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Aldermen Balk At ESUMS Price Tag
by Melissa Bailey | Aug 19, 2013 6:54 am
Posted to: Schools, City Budget
Citing a $10 million increase in the price tag to the city and a reluctance to pay West Haven $1 million in permit fees, aldermen are holding off on a key approval for an $85.5 million new home for New Haven’s science-themed magnet school.
The approval concerns a plan to build a new home for the Engineering & Science University Magnet School (ESUMS) in West Haven near the campus of the University of New Haven. After years of negotiations, West Haven has grabbed four properties through eminent domain to make way for the school.
Now New Haven’s school board is asking the Board of Aldermen for permission to buy the properties for $1.8 million, in the hopes of paving the way for construction this winter.
Schools Chief Operating Officer Will Clark said the approval is time-sensitive: If the project fails to get local approval by September, he said, the state’s reimbursement rate could plummet from 95 to 80 percent.
Clark appealed to aldermen for approval at a July 15 meeting of the joint aldermanic Finance and Education Committees. He met 90 minutes of questions from skeptical aldermen. They held off on giving their approval, asking instead for more answers; they have not met to consider the matter since.
Since the meeting, the school board announced a surprise $3.5 million deficit in last year’s budget, forcing the city to cover the shortage, and putting the ESUMS price tag in a new context.
Aldermanic President Jorge Perez, who sits on the Finance Committee, cited two main concerns about the project: A ballooning price tag, and the cost of West Haven building permit fees.
Since the state and aldermen first approved the project in 2007, the total cost has grown from $59.5 million to $85.5 million.
Perez balked at the $26 million increase.
“They’re going to have a lot of explaining to do,” he said in an interview Friday.
Another sticking point: Clark’s estimate of how much the city will have to pay has increased by $10 million, up to $16.15 million. That equates to 19 percent of the total project. That’s based on an estimate that the state will consider $12.5 million of the project costs “ineligible” for reimbursement.
Clark couched this as a conservative estimate, based on the worst-case scenario of negotiations with the state. (On previous projects, he gave aldermen more optimistic estimates, only to meet uproar when the schools had to ask the city for $18 million extra to cover ineligible costs.)
Perez replied that paying $12.5 million in ineligible costs isn’t the worst-case scenario: “The worst-case scenario is we don’t approve the project.”
Clark outlined the construction costs in a letter to aldermen issued last month; click here to read it.
The letter lists a half-dozen costs likely to be deemed “ineligible,” including:
• A $700,000 redesign of the project. (Architects originally drafted a design without knowing where the school would be located; they redrew the design once a site was secured.)
• $3.1 million to rent a swing space at Leeder Hill Road in Hamden.
• $1 million in building permit fees.
Other costs contributing to the $26 million increase include:
• $1.3 million in legal fees and $4.4 million in construction fees, both of which went up during the seven-year delay.
• $2.5 million in off-site improvements (such as work at nearby traffic intersections).
Clark argued that the project is well worth the cost: ESUMS has quickly emerged as a top-performing school. It focuses on preparing kids for science and math careers, which is a local and national priority among educators. From their new building, kids at ESUMS will be able to walk to UNH’s engineering campus to take college courses. And they’d be able to take advantage of up to 100 percent scholarships at UNH.
Clark said aldermen already approved the $85.5 million project as part of an overall bond authorization. West Haven has acquired the four properties; New Haven now just needs to transfer ownership in order to move forward with the project.
The district will find other places to cut to address its budget deficit, Clark said; school construction is paid for by money borrowed through bonds.
Perez balked at the notion that West Haven would charge New Haven for building permit fees. New Haven usually waives those costs for its own school construction projects.
“I think it’s insulting that they’d try to charge us for permits,” said Perez during the July 15 meeting. He said West Haven is benefiting from the school, including being guaranteed 20 percent of the seats in the 616-student school.
“I think we should find another city to build it in,” Perez grumbled.
Clark replied that he shares Perez’s concern: “It’s certainly a frustration of mine.”
But he pointed out that West Haven has been instrumental in making ESUMS happen, including going through eminent domain and zoning approvals. He said he’d also lobby the state to pay for a larger portion of the site.
