Stamford has a plan to fix its schools. Now, a worried finance board is asking how to pay for it. – The Advocate

STAMFORD — Members of the Board of Finance are puzzling over how the city will pay for revamping its school buildings without breaking the bank.

Tuesday evening, architecture and design firm SLAM Collaborative gave the finance board the same presentation the Board of Education and other officials received last month on its draft master plan for Stamford schools. The plan includes building a new K-8 school in the southern part of the city, shuttering four schools, turning three elementary schools into K-8 institutions and making improvements at other schools.

The plan “is dependent upon a significant amount of state contribution funding,” Kemp Morhardt, a principal at SLAM, told the Board of Finance, and it “is still being determined exactly what those percentages will be.”

If the plan was implemented in full and its funding assumptions were met, the city would be on the hook for more than $500 million over 12 years.

“I’ve listened quietly through this whole presentation, and I think our job is going to be: How the hell are we going to pay for this without blowing up the city finances, jeopardizing our triple-A credit rating and overtaxing the people who live in the city,” said Democrat Mary Lou Rinaldi, the board’s vice chair.

“I’m not saying this work doesn’t have to be done. It certainly does,” Rinaldi added. But she is concerned, for one, that the estimates regarding state and federal funding may be “over-optimistic,” she said.

Among SLAM’s assumptions is that the city will be reimbursed 95 percent for the construction of a new Westhill High School. The firm also assumed 80 percent reimbursement rates for both a preschool facility on Lockwood Avenue and the potential K-8 school in south Stamford.

The Board of Finance has scheduled a meeting for Thursday evening to specifically discuss ways to fund the broad schools plan.

SLAM’s presentation included a bar chart showing the city’s bonding, depending on how fully the plan is implemented, going from about $30 million to about $50 million per year between 2023 and 2028 then swelling to a level as high as $110 million in 2030 before falling back down.

Board of Finance Chair Richard Freedman said such a sudden increase wasn’t feasible.

“Whether we could afford it or not, there’s really no way to finance a spike like what you see. It just can’t be done,” Freedman said. “Is that accurate, Sandy?”

Sandy Dennies, the city’s director of administration, said she hasn’t “figured out a way to be able to address that at all.”

Morhardt, from SLAM, said the plan could be changed so more borrowing occurs in earlier years.

Dennies and Freedman said they also wanted to discuss possibly extending the time period, but Morhardt said there were risks to that.

“The board is going to have to consider and the school board is also going to have to consider: How realistic is it to spread it out much more than 12 years?” Morhardt said. “Because once you start getting into (a) 15-year spread on this, you’re going to have to reevaluate it probably 10 years in.”

Members of the public can watch Thursday’s meeting via Zoom:

Includes prior reporting by staff writer Ignacio Laguarda.