School maintenance funds a concern for New London officials

New London – The city’s school maintenance budget is depleted and with three months left in the fiscal year public works officials are hoping nothing major breaks down in one of the city’s six school buildings.

Public Works Director Brian Sear made the announcement at the most recent School Building and Maintenance Committee meeting and, while there were questions, few seemed overly surprised.

The city’s Public Works budget has been notoriously underfunded over the past few years even as the city has increased work associated with maintaining aging city-owned buildings and upkeep at the schools.

Timothy Wheeler, the school district’s chief of operations for technology and facilities, said a mechanical breakdown without the funds to fix it “can shut a school down.”

“It’s a big issue. At some point we need to sit down with the city,” Wheeler said at the recent committee meeting.

The committee is additionally grappling with the anticipated maintenance costs associated with two future schools to be built as part of the overall plan to place New London on the map as the only all-magnet school district in the state. Construction of the first of the two new schools, the $98 million north campus at the site of New London High School, is expected to begin by July 2018.

School Superintendent Manuel Rivera several years ago contracted with Capitol Region Education Council, CREC, to complete a master facilities plan that is expected to provide estimates on those costs. That study has yet to be completed.

“Whatever we build we have to make sure we put in an honest maintenance budget,” Sear said.

City Councilor Martha Marx agreed and said the funding source for school maintenance for the two new schools, grades 6-12, will be a major issue in the coming years.

“We’re going to need to put twice the money in our city budget to maintain these huge schools and we don’t have the money,” Marx said. “For all of the money we get from the state in magnet funding we can’t use that for maintenance and we are building schools twice as big and educating half of southeastern Connecticut. I’m being honest. I want this more than anything but the state has to give us more money. We can’t do it on the backs of our taxpayers.”

Sear said the city, in conjunction with the school district, has over the past several years tried to take on more projects that have been deferred in the past.

“We’re doing a lot of catch-up maintenance that was put off for a long time,” Sear said. “It cost more in the short term but saves us money down the road and prevents major failures.”

The city budgeted $450,000 for school building maintenance for this year. About $340,000 has been spent and approximately $100,000 committed to maintenance contracts, Sear said.

That money covers “HVAC repair and maintenance contracts, elevator maintenance and repairs, extermination services, roofing repairs, security system maintenance agreements and repairs, boiler inspections, sprinkler and fire alarm suppression agreements and repairs, generators and repairs, masonry repairs, flooring repairs and any other miscellaneous,” according to the budget.

Maintenance agreements account for about 65 percent of the budget.

In addition to the $450,000, Sear said the city budgeted $50,000 for operating supplies and materials and $15,000 for public works overtime work at the schools.

Salaries for public works employees working in the parks and solid waste divisions are absorbed into the city’s general budget. Public works handles grounds maintenance at the schools and athletic fields and trash and recycling pick up.

The school district pays for its own janitorial labor and supplies as part of regular operating costs and last year budgeted $111,576 for maintenance. School Finance Director Robert Funk said the maintenance money covers things like fire extinguisher service, parking lot repairs, boiler repairs, alarm repairs, floor maintenance and exterminating services.

It also addresses what Funk said was some small repairs that the city does not address as quickly as the district feels is necessary.

“We recognize that funds are limited in both the education budget and the city public works budget, but in some cases our prioritization for repairs might not align with that of public works,” Funk said in an email.

The district more than tripled its maintenance budget in next year’s proposed budget to $338,585.

Sear credited the school district for use of state Department of Administrative Services’ grant funds for capital improvement projects that have lessened the financial blow to the city in a number of areas. The money has been used for things like the $250,000 boiler at New London High School. Those Alliance grant funds, however, cannot be used for routine building maintenance or salaries.

“We’re all committed on the operations front to getting the places looking and running as well as we can with what we’ve got,” Sear said.

At the recent school building and maintenance committee meeting, City Councilor Marx and City Finance Director Don Gray each asked if the school district might have the extra funds or grants money to cover any outstanding maintenance costs.

Funk said the school is already trying to avoid a deficit situation but would look.

Kathy Skrabacz, a mother of several New London school students, appeared to be on the verge of tears during a recent school building and maintenance committee meeting.

“I constantly hear city versus board of education,” she said. “I know we have no money but please, it’s our kids.”

g.smith@theday.com

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