$258M Westhill, $52M Lockwood projects partially funded by state; Stamford schools want more

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

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

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media file photo

STAMFORD — Funding for the construction of a new Westhill High School and a building to house an expanded pre-kindergarten program made it through another step Tuesday morning after a state subcommittee voted to approve them.

Members of the Connecticut General Assembly’s Education Committee unanimously approved the priority list of projects that were seeking financial reimbursement through the state.

Both Stamford projects would be reimbursed 20 percent of the overall cost of the work, but Stamford officials have said that’s not enough, particularly for the Westhill project.

Of the two Stamford projects, the biggest is the reconstruction of Westhill, a project estimated to cost $258 million, according to the state’s Department of Administrative Services. The current 50-year-old structure has had a variety of problems, including water damage from leaky roofs, windows, doorways and the exterior.

The plan is to build a new school on the same site and then demolish the existing building once the new one is complete. The state has agreed to finance $52 million, according to a letter released in December by the education department.

Stamford school officials have discussed using special legislation to acquire more state funding for Westhill, but it is unclear if that will happen. Last month, Stamford Public Schools Superintendent Tamu Lucero said school representatives met with state officials to discuss creating a regional program within Westhill in the hopes of getting considerably more state dollars. The plan would allow students in surrounding communities to enroll in the school’s recently created “Pathway to Career” program, designed to help students entering the workforce.

On Tuesday, state Sen. Doug McCrory, the co-chairperson of the Education Committee, gave an early endorsement of providing more funding for Westhill, and described Pathway to Career as a “great idea” and “great program.”

But he said Stamford isn’t the only municipality seeking more money.

“Everybody and their mother wants a reimbursement rate increased,” he said.

He met with Lucero and state Sen. Patricia Billie Miller, who represents Stamford and Darien, on Monday to discuss the Westhill project and to talk about ways to find more state dollars to pay for it.

“No promises were made,” McCrory said, but he told committee members that supporting a regional program like Pathway to Career could incentive other cities and towns to create regional programs down the road.

The other Stamford project on the priority list is a new pre-school Early Childhood Center slated for 83 Lockwood Ave. That project, which is estimated to cost $52 million, would receive roughly $10 million in state funding. The center would expand pre-school services by hosting about 600 students from birth to age 5.

Beside Westhill, the district also had identified four other schools — Cloonan Middle School, Hart Elementary School, Roxbury Elementary School and Toquam Magnet Elementary School — as buildings that need to be torn down and replaced.

State funding for construction projects is based on a formula tied to a municipality’s wealth. In essence, the poorest municipalities in Connecticut get the highest reimbursement rates while wealthier communities receive a smaller reimbursement percentage.

Stamford’s percentage of reimbursement is 30 percent for general construction and 20 percent for new construction.

While the state has agreed to place both the Westhill and Lockwood projects on its priority list, the funding will ultimately need to be approved by the full General Assembly during the upcoming legislative session.

Stamford officials have repeatedly said they hope Westhill gets the same type of funding recently secured by Norwalk Public Schools for a new high school. That district was able to secure an 80 percent reimbursement rate, well above Norwalk’s normal rate of 23 percent for new construction.

Norwalk got that amount after filing for special legislation emphasizing its regional program, said Konstantinos “Kosta” Diamantis, the former director of the Office of School Construction Grants and Review, in a previous article.

At the time, Diamantis said the state encourages regional programming, which explains why such projects — like the one in Norwalk — get more money.