Fair Haven Alderwoman Migdalia Castro echoed Perez’s concern about the building fees and the total project cost.
“I find it very difficult for me to support this project in the city right now, with these taxes,” she said.
Reached Friday, West Haven Mayor John Picard said he spoke with New Haven Mayor John DeStefano a month or two ago about the building permit fees.
“I cannot waive the fees,” he said, nor can his building department. “It’s got to go before the city council.”
“I’m open to discussing the amount,” he said, but the final decision is up to legislators. Given that West Haven is losing taxable property for the project, he said, “my intuition is [New Haven is] going to be paying a fee.”
East Rock Alderwoman Jessica Holmes expressed concern that the school wouldn’t accommodate more New Haven kids.
Clark said the 616-student school will have 65 percent New Haven kids and 35 percent suburban kids, as do most magnet schools. Making it bigger would require redesigning the building.
Aldermen ended a 90-minute discussion without taking any action on the matter. No meetings have been scheduled to address this issue. Aldermen could schedule another joint Education/Finance Committee meeting, or, if they want to hasten the process, send the matter straight to the full Board of Aldermen on Sept. 2.
Clark framed the matter as urgent. The state is currently reviewing the project. If ESUMS is missing a key aldermanic approval, Clark said, “then the project cannot move forward.” The project is up against a September deadline for approval, or else it risks losing its state reimbursement rate, he said: New Haven has been grandfathered into a 95 percent reimbursement rate of all eligible costs; that rate could slip to 80 percent if the project fails the state review and ESUMS needs to reapply.
If the project fails to get state approval, he said, the city would have to pay back $3 million to the state right away.
Clark said the 19-percent local share is consistent with other school construction projects, given their ineligible costs: “There’s nothing unusual about that percentage.”
ESUMS would be the capstone of Mayor DeStefano’s $1.5 billion effort to rebuild or rehab all the city’s schools, which began in 1998. ESUMS is the last new school building in the pipeline. Of all the projects, Clark said, “this is the most exciting program I’ve ever been involved in.”
He said his goal is to open the school in the spring of 2015, so the school’s founding 6th-graders can graduate from the new school, “walk right across the campus, and get a full ride at UNH.”
“Every day that goes by, pushes that [completion date] back,” Clark said.
Perez said he supports the project in principle. His budgetary concerns are “no reflection on the merits of the program,” he said. But he said he may have to vote no: “I’m not going to vote for something if they’re going to charge us a million dollars” for building permits.
Holmes said she wouldn’t stand in the way of the proposal. “We have an enormous amount of debt” and “troubling” financial circumstances, she said, but the project has many benefits. “The location is good, the partnership [with UNH] is great,” and the project will build on the successes of the school.
“I don’t think it makes sense to send it back” given that the city may lose its 95 percent reimbursement rate, she said. “I can’t picture blowing the project out of the water at this point—it has too much potential.”
Superintendent Garth Harries echoed that sentiment.
“It’s an awfully attractive project,” he said. It hits a lot of priorities that New Haven is trying to focus on, including improving science and math education and preparing kids for careers and college, he argued.
“I hope the alders can reaffirm the choice they’ve already made—recognizing that we’re going to have to make other choices to confront the budget deficit.” The new building is key for ESUMS’ partnership with UNH, he said.
“We’ve got to be both fiscally and educationally prudent,” he said. He said the school board needs to consider cuts in situations that would have a less dramatic effect on kids’ education.
Tags: ESUMS, Will Clark, Jorge Perez, Jessica Holmes, Garth Harries
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The BOA’s fake pause is not an indication of how they will act. When Boss Proto from East Haven demands construction jobs, he’ll get them from his pliant BOA.
Holmes is right that we have an enormous amount of debt and troubling financial circumstances. The project should be halted until New Haven gets its debt and pension obligations under control.
Thank you Alderman Perez for taking a stand on this. Just because a project is well-intentioned doesn’t mean we should excuse mismanagement or incompetence when it comes to budgeting and planning.
