, and now it's time for the community to make the investment for its children, he said.

On the state's budget crisis, the candidates also offered different views.

De la Cruz said the crisis is a 40-year-old problem, one you can’t eliminate by cutting a single large program. He said he’d take small bites out of the budget to gradually reduce it, making changes in areas like education mandates and by reducing the prison population. Labor has made concessions, de la Cruz said.

Bumgardner said the legislature faces a deficit of at least a $2.7 billion, and it won’t solve it by cutting various programs. The state must renegotiate its contracts with employees and address the state pension system, he said.

“The fact of the matter is state employees are not receiving the same benefits as folks in the private sector,” he said. “In fact, their packages at the end of it, by the time they retire, are very, very lucrative.” Reforms are needed to ensure that future retirees contribute more to their pensions and health care benefits. The state already has “a ticking time bomb” with its debt, he said. If the state fails to address this, it won't be able to pay for anything else.

De la Cruz said he’s always reminded of what he calls “the nonpension crisis,” or those trying to survive with nothing.  Also, when government cuts municipal programs, they have consequences for people, he said.


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