School board presses for Catholic Center property
BRIDGEPORT — The school board hasn’t given up on the Catholic Center as a new home for Classical Studies Magnet Academy, but the panel has directed staff to shop around for alternatives.
“We need to cast a net and see what comes back,” Board of Education Chairman John Weldon said, as the board voted in a 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 in two buildings, blocks apart, on the city’s West End comes below a request for a new Marin School roof and tied for third on the list with with a Curiale School roof replacement.
The school district has wanted to move Classical Studies into the 60,000-square-foot Catholic Center for more than a year. The 5-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 the plan is to renovate an existing school building, officials say the project, which could cost $50 million, would be eligible for 80 percent reimbursement from the state.
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 Catholic Center, spearheaded the opposition.
In November, nine seats on the 20 member council changed hands.
Some school board members say the Catholic Center remains the best option for Classical Studies Magnet Academy, since it was built as a school, is on clean land and is big enough to support growth.
“We did look at other places,” said Alan Wallack, the school construction coordinator for the district.
Another site considered was the former Salvation Army property on Connecticut Avenue near the Stratford town line, which Wallack described as dilapidated and cost-prohibitive to renovate.
He said the Catholic Center property was a potential game-changer for the district, and that “we can never go wrong with 5 clean acres.”
Board member Ben Walker said he feared that if the district waited too long, the Catholic Center would 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 were to place students there.
“I think we need to move on this,” she 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, he said.
The motion approved by the board was changed to specify the Jewett Avenue property or another appropriate facility as a new home for Classical Studies Magnet Academy.