This project needs to be canned. We’re already in debt up to our eyeballs from the school reconstruction binge. While this project has a lot of merits,we simply can’t afford it right now. If this project is so important (and it might be) it should have been prioritized ahead of the other school projects. Now, we’ve borrowed and borrowed and borrowed and that money is spent.
It would be foolish and downright irresponsible to go ahead with this project when our finances are in such bad shape that our credit rating has gotten dinged repeatedly this year.
Not to mention, when you see a project like this with costs that keep skyrocketing, it’s more than likely they’re going keep going up. I’m more than willing to bet that if this project moves forward the final price tag will be much higher than the $85.5 million dollar estimate that’s attached to it right now.
Seems like several bad decisions were made.
Does anyone know exactly how much these contractors have donated to DeStefano and other campaigns? Are they all sending $1,000 checks to Harp and Fernandez, now, too?
Also, WS has a good point. If NHPS says the cost is $90 million, it might end up being more like $110 million after all is said and done. Just look at the history of school construction in New Haven.
Will the City be on the hook for this potential extra $20 million, too? The Aldermen should ask if that $20 million, on top of the other $20 million, might be better used for any hundreds of other things or a tax break for the struggling low income homeowners and renters who actually live here.
Bob from East Haven may call and get the project to move forward. But even if it doesn’t, those contractors got their money and they can now give it away by the tens of thousands to Harp and Fernandez. Just as they gave it to DeStefano over the past 5 years as this school was being “designed for a location that didn’t exist.”
Why “University” as part of
a high school name?
Seems designed to mislead under usual uses of that title
It looks like this will be expensive for New Haven whether they move forward or not. This school has rocked state and other tests in only a few years of existence. STEM is the most important trend in US education and opens the door for major federal grants.
It would be a short-sighted mistake to let budgetary foibles of others undermine the most promising thing going in the county.
Just look at the article five days ago in this paper:
Once again they talk about cost over runs, poor planning and how they are mad that all this occurred.
But in they end they will raise their hands and approve all this extra debt that will continue to crush the taxpayers of this City.
Their objections are all for show thats why Clark and others never worry and always get away with this.
Watch them all vote yes with their half assed excuse.GUARANTEED!!!
PS. We only get 65% of our kids to get to go. Will it be yours. Doubt it.
I agree Elm City Lifer. They will all raise thier hands and vote for it. This the same show they act out time and time again so they can tell the voters they fought hard but hard to vote yes to be part of the status quo…they will say they voted yes for us.
Our bond rating dropped again! We need to fix what is broken before taking any more debt on!
This isn’t about a one time budgetary “foible” as you put it. It’s about many years of excessive bonding, coupled with overpromising and underfunding employee benefits. Our city is deeply in debt. No mater how sweet a deal it is (getting 90% from the state), we shouldn’t build another school until we’ve solved our structural problems (which gets worse every time rating agencies drop our credit rating).
Hey, Walt—the “university” in the school’s name is a reference to the partnership with University of New Haven, and to the college-prep nature of the program. And maybe to get a vowel in the acronym. :)
Elm City Lifer—they’d love to take more city residents. As it is now, there is a long suburban wait list, but several spots for city residents are still held open and remain unfilled. (Want to start in 6th grade at ESUMS next week? Call the magnet office.)
The school’s high performance over years in swing space is a testament to the hard work of the staff and students. They need to be at UNH soon, so the high school kids can start taking their math and science classes there. Some ESUMS students finish calculus and run out of math courses in 10th grade.
New Haven should drive a hard bargain on the specifics, but in the end I cannot think of a more important investment than improving Science and Mathematics education in this city. It is important enough that perhaps more money can be raised elsewhere. Can Toni Harp prove herself by campaigning for more funds at the state level?
If Connecticut cannot, in the presence of a world-class institution like Yale, build science and mathematics education for its own population, then we have no-one to blame but ourselves.
“Holmes said she wouldn’t stand in the way of the proposal. “We have an enormous amount of debt” and “troubling” financial circumstances, she said, but the project has many benefits. “The location is good, the partnership [with UNH] is great,” and the project will build on the successes of the school.
