At first glance, Thursday night’s School Building Committee meeting looked more like a City Council meeting. Several city officials showed up to get the latest word on the $220 million renovation projects at the city’s two 53-year-old high schools.
At a time when tight budgets have school officials discussing the possibility of closing one or more city elementary schools, the school system faces another setback.
The dual renovation project--the largest in the state and the largest construction project in Meriden history--could end up costing city taxpayers $40 million more than expected.
At a meeting of the Connecticut General Assembly’s Education Committee earlier this week, legislators raised concerns about the cost and size of the Platt and Maloney makeover plans.
While approval for construction was eventually granted, according to state guidelines, both schools will be too large to qualify for the rate of state reimbursement that was originally anticipated. The square footage allowed is determined by the number of students enrolled at the school. With enrollment on the decline, Platt is about 44,000 square feet too large and Maloney about 35,000 square feet.
Deputy Mayor Matthew Dominello, who also chairs the School Building Committee, opened discussion of the issue by saying, “We are exploring legislative relief from state guidelines that we believe are too stringent.”
One option, suggested by House Speaker Chris Donovan (D) of Meriden, is to apply for a waiver of the requirements for reimbursement. Another option is to persuade lawmakers to change the requirements themselves. City officials are looking into those alternatives.
“The legislation being sought is really no different from what’s been passed in the past,” City Manager Lawrence Kendzior told the committee. “We’re hopeful,” he added.
Barring those possibilities, designs for the schools would have to be significantly scaled back in order to meet the optimal reimbursement rate.
“We may have to seriously reconsider the kind of project we move forward with,” Kendzior said.
He also related that he has urged the architects to do all they can to reduce the size of the buildings. Even if the project ends up being reimbursed at the higher rate, the more money saved, the better, he reasoned.
At the same time, though, “We want the best possible design, particularly if it’s going to, like last time, be for 50 or 60 years,” Kendzior acknowledged.
When committee member Bruce Fontanella asked what concerned citizens can do, Kendzior suggested contacting their state legislators.
Until word comes down from the state, the high school design plans continue to move forward. Architects for both projects presented updates on the plans Thursday night. But committee members and city officials said they will closely monitor the issue at the state level.
“We want to make sure reimbursement rates are locked in before the design gets too far,” Kendzior cautioned.