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Pleas, Promises Push ESUMS Plan Forward

by Nick Defiesta | Oct 23, 2013 11:28 am

(11) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Schools

Nick DeFiesta Photo After hearing promises that school officials will find a way to lessen the sticker shock, aldermen voted to move ahead with a plan to build an $85.5 million new home for New Haven’s science-themed magnet school.

The unanimous vote came at the end of a hearing at City Hall Tuesday night about plans to build a permanent home for the high-performing, itinerant five-year-old Engineering and Science University Magnet School (ESUMS) on land in neighboring West Haven.

The vote came with a request for more information from school officials to support their promises of finding ways to limit the project’s ballooning cost to city taxpayers.

The vote at a joint meeting of the Education and Finance committees came months after aldermen began raising questions about the proposed deal. The budget for the ESUMS project grew from $59.5 million to $85.5 million, $16.1 million of which was to come from city coffers. The proposal now advances to the full Board of Aldermen for final consideration.

A presentation before the committees at City Hall Tuesday night by Superintendent Garth Harries —accompanied by schools official Sue Weisselberg, lobbyist Keith Stover and ESUMS Principal Medria Blue-Ellis — successfully convinced aldermen to back the project despite hesitations over its cost.

The project has been in the works since 2007. The school is designed as a partnership with the University of New Haven and West Haven, which would be allotted 20 percent of slots. As at other magnet schools, New Haven students would receive 65 percent of the 616 seats at ESUMS, which features an emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).

When the ESUMS proposal was first presented on July, one point of controversy concerned ballooning “ineligible” costs, so named because the state won’t reimburse them. The current budget calls on the city to carry $16.1 million of these costs; Weisselberg said the Board of Education is embarking on a strategy to reduce the local share of the project to $6.2 million.

Weisselberg said New Haven’s state legislators, whom she credited with helping to cover over $153 million in initially “ineligible” costs in previous school construction projects, would work to do the same for the ESUMS budget. State legislators can pass a “nonwithstanding” clause in a bill, allowing for state funding, as they have done before. Existing precedents could cover about about $10 million of current ineligible costs for ESUMS, Weisselberg said.

Aldermanic President Jorge Perez stopped Weisselberg to ask if the precedents established are similar enough to ESUMS construction to merit a “nonwithstanding” designation. To move forward with the project, he said, he wants to make sure the city would actually receive state funding, lest New Haven be forced to chalk up the full $16.1 million itself after the new school is constructed.

Dixwell Alderman Jeanette Morrison pressed this point: in the “worst-case scenario,” how would she justify the pricetag to her constituents were this cost-reduction strategy to fail?

Weisselberg responded that while she expects the cost to the city to decrease, the concern voiced by Perez and Morrison was fair. But she argued that aldermen should still support the project despite the risk to the city.

“I’m not gonna sit here right now and tell you we can get all of [the state funding],” Weisselberg said. “To some extent every project is a little bit of a leap of faith … But we’re positioned to be in a very strong negotiating position up in Hartford.”

Harries added that the Board of Education is working with West Haven officials and the University of New Haven to find a way to reduce $1 million in West Haven building permit fees for the project — another point of contention among aldermen. Aldermen have criticized the idea of having to fork over building fees to a separate town government which is supposedly a partner in the project.

Harries argued that failing to approve the purchase would still force the city to shell out money, including more than $8 million it would have to repay for previous ESUMS outlays. In addition, were the project to fall through, the city’s budget would have to grapple with a long-term lease at the swing space ESUMS currently occupies in Hamden as it awaits a permanent home.

To demonstrate ESUMS’ importance to the community, Harries called up a beneficiary of the school to testify before the committee: Odia Kane, a junior at the school. Kane said the school has given her a wealth of academic experience, including taking classes at the University of New Haven. But her schooling had been somewhat “hectic and chaotic” due to having to switch school locations multiple times.

“I’ve been here for five years, and I still haven’t had a building,” Kane told the committee.

Kane’s testimony, and the reassurance from schools officials that the city would likely pay less than the currently budgeted $16.1 million, proved enough for the committee to vote unanimously to move the measure to the full board. Perez also asked for a breakdown of students who attend ESUMS by ward, additional information on the likelihood that ineligible costs would be reduced, and more details on alternative methods to bring costs down.

