School board presses for Catholic Center property

January 17, 2018 GMT

BRIDGEPORT — The school board hasn’t given up on the Catholic Center as a new home for Classical Studies Magnet Academy but has directed staff to also shop around for alternative properties.

“We need to cast a net and see what comes back,” Board Chairman John Weldon said, as the board voted in special session this week to keep the project high on its capital projects wish list.

First on the list is replacing Bassick High School, a $125 million project already in the application process, with an architect to be sought next month.

Finding a new spot for Classical Studies, now located in two buildings blocks apart on the city’s West End is just under a request for a new Marin School roof and tied for third with a Curiale School roof replacements.

The district has wanted to move Classical Studies into the 60,000 square foot Catholic Center on Jewett Avenue for more than a year. The five-acre property is on Jewett Avenue in the city’s north end. The main building, once a high school, is now headquarters for the Diocese of Bridgeport. There is a separate 10,000 square foot building the district would like to turn into a special education facility.

Because it was a school that would be renovated as new, officials say the project is eligible for 80 percent reimbursement from the state of what could be a $50 million project.

Last year, city officials seemed on board with the plan until the city council voted 14-6 last spring against the purchase. Councilwoman Michelle Lyons, D-134, who lives down the block from the Center, spearheaded the opposition.

In November, nine seats on the 20 member council changed hands.

Some school board members say the Catholic Center remains their best option since it was built as a school, on clean land, and is big enough to support growth.

“We did look at other places,” Alan Wallack, school construction coordinator for the school district.

One was the former Salvation Army property on Connecticut Avenue near the Stratford town line, which Wallack called dilapidated and cost prohibitive to renovate.

Wallack described the Catholic Center property as a potential game changer for the district.

“We can never go wrong with five clean acres,” Wallack said.

Board member Ben Walker said his fear is that if the district waits too long, the Catholic Center will be sold to a charter school or a private school.

“This particular building makes sense,” he said.

Board member Maria Pereira said the site is ideal not just for a magnet school of 500 students but for a special education program that would go into the auxiliary building, enabling students to return from out of district placements at a significant cost savings. Done right, Pereira said the program might even generate income if other districts placed students there.

“I think we need to move on this,” Pereira said. “The longer we wait, the (greater) the chance of losing the building.”

Board member Hernan Illingworth wondered if there were internal possibilities within the district.

“I think there are options,” he said, that wouldn’t necessitate a three to five year wait.

Weldon pushed for a broader search that involved more than staff driving around to figure out what is available. If the council voted the plan down again, the district would be without options if it did not continue to look for an alternative, Weldon said.

The motion approved by the board was changed to Jewett Avenue property or another appropriate facility.