Stamford school officials considering appealing to state legislators to fund $330M in projects

Westhill High School in Stamford, Conn., Monday, April 19, 2021.

Westhill High School in Stamford, Conn., Monday, April 19, 2021.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media file photo

STAMFORD — Stamford school construction projects have historically received relatively few state dollars, so local officials are considering a different tactic: special legislation.

That’s the route Norwalk Public Schools took in 2020, and the district was able to secure 80 percent funding for a new high school.

Paula Clarke, a state lobbyist who works with the city of Stamford, suggested that as an alternative plan during a Long Term Facilities meeting Thursday night.

Stamford is looking for funding for two projects: a near-complete reconstruction of the district’s biggest school, Westhill High School, and a new building at 83 Lockwood Ave. to house a preschool program.

Rebuilding Westhill alone would come with an estimated $250 million price tag, while the Lockwood redevelopment is projected to cost around $80 million.

Previously, Mayor David Martin said he believes the city can fund about $125 million of the combined cost over the next five to seven years without affecting the city’s bond rating.

To fund the rest, the city will depend largely on state and federal dollars.

The more typical process is to submit projects to the state’s Department of Administrative Services, which Stamford has already done. That body then makes recommendations to the governor and legislature about which projects to fund, and how much to fund them.

But the formula used to decide state funding has resulted in Stamford getting little reimbursement in the past, Clarke said.

That’s a scenario officials want to avoid, since the Westhill and Lockwood projects they are looking to fund would cost roughly $330 million combined.

“It is unfortunate that Stamford has suffered from the formula being the way it is, because you do get a very low (reimbursement) percentage,” Clarke said.

The other option is special legislation, but Clarke said the key to that is making sure the entire Stamford legislative delegation is on board and advocating for more funding.

She said Stamford does have the benefit of a strong delegation with members placed in key committees.

State legislators Corey Paris, Patricia Billie Miller and Kimberly Fiorello serve on the Education Committee. Miller also serves as a vice chairperson on the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, where Paris also holds a seat.

“Those are the two key committees to shepherd your money through,” Clarke said.

However, Clarke did warn local elected officials about pursuing special legislation for both Westhill and Lockwood.

The initial plan for Westhill is to build a new structure — a four-level school on top of the baseball fields located behind the current school — and then demolish the existing Westhill building.

The Lockwood project would involve either renovating or rebuilding the former home of the Trailblazers Academy charter school and turning it into the new home for the district’s early childhood education, known as Apples.

“It would be very extraordinary to pursue two projects like this,” Clarke said. “You might need to make the hard decision about which one it is you’re looking to seek special legislation around.”

Martin responded, “I want more than that,” and listed Roxbury Elementary School, Hart Elementary School, Toquam Magnet Elementary School, and Cloonan Middle School as the four other schools on the priority list to be rebuilt. Repairs on many of the schools are needed now, he said.

“There’s just a whole slew of them that are all a result of 50 years of under-funding,” he said.