State educational officials have told a city lawmaker that funding for Bristol’s $130 million school project won’t be yanked unless it fails to begin construction of the two new schools by June 2010, said state Rep. Frank Nicastro, a Bristol Democrat.
“If we don’t hire the architects this week or this month, they’re not going to take our funding away,” said Nicastro, who represents the 79th District and also serves on the City Council.
City councilors this week refused to hire architects for the proposed kindergarten to eighth grade schools until the city manages to buy the land sought for the new buildings. Lawyers have warned of potential hitches that could threaten to unravel the entire deal.
School Superintendent Philip Streifer told councilors that he’s worried a financially strapped state will pull the plug on projects that aren’t moving ahead fast enough. He urged them to hire at least one architect to begin designing the school so the city would be able to show progress.
But Nicastro said Thursday that he spoke with state educational officials in charge of new buildings and found they are not concerned about what the city is doing now.
“They don’t want us sitting back and doing nothing,” Nicastro said, but as long as the project’s in motion and construction gets underway on time, the 73.9 percent state reimbursement for the cost won’t change.
Mayor Art Ward said Thursday that city leaders had no choice except to protect taxpayers from the potential of getting stuck for architect bills for a project that might still fall through.
Ward said that he couldn’t justify risking hundreds of thousands of dollars until he’s sure that the two land buys will come through.
At this point, lawyers are still going over details for both the Crowley site on Pine Street and a 17-acre lot off Matthews Street where officials plan to construct the 900-student schools.
Nicastro said that state officials told him there was “absolutely not” a chance the city would lose the funding for the entire project by delaying the hiring of two architects for a total of $3.8 million.
Though taxpayers would only have been on the hook for the work the architects had actually done if the land deals fall through in the next month or two, Ward said there was no reason to take the chance.
What isn’t clear is how long the land buys may still take and how quickly the city can get architects on board after that. At some point, the delay will make it nearly impossible for the necessary work to be finished in time to begin the projects by the June 12, 2010 deadline.
Streifer said last fall that the purchases had to be done by the new year. Now it’s clear that at least may not be done until March.
The complication on the Matthews Street site is the discovery that an abandoned section of Clark Avenue runs through a piece of the parcel. It can’t be sold until the city formally gives up the right to the old road right of way, which can’t take place until after a Feb. 19 hearing on the issue.
At the Pine Street site beside Greene-Hills School, there are environmental concerns and a dispute about how much demolition must occur before the city takes possession, attorneys said.
With so many uncertainties, Nicastro said, “I’m glad we did what we did because it was the right thing to do.”
Nicastro said he’s glad that the council, on a 5-2 vote, supported his effort to delay the architect hiring so that “we didn’t rush into something that we might be sorry for.”
“We’ll vote to approve all of this when the right time comes,” Nicastro said. “It wasn’t that we were trying to stall. It was that we couldn’t get the answers we needed to get.”
The Board of Education plans to close Memorial Boulevard Middle School and three older elementary schools in favor of two K-8 schools.
If the project falls through, educators warn they will need to do nearly $100 million worth of renovations to existing schools to make them modern enough to use in the days ahead.
About the school project
Cost: $130 million
Two new K-8 schools sought
Closing: Memorial Boulevard Middle School and Greens-Hills, O’Connell and Bingham elementary schools.
Projected completion: 2015
Update on Friday: Please see Streifer's response to this piece here.
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