By Isaac Avilucea
@IsaacAvilucea on Twitter
TORRINGTON >> “Go back, talk to the mayor, and get them to pony up the money.”
It was Andrew Nargi’s way of telling Ed Arum, chairman of the turf committee, the Board of Education would not approve a measure floating the turf committee money, on paper, for Torrington High School turf and track improvement project after the lowest bid exceeded the project’s budget.
Board members cited surging special education costs — what Superintendent Cheryl Kloczko called the school district’s “Waterloo” — in rejecting the proposal during a contentious special board meeting Tuesday capped when Ken Traub, board chairman and a member of the turf committee, resigned his post on the turf committee.
He said he could no longer co-exist with co-chair Mario Longobucco, THS’ girls soccer coach, after they sparred over a scoreboard donation at a prior meeting.
The turf committee asked for $117,000 to cover a gap between the lowest bidder, H.I. Stone, of Southbury, and the project budget of $2.73 million following nearly $80,000 in project expenditures the difference of a low bid of $2.75 million of a remaining $2.73 million grant following nearly $80,000 in project expenditures.
The board’s decision to reject the request means the project must go back out to bid — which the city’s attorney advised weeks ago — and delays the anticipated completion date by a year, meaning football and soccer schedules will have to be massaged to accommodate the new expected completion date.
“It’s a parade of horribles,” said Chris Rovero, chairman of the board’s budget committee.
While special education overruns are expected to be covered by two revenue streams — Medicaid and a building use fund — separate from the board’s budget, the school district already froze the budget and leaders said they couldn’t risk public perception in agreeing to dole out the money, even if no funds would have technically been handed over.
“We’d be sending a mixed message to the public about Torrington Public Schools and what we do with our money,” Kloczko said.
A $2.7 million grant secured by state Rep. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington, was expected to pay for the project, but turf committee members started trying to come up with alternatives to avoid going back out to bid after the project came in over budget.
Even before the latest snags, the grant had become a point of derision between the city and the school district after the city claimed ownership of the project despite it being on school grounds. The sentiment was espoused Tuesday, as some board members, echoing the school district’s attorney, said it was on the city to find an adequate resolution to the money crisis.
Getting the “bridge loan” proposal passed was “always a long shot,” Arum said. “But it was an idea which we had and we thought we could go with it.”
The proposal amounted to a five-day promissory note, and the school district wouldn’t have been on the hook for the money. It would have only been fronting the committee enough money to supplement its budget to get approval from the City Council.
The committee planned to cut more than $200,000 through “valued engineering,” Arum said, and return the money to the school district once cuts were approved.
If the cuts were not approved by H.I. Stone, the project bid would have been killed and the money would have been returned to the school district.
“All deals are off and we go out to bid,” Arum said, in trying to rally board members around the idea.
The turf committee required an answer this week, which would have necessitated an additional board meeting on Friday, ahead of a City Council meeting next week.
Most said the school district couldn’t bankroll the operation after the board’s attorney Richard Mills, of Shipman & Goodwin, advised against it. Traub said if it had moved forward with the proposal, the advice was to escrow the money.
Rovero reminded Arum he had promised the board months ago it wouldn’t have to pay, or front, any additional money to the committee for the project.
“The answer was unequivocally no and here we are not even two months later asking for money,” he said. “We’re not a bank.”
In an attempt at striking a compromise, Nargi made a motion to have the board’s attorney to draft an agreement calling for a five-day loan, with conditions that insulated the board from ever having to dole out the money if the deal went kaput. The motion also capped the legal fees at $1,000 in drafting the so-called contract. It was virtually unanimously shot down.
Nargi is now the board’s representative on the turf committee.
Reach Isaac Avilucea at 860-489-3121 ext. 324.