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OP-ED | Don’t Let the Truth Get in the Way of a ‘Good’ Op-Ed

by Bill Finch | Feb 22, 2014 6:07pm
(6) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Opinion, Bridgeport

Students and parents of Bridgeport’s East Side and East End communities have waited many years for a replacement for the aging Harding High School. This project is one that is well-deserved, beautifully designed and long-awaited by the entire school community. For nearly two decades, Harding has been in major disrepair, and all possibilities to repair and renovate the current building have been exhausted. There is no alternative to new construction.

However, a recent Op-Ed on this site did not focus on these essential truths; instead it focused on perpetuating a wrong-headed perception of our City.

There’s the old saying: Don’t let the truth get in the way of a ‘good’ Op-Ed.

Truthfully, viewed objectively, this opinion piece should not even be dignified with a response, but it would be a public disservice to let such a skewed view of reality remain unaddressed. It is so frustrating because this new school would be such an amazing opportunity to upgrade deserving Harding High School students from a tired facility to one that truly is state-of-the-art.

Conspiracy theories about “secret” conversations have been mentioned. The truth is that when Bridgeport City officials first spoke with General Electric about contributing to Bridgeport’s aggressive and highly successful school construction program (Discovery Interdistrict Magnet, Fairchild Wheeler Interdistrict Magnet High School, etc.) with a donation of the company’s expansive Boston Avenue property, we simply didn’t know if this was a viable site. In fact, conversations have been ongoing amongst G.E., the State, the City and the School Building Committee, which has multiple Board of Education representatives, and the BOE and its staff during the past three years.

Superintendent of Schools Paul Vallas met with Harding High School parents and the Harding High School community as a whole several times. The City and the Board of Education listened to their concerns and have had experts available to answer all of their questions.  These conversations with the community have been overwhelmingly positive. Another community meeting was scheduled for late January of this year but was cancelled by the Board of Education for no apparent reason. My Administration is committed to continuing a timely and active dialogue on this project with the BOE and the entire school community.

The writer then cites EPA publications that reference both the environmental hazards, and the need for mitigation and remediation in urban environments where land is scarce, and may have potential identifiable hazards.

While the writer selectively lifted paragraphs from studies and documents that suited her intended message that this property is somehow dangerous , she failed to mention that the City has been working with the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CTDEEP) and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) very closely as we examined the viability of this plan. It is a gross distortion to suggest that the planned new high school will be constructed on anything other than land that has been fully remediated to residential standards in accordance with all applicable state DEEP and federal EPA standards. The law requires as much, and my administration with its nationally recognized leadership position in environmental matters and ‘green’ initiatives would never consider any lesser standard for our students.

Bridgeport’s goal is to construct a top-notch, new high school that our children so richly deserve on property that has first been fully to the satisfaction of the government regulators who are the experts in overseeing environmental remediation. It is also noteworthy that this plan has received the public endorsement of national environmental advocacy organizations such as the Sierra Club.

In order to move forward in a responsible manner with the possibility of using the G.E. site, the City and GE engaged the CT DEEP, the state arm of the federal EPA, to create a plan that would guarantee state regulatory oversight of the site remediation to ensure the safety of students to be educated there as well as the health and well-being of the surrounding community.

Until ALL the state and federal environmental requirements (EPA and DEEP) for the school site are met and approvals and permits issued, school construction will not begin.

This community has tried twice before, and failed each time, to bring a new Harding High School to the students and families who are in most need of a new facility. Neither of these prior attempts came to fruition, and the available grant money had to be returned to the State, due to the lack of a suitable location. In consultation with the Board of Education and the Superintendent’s Office, my administration successfully applied for a third grant to bring about a much needed replacement for Harding.

Bridgeport’s racially diverse school population deserves the same quality educational faculties and opportunities as those available to the resident of our far more affluent suburbs. I am honored and proud that my Administration is on the cusp of making this great ‘win’ for our public school student becomes a long-overdue reality.

The best suited location for the replacement for Harding High School is on the former General Electric site on Boston Avenue and Bond Street. The school site is being remediated to residential standards — the cleanest standards, with GE bearing the brunt of the cost. Once the school site is remediated, GE will donate this land to the City.

The current school is nearly 90 years old, and does not offer much in the way of facilities, including an inadequate playing field, which cannot be used to host school sporting events.

