Blankley: Do Not Hold New Lebanon School Hostage to the State Grant

Submitted by John Blankley, Oct 22, 2017

Before I opine on the Sense of the Meeting Resolution coming before the RTM on Monday evening, let us not forget our main objective.

What we do is for the sake of our children and the quality of education we offer in Greenwich. New Lebanon school has long been identified as the next major project in the BOE’s overall improvement plan and it is needed desperately.  Overcrowding results in pre- K classes being pushed to another facility, classes being taken in hallways and no space for enrichment activities.

Recognizing all this and the state’s requirement to correct racial imbalance on the West side of Town, the local community and the town’s boards have spent years considering all manner of options. And finally we agreed on a plan that satisfies the state’s racial imbalance laws and our own need to build an appropriately sized school that can accommodate demographic swings over time. Nobody, I hope, would wish to repeat the mistake made with the undersizing of Glenville school. That said, alternatives such as spending less and building smaller are starting to resurface but these and other ideas were long ago dismissed as suboptimal.

Now we can talk about financing. The town has appropriated 100% of the funds for the school (which was a requirement to qualify for the diversity grant addressed below) and included this in the current budget with no impact on the mill rate. The flexibility we have in our capital planning and overall budgeting easily accommodates the total cost of $37 million as was pointed out recently by Jim Lash, chair of the BET budget committee.

Helping us with the financing, the state has awarded us a diversity grant, which it will bond, amounting to $23 million, these monies to be disbursed after completion of the project and upon submission of all the relevant paperwork. All the state’s agencies have signed off on this grant and it is included in the bonding package that will be released when the state budget is finally approved.

The question now before the RTM in the SOMR is the request by the BOE for the BET to release the funds for construction to commence. The BET imposed two conditions for release: satisfactory construction contracts and state Department of Administrative Service approval for reimbursement. Both of these requirements have been met. That notwithstanding the BOE thought it right and proper to ask the RTM for a SOMR because Hartford’s budget woes have thrown a wrench in the works.

Some think the grant will never materialize because of the state’s budget problems. But it should be noted that the funds will come from bond issuance and not from the general fund and since we have satisfied all the state’s requirements, not even the Governor’s well known objection can stop us getting these funds, even if in the long run we need to sue the state. The grant was awarded because the state’s agencies were persuaded that the current new building plan was the best way to move towards racial balance.

Should we move ahead even before the state has a budget? Some fear that doing so will simply allow the Governor to say that Greenwich can afford it so why should we get the grant. The answer is that the Governor has no line item veto and whatever rhetoric he uses will make no difference because it is no secret that Greenwich has healthy finances whether we wait for the state budget to pass or put shovels in the ground now.

There may well be a move in the RTM to delay the vote on Monday evening and so long as the delay doesn’t go beyond a date in the third week of November (when current contracts expire) we will incur little extra cost. In the end however we still need a school of this size both for future expansion and to meet the state’s racial balance edict. We already have an appropriation for the full amount of the school’s cost and even if the state grant is ultimately denied we will still have to comply with the state’s racial balance requirement and the current plan is the best way to do that.

So I say to the RTM, pass the SOMR. As I started by saying, it is for our children. Delay if you must, but not beyond the third week of November. But above all, do not hold New Lebanon hostage to the state grant.

John Blankley
Democratic member of the Board of Estimate and Taxation
Exploring a run for State Treasurer