Second time at referendum; Middle school project going back to the voters

By Rob Glidden

Staff Writer

The Town Council began the process of sending the middle schools project to a planned March referendum that will ask voters to support an additional $4.7 million, while officials noted that this scenario actually saves some taxpayer dollars in the long run.

The original $85 million referendum, which the Board of Finance adopted after reducing the $100 million request from the Board of Education, was approved overwhelmingly by Southington residents in November 2011. Since then, the proposal to renovate Kennedy and DePaolo Middle Schools has been beset by several costly problems, including PCB contamination and cost overruns from the architect and project manager.

The Middle Schools Building Committee approved nearly $10 million worth of “value-engineering” reductions to try and balance out these expenses, but the officials still concluded that about $89.7 million would be needed to finish the project.

“The bad news is that we will need to go back to referendum,” said Town Councilor Chris Palmieri, the vice-principal at DePaolo and the vice-chairman of the building committee. “The good news is that although we will need to spend more money than originally budgeted, the impact to Southington’s taxpayers will actually be less.”

The reason for the savings is that the updated proposal is actually eligible for more state reimbursement than the original plan. The state was prepared to reimburse 52 percent of the $85 million plan, but the proposed square footage was outside the state’s guidelines and cost the town some potential funds. The $89.7 million plan, with its reduced square footage, is eligible for 56 percent reimbursement from the state.

In addition to that, the middle school will be eligible for additional funding from the Open Choice program because the students participating in that program will be of middle-school age when the buildings are completed. This is expected to represent another 2 percent reimbursement.

Palmieri said that the final impact to Southington taxpayers would be somewhere between $38.5 million and $39.4 million, depending on the exact amount of Open Choice funding the town receives. The original $85 million plan left taxpayers paying for $40 million.

Town Attorney Mark Sciota said that the next step was to introduce the item at the council’s January 14 meeting. Then a Board of Finance hearing would be held on January 16. If the BOF were to vote affirmatively that evening, the Town Council’s public hearing would be on January 28. Following the council’s final vote, the referendum would be held on Tuesday, March 19 at Derynoski Elementary School.

The other councilors had praise for the presentation which outlined the situation, although some concern was expressed about the impact of the value-engineering cuts.

“I know there were a lot of things that you couldn’t control, but I’m somewhat disturbed that there might be some negative impact to the architecture of the buildings,” said Town Councilor John Barry. “It seems like we’re nickel and diming things which might cost us in the long run.”

Palmieri stressed that while the committee wasn’t happy to lose parts of the project, none of the reductions would have an impact on the “teaching and learning” going on at the two schools.

Board of Education members have also shown some discomfort with the cuts in previous meetings, but Chairman Brian Goralski said the renovations would still make a huge positive difference for the school system.

“I still strongly believe in the original $100 million proposal that we presented to the Board of Finance,” Goralski said. “However, the plan we have now will still meet our educational needs far better that what we currently have at those schools. The town will get a very good product.”

Hanging over the entire discussion is the question of whether the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will approve the town’s current remediation plan for the PCBs. Officials are hoping that the agency will allow the town to avoid dealing with the contaminated “wall vapor barriers” deep inside the walls of the buildings. If the EPA rules that the walls must be addressed, the abatement costs will skyrocket and officials said the entire project would have to be re-evaluated.

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