This administration has worked with the school administrators, including the Superintendent and the Board of Education members to ensure that this project moves forward in a deliberative manner:

  • Due diligence has been exercised at each step of the way to ensure that the site would be remediated to the highest standards so as to provide a safe environment for students, teachers, parents and community members.
  • This location was selected after a comprehensive review of available sites by the School Building Committee, upon which sit multiple representatives from the Board of Education. The GE site is the only site that is of adequate size to accommodate a modern campus, featuring a state-of-the-art athletic complex. The GE site is also just a quarter-mile away from the current site and centrally located in the school population catchment area. This is in line with one of our highest priorities for identifying a location for the Harding replacement — ensuring that we do not geographically disrupt the school community.
  • Superintendent of Schools Paul Vallas met with Harding High School parents and the Harding High School community as a whole several times. The City and the Board of Education listened to their concerns and have had experts available to answer all of their questions.  These conversations with the community have been overwhelmingly positive. Another community meeting was scheduled for late January of this year but was cancelled by the Board of Education for no apparent reason. My Administration is committed to continuing a timely and active dialogue on this project with the BOE and the entire school community.
  • In Jan. 2013, the plan was submitted to and approved by the School Building Committee.
  • In February 2013, the site was submitted to and approved by the Board of Education
  • Those two approvals allowed the schematic design process to move forward.
  • At the same time, the project team hired its own independent consultant to examine GE’s environmental assessments and testing and to perform additional testing as necessary of the property.
  • In June 2013, the schematic design and testing results were brought to the School Building Committee and were approved.
  • The site was subsequently approved by the State Bureau of School Facilities in Hartford.
  • Parents of the City’s East Side and East End could not be more enthusiastic about an opportunity to see a brand new, state-of-the-art school offering a modern campus which includes playing fields and community rooms that will be accessible to the neighborhood. This new campus will be on par with Fairchild Wheeler Interdistrict Campus, the newly opened high school in the North End. Along with access to the playing fields, the new campus will also be a significant improvement to the Mill Hill neighborhood.

    This project has met many benchmarks. The schematic design and testing results of the site were brought to the School Building Committee and approved. The site was subsequently approved by the State Bureau of School Facilities in Hartford. We are now moving forward with Phase 1 of the site plan, which is currently before the Facilities Committee of the Board of Education.

    As a parent and our city’s leader, nothing is more important to me than the safety and well-being of our students. I am certain that this school will provide both a completely safe and innovative learning environment that the children of the East Side and East End so richly deserve.

    Obviously, there are thoughtful and concerned students, parents and other citizens who rightly want to ensure that our children are educated in a proper and save environment.  As a leading environmental advocate, I appreciate and share those legitimate considerations, which is why my Administration in partnership with GE and the CT DEEP environmental regulators has worked tirelessly to guarantee a properly cleaned site.

    Bill Finch is the Democratic Mayor of Bridgeport and a former State Senator.

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    (6) Comments

    posted by: Sue123 | February 23, 2014  5:56pm

    A family member passed away from mesothelioma after working at several Bridgeport sites, including G.E. I understand that they wanted to keep the Harding site negotiations secret. I would too if I were them.

    posted by: brutus2011 | February 23, 2014  7:07pm

    brutus2011

    “a properly cleaned site?”

    My question is: are these officials going to send their children to a contaminated site that is “properly cleaned?”

    What does “properly cleaned” really mean? And who is defining what is “properly cleaned?”

    I would not send my child to a school constructed on a contaminated site that a politician describes as “properly cleaned.”

    Would you?

    posted by: Linda12 | February 23, 2014  7:40pm

    How much time did you have to write this rebuttal?

    If one ever knew about skewed views it would be the number one fan of Paul Vallas, Mayor Bill.

    I wonder if he will keep you on speed dial while in Chicago.

    EVER THE FAITHFUL Politician.  Send your kids to Harding, Bill.

    posted by: jonpelto | February 23, 2014  8:49pm

    Whomever wrote this for Bill Finch has done him a terrible disservice.  Given the opportunity to make things clear and being honest with people, the Mayor’s PR operation has made the same mistake that the people around Malloy make.  Finch is now well on the way of ensuring he is as un-electable as his Malloy.  The public is fed up with politicians who say all is well when we know it isn’t.  They despise those who will mislead, lie, and cover up the truth in an attempt to hide for the reality that surrounds them.  Finch would have done far better to admit there are problems and commit to trying to resolve them in the time he has left as Mayor.  But is he and his handlers are so out of touch with the challenges facing Connecticut’s citizens that they don’t have the capacity to appreciate that at times like these we need and deserve leaders who will put reality above political fantasy.  Bookmark this op-ed for this makes the time when Finch had the opportunity to do what was right and chose the opposite.

    posted by: ASTANVET | February 23, 2014  9:12pm

    If the city of Bridgeport wants to build a new school - they should raise the necessary taxes, secure the necessary site - and work it out as a town.  Dont put CT taxpayers on the hook for a bridgeport problem, don’t rely on other towns, if GE or anyone else has a hazardous site in bridgeport, have that entity clean it up - why must each town rely on State/Fed/other towns? Stand up for yourselves and solve your problems.  That sir, is federalism, that is the answer.

    posted by: Castles Burning | February 23, 2014  9:22pm

    Mr. Finch,

    You say (and perhaps it is only my ear that hears condescension), Bridgeport’s racially diverse school population deserves the same quality educational faculties and opportunities as those available to the resident of our far more affluent suburbs.” 

    Yet, you have not paid the city’s share of education funding to the state for last year.  How do you justify that?  How do you get away with it?  What is the truth about that?