“I don’t think it makes sense to send it back” given that the city may lose its 95 percent reimbursement rate, she said. “I can’t picture blowing the project out of the water at this point—it has too much potential.”
Jessica Holmes has never seen at debt project she didn’t love. Here she condemns the school while at the same time saying she can’t see blowing the project out of the water.
You can’t have it both ways Jessica just to save your political hide.
This is not just a question of rising cost, starting in 2007 at 59M, to 61M in 2010 to 65M in 2011 and now 85M in 2014, without a shovel even been placed in the ground.
Jessica instead wants to focus on the lost of from 95% state reimbursement to 80% if the approval doesn’t happen by Sept. 10th.
That’s bull; the city has not received state approval of the increases since the 2007 original amount of 59M.
In addition, when and if the school is built, the city will face increased transportation upkeep and maintenance cost over the next twenty years not factored in or shared by any of the other magnet towns and cities, especially west Haven.
Before Holmes and the other band of reverse Robin Hoods vote, they really need to consider all the missing components and hidden factors which can eventually become a 110M project, for which the state will only reimburse the original 59M, all above that could be ineligible cost to the city, which Jessica will have to vote to accept as a new bonding request from the BOE.
robn: in general, i agree - - but if the school is not built we incur costs elsewhere in the system. This building will be housed in West Haven where their town will absorb the costs on roads, sewers, etc. In the long run it appears to be one of the few smart moves our city has made in my time here. I know suburban kids on the waitlist for ESUMS, and that says something.
1. $85 million for a new school is stupid.
2. Walk Away.
3. Having 65% of the students, and 100% of the cost is not my idea of fair.
4. Picard can kiss my overtaxed .... Yes, you’re losing taxable property which doesn’t pay much. Second, you also now have a PILOT property. Congratulations. All is not lost. You incur no debt and you get to put your kids a top school. And finally, so has it been taken to city council yet or not? And why was this not negotiated months, if not years ago, Will Clark?
5. How well kids at ESUMS perform on the state tests, shows everyone it’s not about the facility. They are in an old one and still produce the second best scores in the city. That’s not an excuse to spend stupid money.
6. $700,000 to redesign a school just because you have a location? It makes me wonder why the design was ever done without a site and what is so magical about this site that it requires that kind of expenditure? What was the cost of the original design?
7. Just say no. We can’t afford it. The city is running a deficit, the bond rating is one step up from junk and the interest rate is going up because of it. use some common sense.
I’ll be all for it if the BOA pledges to make it net zero in today’s and future budgets. In other words, legislatively pin our budget to CPI inflation and offset the school bond costs with cuts elsewhere.
If we want our student performance to increase, we need to have financially strong families with jobs first. More than anything else, high housing costs and poor transportation are what keep that from happening; child care is a distant third.
Therefore, it’s ironic that while Alderman Perez wants to spend $16,000,000 (if not more than twice that) in city cash on one new school in West Haven, he didn’t want to spend $40,000 in city cash last year on designing an improved and reconfigured CT Transit bus/transit system, 97% of which had already been paid for by the State and Federal government.
The BOA’s and DTC’s current policy seems to be: Construction contractors who donate to their friends first, low-income New Haven families second.
Noteworthy: Unfortunately your analysis is deeply flawed [one of the reasons you are asked before you ost whether you have read the article thoroughly]:
1 - 90% of the money would come from the state [so not $85million]
2 - abandoning now would cost New Haven millions [possibly up to the amount going forward would cost or even more when one considers the cost of coming up with a new plan
3 - Ummm - you mean 10% of the cost for construction or the $ the other towns send to the school or that come from the sate every year when they enroll.
4 - 8 - these are not really relevant to the project per se or are details so I won’t waste time on them
We can’t afford not to have this school.
The people of New Haven would be first class fools if they allow the Board of Education and the Board of Aldermen to approve the building of a new school building that we do not want and we do not need. $85.5 million for a science-math themed New Haven magnet school in West Haven for fewer than 200 students is a total waste of the taxpayers’ money! This blatant lack of common sense is appalling.
