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Unreported For 1½ Years-Finance Board Queries Reveal Details On $32 Million Middle School Project



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Unreported For 1½ Years—

Finance Board Queries Reveal Details On $32 Million Middle School Project

By John Voket

Most of the local officials attending a Board of Finance meeting October 25 got a $32 million surprise after questions from finance board member James Gaston about future school district capital projects prompted the circulation of an ambitious multi-option renovation plan for the middle school.

Six days later, school board Chair Elaine McClure admitted her board likely approved the project without ever holding a public presentation on it, never publicly discussed the plan in-depth, or vetted the possibility of achieving taxpayer savings by combining certain high school and middle school improvements simultaneously.

Ms McClure also told The Bee that at least one school board member may have not received a copy of the report, which was issued more than a year-and-a-half ago by an architect the board hired to produce the specs. This week, after being presented with a copy of the document, school board member Paul Mangiafico, who is a current candidate for the Board of Selectmen, said he couldn’t recall ever seeing or discussing any specifics of the proposal.

“It’s possible, but I don’t think so. It was more than a year ago and we would have been in the middle of budget discussions,” Mr Mangiafico said as he leafed through the document. “But I think I would remember discussing and approving a $32 million middle school renovation.”

Ms McClure said short of polling all her board members, she had no way of knowing if any of them had ever received copies. Although she said board member David Nanavaty told her he forgot to bring his copy to last week’s finance board meeting.

“That’s why I need to talk to other board members,” Ms McClure said when pressed about what other officials had received the report before the school board reportedly approved one of the options.

Sometime around May 10, 2006, representatives from Fletcher Thompson, a regional architect firm, delivered a completed 20-page report to the district and Ms McClure detailing three renovation options for the Newtown Middle School ranging in cost from $30.8 to $63 million dollars.

Just over a month later, on June 16, 2006, the school board approved submitting a Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) including design fees in the 2011 budget year of almost $2.9 million that anticipated the $32.4 million middle school renovation proposal identified as “Option A.” Those construction costs, if approved, will move into the fifth year of the 2007 CIP as the already approved design fees roll forward into year four.

In a review of school board meeting minutes and board packages containing attachments and documents submitted at meetings between January and July 2006, The Bee found no mention of discussions about the project, and no copies of the architect’s report, suggesting it was never publicly circulated until last week.

Ms McClure could not immediately recall any specific discussion of the middle school proposal, and suggested the person who takes minutes at school board meetings might have missed any brief discussion of the project.

“Did Cathy take the minutes?” Ms McClure asked. “Maybe she missed it. We had to have discussed it at the June 19 meeting, we chose Option A.

“We did not have a presentation, but we had to have asked questions about it in the (discussion of) the CIP,” Ms McClure continued.

Ms McClure agreed that it was unlikely discussion of such a high cost expenditure on the record at a board meeting was completely missed by the secretary.

“I agree, it doesn’t seem likely. It should be in the minutes. It’s not in the minutes,” Ms McClure said, acknowledging it was wrong to pass the capital expenditure without full public disclosure on its specifics.

“People will make mistakes,” Ms McClure said.

Never A Thorough Discussion

During the meeting last week, school district business director Ronald Bienkowski told the finance board that the school board approved the $32 million “Option A” between May 10 and the end of the 2006 fiscal year without much discussion.

“There was never a thorough discussion of what the project was supposed to be,” Mr Bienkowski said. “We put this on the back burner (while the district was) working on the high school.”

Further examination of the plan for the middle school also prompted the finance board to discover $2.6 million in approved CIP expenditures for two roof section replacements, as well as heating and air conditioning renovations were redundantly built in to the approved $32 project plan.

During discussions, finance board chair John Kortze questioned the redundancy, and asked why roof renovations were delayed when for several years members of the public complained about rain buckets being used to catch water from numerous middle school roof leaks. He was told the replacement was being delayed because the district would not be reimbursed for the work until the 2011 fiscal year, when the existing roof became 20 years old.

When Mr Kortze mentioned collateral concerns resulting from multiple leaks, like slips and falls, and health issues related to extensive water invasion, Fletcher Thompson’s representative Joseph Costa said he performed a “stem to stern” inspection of the school in 2006, and recommended an immediate roof replacement.

“Water makes mold,” Mr Costa said. “Today’s roofs are much better.”

The information and circulation of the three-tiered school renovation plan at last week’s finance meeting brought harsh reactions from First Selectman Herb Rosenthal who said it was the first time he ever saw the report.

“It’s a disgrace the Board of Education has let the middle school get in this condition,” Mr Rosenthal said. “It reflects poor planning on the part of the Board of Education.”

Mr Kortze lamented that waiting on the project could have cost the taxpayers more money in the long run, if delaying the roof repairs or replacement caused further invasive water damage to the structure. Following the meeting, Mr Kortze lamented the absence of discussion earlier on in the process, while admitting the meeting brought many positive and constructive points into the public eye.

“Personally, I’m just surprised that the board had no idea what was in that report, and they were asking for millions more than they needed,” Mr Kortze said. “While everyone is talking about transparency, accountability, waste and escalating local taxes, the Board of Education had no discussion on economies of scale.”

Mr Kortze was most concerned the district made a conscious effort to postpone the middle school roof project until it qualified for reimbursement.

“The leadership of the school system needs to do a better job,” he concluded.

On Thursday morning, November 1, acting school superintendent Thomas Jocubaitis contacted the newspaper to say discussion on the CIP as it relates to the middle school will be on the agenda at the November 8 school board meeting.

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