For the first time in decades, New Haven’s legislative body voted to kill a new school, a plan to build a $45 million home for the Strong 21st Century Communications Magnet and Lab.
The plan’s death knell came as the Board of Alders approved a new city general operating budget and new capital projects budget at a special meeting at City Hall Tuesday night.
It was a bad night for the Harp administration, on two fronts.
Alders unanimously approved a $507.9 million general operating budget that eliminated six of the 19 new positions that Mayor Toni Harp had included in the proposed budget she delivered to the board in March. (Read more about the eliminated positions here.) The budget keeps taxes steady, with the mill rate remaining at 41.55.
They also unanimously approved a $104 million capital fund budget that eliminated the $10.6 million that was needed from the city to green light the new Strong School on Southern Connecticut State University’s campus.
Legislative Branch Exerts Independence
The Harp administration had lobbied both publicly and privately to revive the school deal after an alder committee removed it from the budget. Last week Mayor Harp met privately with board President Tyisha Walker to try to reach a compromise.
It was the first time since the mid-1990s, when the city launched its now $1.6 billion program to renovate or rebuild all its schools, that one of the projects has been rejected by a vote of the full Board of Alders (or, as it used to be known, the Board of Aldermen). In 2012, after an alder committee voted no, officials withdrew a plan to build a new home for Hyde School on Hillhouse High’s property. Alders Tuesday night said they acted out of fiscal responsibility in the Strong School case. They argued the city shouldn’t take on more debt for school projects, and that there’s enough work to do maintaining the new buildings that have come on line.
Despite some opposition from a handful of alders who went on the record supporting building a new Strong School at the board’s last regular meeting, there were no opposing votes or abstentions Tuesday night.
School officials and parents were again out in force at City Hall to support the new school, but board leaders remained firm in their decision. (Read more about that here.) In light of Tuesday night’s vote, the city will miss a deadline to qualify for around $35 million in state money that would have gone toward building the school.
The plan’s public support waned in recent weeks as leading alders made the case—at least as measured by the ongoing tally of an Independent “True Vote.” Readers had supported the new school when officials first announced it. But by Wednesday morning, when 1,612 votes had been recorded, only 34 percent remained in favor.
Dixwell Alder and President Pro Tem Jeannette Morrison (pictured) reiterated people should not view the school vote as a vote against “children,” as some advocates suggested. She pointed to approvals in the new budget cycle for nearly $5 million in repairs to four existing new schools, money for school nurses, money for libraries and money to fund the pension and health care of city employees, including those working for the school district.
“We love children,” Morrison said. “But we have a responsibility to the whole city. No one is saying that the Board of Education can’t come back. We just can’t do it this year.”
Annex Alder Alphonse Paollilo Jr. said taking the step to not fund the school now means not further increasing the city’s debt load, which currently represents about 12-13 percent of all government expenditures. Going forward, this decision will have a positive impact on the city’s credit worthiness, he said.
“It just wasn’t possible,” Board President Walker said of supporting the school this year. “We had to consider the fiscal stability of the city.” She said alders are open to keeping the discussion about the school going with the mayor’s office and the Board of Education.
Harp legislative liaison Joey Rodriguez (pictured) said the mayor was disappointed that the alders didn’t support the Strong School project this year, but is committed to working toward getting the school approved next year.
Board of Education President Carlos Torre (pictured) said he too was disappointed in the vote and is committed to reviving the plan. He cited the commitment made now two decades ago to rebuild all of the districts schools to insure that children didn’t go to school in buildings that don’t meet their needs.
“The fact is, we’re going to spend more money patching up this school,” he said. “It’s inadequate and maybe unsafe.”
Alders have suggested that the school district find a way to transition students out of the existing Strong School building and redistribute the students to other, modern school buildings.
Torre said it’s a more complicated decision than that.
“It’s like if you were trying to find housing for a family,” he said. “It’s like taking your sons and putting them with families over here, and taking your husband and putting him in another family. You’d be breaking up families.”
Pension Obligations Covered
The final general fund budget, which takes effect July 1, ended up slightly bigger than the $506 million budget that Harp proposed. That’s because it fully funds the city’s pension and health care obligations for police, fire and other city employees, to the tune of an extra $2.2 million. The budget also funds four new school nurses and four new positions for libraries.
The budget grew Tuesday night by an additional $307,978 more than $506.7 million the alders’ Finance Committee had initially recommended, in order to accommodate some adjustments requested by the Harp administration. Those adjustments included changing one of two part-time positions for the Department of Transportation, Traffic and Parking to a full-time position, and increasing line items for several departments for “other contractual services,” legal fees and maintenance.
The additional costs will be covered by $156,800 generated from the Air Rights Garage and $151,178 from building permits, not by higher taxes, alders said. The adjusted transit position, which is a parking enforcement position, also is expected generate revenue for the city.
The capital projects budget, meanwhile, increased funding for sidewalk construction and rehabilitation, and police body cameras, though is smaller than the Harp administration’s proposed $112 million.