At the end of the meeting, Morrison said she’d been won over.

“In the next two years we have 1,600 biotech jobs coming to New Haven,” she said. “We have to prepare our students.”

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posted by: Noteworthy on October 23, 2013  12:13pm

Typical Result Notes:

1. The price tag of this school to anyone but the rubber-stampers and “consensus” crowd, is ridiculous. It was irresponsible to spend $50 million on a magnet school - $85 million is smarter?

2. As previously predicted Perez and the others who appeared to express some common sense, folded with a whimper. By the way, who cares about what neighborhoods the students live in?

3. That the legislature passed rules allowing the state to overpay for our schools is not some magic bullet. If we had conducted our construction program with integrity and intellect, we would not have needed to get the state to cover gross amounts of overages.

We should not be building schools this expensive. We don’t need them, can’t pay for them and then all these same people sitting around that same table will all cry when debt service goes up and the budget is in deficit.

4. As for the student prop - she got all those experiences without an $85 million school.

5. This “hearing” is why it is so rare that real people don’t attend. They don’t want to waste their time.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on October 23, 2013  1:23pm

Hey Noteworthy, you should have attended.  There were a couple dozen people there and an opportunity for public comment.  You do understand that the city is getting an $85 million school and only paying $6-16 million, right?  Seems like a good deal.

posted by: nhstudent4ever on October 23, 2013  2:00pm

Why can’t we keep this school in New Haven? Or just let West Haven build the school? Where students live is important. I’m sure bussing is costly for the city and it clogs up the roads. That money could be better spent on things like providing paper and pencils to schools so teachers don’t have to shell out money from their own pockets.

posted by: Noteworthy on October 23, 2013  2:24pm

Jill -

The City of New Haven is carrying $750 MILLION dollars of bonded debt; is carrying an almost equal amount of unfunded pensions/health promises to city workers and is on the hook for millions more in off balance sheet debt run up by our authorities like re-cycling, airport, water etc.

Debt service on just the bonded part is $68 million out of a $500 million budget - That’s approaching almost 14% of our annual budget. This borrowing will push it even higher.

It’s wrong. It’s stupid. It’s financially irresponsible but none of the people around that table have enough financial background and common sense to say no. The schools ran a deficit last year in food service by $3.5 million and threw away tons of food in the process.

The only necessary point is that ESUMS didn’t have to be an $85 million school and regardless of how much the state pays, we still don’t need an $85 million school. Who do you think pays the state bill?

Regarding testifying: It’s pointless. Been there, done that.

posted by: webblog on October 24, 2013  12:00pm

This is a snow job, without a shovel, not surprised; this after all is the board of finance at its norm. They accept most proposals by word of mouth; one would think that for once they would ask to receive the promises in writing.

Weisselberg statement: “New Haven’s state legislators, whom she credited with helping to cover over $153 million in initially “ineligible” costs in previous school construction projects”.
The key words are “initially ineligible”; the projects could have been $253M before final approval. Her statement only means that the initial figures were pared down to an acceptable amount to the state, and that final figure of $153M was overrun, according to budget numbers submitted by the BOE in subsequent year(s).

Jorge Perez should know that the in the last four budget years, the BOA has approved cost overruns due to ineligible cost, $20M in the 2012 budget alone, not reimbursed by the state. 

To date the state has only approved $59.5M for this project whose cost has ballooned to $85.5M.

Garth Harries says that the state has already paid the city 8M in start up cost, however, according to the state education department that payment to date is only $4,160K. You would think a responsible finance committee would verify these facts.

Harries says he is working to reduce the deficit cost to New Haven to 6.1M, from $16M, he provides no assurances in writing that this will happen.

Harries says he just found out about a 3.5M deficit in the 2012 budget to the federal school lunch program, and is working on reducing that deficit, while at the same time, the BOE has just passed a new 2014 budget with a built in deficit of 9M. All totaled that’s $18.6M Harries has to reduce…But from where?