New Haven is downsizing middle schools due to budget constraints and declining enrollment and some individuals want to build MORE high schools for New Haven! We do not need a new school to improve science and math education for 150 to 200 kids when ALL New Haven students need improved science and math education. This madness needs to end before the Board of Education runs the city into bankruptcy. There are nine or more high schools in New Haven, most with special academic focuses. Most have fewer than 200-300 kids. We have been building multi-million dollar school buildings for a handful of students for several years! Instead of incorporating new programs in schools like Hillhouse or Cross, schools within schools, our school system has created entirely new schools for each new idea for a new school focus: business, arts, sports medicine, careers, marine science, et cetera ad infinitum!
Not too many decades ago New Haven had one high school with a student population probably greater than that of all of our current high schools combined, and with a city-wide population greater than our current population. New Haven educated its youth and those of many of its suburban communities and produced doctors, lawyers, architects, teachers and preachers, and a literate working class. All this was done without specialized schools because a traditional, classic liberal arts education was provided for ALL, not some.
This can be done again at a much reduced cost to the taxpayers of New Haven.
What concerns me is the patern of not thinking and working through all this, until we are in mid stride. Then we are presented with a choice of going forward at great and growing expense, or failing and being left with a big enough price tag.
The proper time to have this pause to think this through was years ago.
1. I read the article and if you had as well, you will note that the average reimbursement for our schools is near 80% - not 90 or 95% because we can’t seem to stay on budget, include only reimbursable items and stay away from extravagance.
2. The cost per student is $139,000 - the highest of any school project yet.
3. Included in the new and higher costs are road improvements -so West Haven is paying nothing for that. Paying for sewer and road maintenance - wow - I’m underwhelmed.
4. Leeder Hill School - so we are still sending to another tax delinquent? My god with the amount of money spent on Leeder Hill, we could have built a new school. Oh wait, we have spent all that money on top of all that rent. Brillant.
5. Jorge Perez will be a thing to watch - he is famous for raising the question and folding like a cheap tent in a wind storm. Our bonded debt is over 13% of the city general fund budget - mostly because of school construction. This is stupid cost and poor planning. Trim the cost of this school, get rid of the extravagance and it may be something we can afford. Or just say - you get the original amount promised, and not a penny more. Deal with it.
Remember when robn advocated for BoA possitions to be full time jobs, so the members could really focus on these sorts of things?
ESUMS is already one of the best high schools in the city:
It also produces several winners the CT State Science Fair.
When the building is built and its expansion is complete, it will be home to over 600 students, who will be doing college-level work once they reach 11th grade.
So, yes, punish the people who screwed up the budgeting and planning. But don’t take out you anger on the teachers, staff, and students. You’ve finally done something really right, New Haven; don’t screw it up now.
Poetbum, I agree the school is great, but do you really think that the City can afford to borrow what could ultimately amount to another $40,000,000 in debt?
Once debt service is considered, that’s essentially asking each family who lives here to pony up thousands of dollars.
Most of these families rely on jobs located in the suburbs. Given the fact that Perez/Marchand/et al have eliminated any future potential for major Federal/State investments in our bus & transit system, don’t you think that these families might need those thousands of dollars instead to pay for car repairs, so they can get to a job and feed their children?
Thomas Alfred Paine, you are so right on target. I could not agree with you more.
And everyone who believes the great test scores of the students at this school are proof that they need a new building, think about this…chances are, the kids who apply to go to ESUMS are probably already strong math and science students. Therefore, they would score higher in these subjects no matter what school they attended.
It’s exactly like when the administrators at the highly regarded suburban school I work in pat themselves on the back for the test scores of our students. With a small percentage of exceptions, these students are bright, motivated, and come from families who have the money to give their children every advantage. Their scores have little or nothing to do with how they’re being taught or by whom.
Of course, this is beside the fact that I think state standardized tests prove practically nothing. Especially not that ESUMS must move regardless of the costs involved.
Am I the only one that sees a problem with a New HAVEN school in west haven. Here in the city we have so many vacant lots and unused buildings why cant the school be built in the city that is footing the bill. Why pay taxes in another city when the money can be put back into the city here.