School Costs And Mouths Overrunning December 1, 2004
By STAN SIMPSON, Hartford Courant Staff Writer
Eddie Perez likes to point out - ad nauseam - that he built the Learning Corridor at Trinity College "on time and on budget."
He dusts off that retort whenever the latest mishap occurs with Hartford's billion-dollar schools reconstruction project. His point: When it comes to building schools, you better recognize that he has a certain expertise.
But what's getting attention these days - and raising the ire of some state lawmakers and educators - is that the budget overruns in rebuilding some of these schools are looking like a runaway train.
Three of the seven schools under construction are costing $30 million more than initially projected. Considering that the budget for building the Breakthrough Magnet School alone is $26 million, the city could build a whole new school with its overruns. And let's not forget that 19 more city schools are scheduled for major reconstruction.
Hold on to your wallet.
Already, Sen. Thomas Herlihy, a ranking Republican on the legislature's education committee, is calling for an investigation into the budget overruns and more state oversight.
Some lawmakers and educators have the perception that the city is exhibiting a cavalier attitude with the financing of public schools. The state reimburses the city 80 percent for school reconstruction and a court order mandates the state pay for the building of new magnet schools.
Hartford's history of schools mismanagement - which resulted in a state takeover that was relinquished two years ago - hasn't instilled much public trust. When you start seeing cost projections going awry the first thought is incompetence, the second - because we're in Corrupticut - is less flattering.
Perez says the only history to keep in mind is that he inherited outdated cost projections for the schools when he was elected three years ago. Many of these estimates, he says, are more than five years old. Mix old, unworkable numbers with the reality of a new market and unexpected costs like increases in steel and environmental cleanups, and you have budget-busters.
Ultimately, Perez says, the schools will be built within budget, even if it means scaling back on amenities. That's comforting. Allocating millions of dollars for new schools, then constructing it on the cheap.
Perez and the board of education will be called to account in front of the legislature's education committee this session, says its co-chairman, Sen. Thomas P. Gaffey.
He sees no need for an investigation, saying a dialogue with the city leaders will be just as instructive in identifying why costs are increasing and how they can be better controlled.
The object is to get Hartford to improve "their administration and oversight of these projects. ... It does hurt public confidence any time you hear of overruns like this," Gaffey says.
Gaffey, of Meriden, understands that there is some Hartford-hatin' going on among his peers, suburban lawmakers who gripe about the city getting an inordinate share of education dollars.
With school construction costs, there ought to be a drop-dead date from the time money is approved to the time ground is broken. If that time frame, say 24 months, expires, so does the funding. Bet that would move these projects along more promptly.
Right now, taxpayers are getting suckered. In good faith, they approve one cost for building a school, then have to endure delays and get walloped with a sticker-shock price years later.
Under the Perez administration, Gaffey says he actually sees progress in school construction.
"He certainly doesn't have a perfect operation running right now, but far better than what it was the day he stepped into office," Gaffey says. "I think Hartford actually has benefited from the fact that Eddie did have some experience from this in the Learning Corridor."
Yeah, Senator. So we keep hearing.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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