The board of finance has demonstrated once again, that it is incapable of providing financial oversight of taxpayer money backed by verifiable documents and not words.

posted by: Noteworthy on October 24, 2013  2:33pm

Bottom Line: There is zero reason for this school to be $85 million when the others have been a shocking $50 million. That means ESUMS will cost 60% more than the educational mansions already built. Justify that, not just the New Haven portion.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on October 24, 2013  6:04pm

“There is zero reason for this school to be $85 million when the others have been a shocking $50 million.”

Believe it or not, much as I love the school and the kids, I agree with you.  But the kids are “only” going to get the $50 million school building everyone else got.  The rest is going to unavoidable(?) related expenses: site preparation, drainage, wasted designs for other sites, even the purchase of the land.  The building they are planning is nice enough but not crazy-extravagant.  The floors will be painted cement, the windows will mostly be fixed in place (not able to open), the cafeteria kitchen will be reheat only, and the cafeteria will double as an auditorium. 

The town took on more debt but will get a huge permanent asset in exchange.  The alternative would have been to rent the swing space: over a million dollars a year and nothing to show for it.

And, as for having the state (which is also us) pay for it, New Haven is only a small fraction of the state’s tax base, so this is still a really really nice gift from the people of Connecticut.

posted by: webblog on October 25, 2013  11:58am

@ Lil the Pill:

FYI, according to the 2014 BOE budget, the leeder Hill swing space is appropriated in the $85.5M.it is not an extraneous expense.

Therefore you statement that-
“The alternative would have been to rent the swing space: over a million dollars a year and nothing to show for it”.
-Is inaccurate.

This is not a gift from the state of CT. the state is running a 30B debt; divide that by 3.54M state pop. The city of New Haven is running a total debt of 750M, divide that by 129,500K pop, and then tell them us again of this gift you believe you are receiving.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on October 25, 2013  1:16pm

$3 million, two years’ rent is in the project’s ineligible costs, and that should—at least according to Weisselberg and her “precedents”—get reimbursed. 

But, that is not the right comparison.

If they do not build ESUMS a building, they will have to continue to rent Leeder Hill indefinitely.  For 10 years?  $15 million.  20 years? 30 million.  The school has to be somewhere. 

As for the per capita argument, that is also the wrong comparison, because it doesn’t take income into account.  Part of the argument for regionalization of education is cost-sharing with wealthier communities.  That you don’t think the state should be spending this money is another matter, and you can go write that in the Hartford Courant.  Given that the state funds are there, New Haven would be crazy not to take them.

posted by: Noteworthy on October 25, 2013  3:11pm

Jill:

With all due respect, there is little reason for ESUMS to have ever moved from its old location on State Street until this school was done. The swing space has been a gift from heaven to another tax deadbeat owner of real estate. Taxpayers have not only rented the space, we’ve put in massive amounts of improvements. Hells bells…we should have just bought the damn thing.

If the school is $50 million which is obscene, and the other $35 million is all add on(s) - heads at the BOE should roll. This construction program is Affordable Care Act website. We easily spent 40% more money than we needed. The federal government did a little worse - they spent twice as much as Apple did in developing the I-phone.

Meanwhile, property taxes are choking this city and the debt is stifling the budget. And still those in government spend. Spend. Spend.

It is no wonder that the trades and contractors and architects, lawyers etc. gave so heavily to DeStefano - he rang the dinner bell. Guess who promises more of the same?

posted by: webblog on October 25, 2013  5:36pm

Jill,

FYI, per person income analysis has nothing to do with debt service payments at the state or local level.

Noteworthy adequately addressed the question of location and rent.

This school is a magnet school with 1/3 of the students coming from outside New Haven/west Haven.

The argument here is that while New Haven, will receive the magnet dollars from the state, New Haven alone will be responsible for all subsequent maintenance cost over the life of the school. This maintenance cost will be paid by future bonding whose cost is presently undetermined, but you can bet the cost will go up.

A more sane approach may have been to determine whether the ESUM curriculum could have be absorbed by existing schools including Gateway, or, be included in any plan for a vo-tech school with many trades included.

But not New Haven, they approach every project in a vacuum, piecemeal, with the argument that the state will pick up 95% of the cost. To date that 95 5% split has cost the city over 300M in school construction cost. Totalling 750M current debt to the city, which is charged to every man woman and child in the city, and not according to income as you believe.

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