Stamford Targets School HVAC and Storm Drains With Federal Dollars

Erin Browne

STAMFORD — School buildings won’t look all shiny and new, and every cracked or crumbling road won’t get repaved with the tens of millions of dollars in federal COVID-relief money that has come the city’s way.

But Stamford will be more structurally sound.

Collapsing storm drains will be repaired and those filled with debris will be cleaned to limit pollution of Long Island Sound. Pumping stations will be repaired to avert street flooding.

Heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, mostly in school buildings, will be fixed to control moisture, prevent mold growth, and improve air quality.

Such work is critical, if not eye-catching, and qualifies for federal money under the American Rescue Plan, President Joe Biden’s program for containing COVID-19, rescuing the economy, and providing relief to Americans.

The city has decided to spend most of the $49 million it received under the American Rescue Plan to correct years of deferred maintenance of buildings and roadside drains.

The Biden program, in fact, allowed discretion for how to spend up to $10 million of the total, Director of Administration Sandy Dennies said, but city officials didn’t stray from their plan.

“We’re sticking with HVAC and storm drains,” Dennies said.

The city owns the school buildings; the Board of Education operates them. But education officials, too, plan to improve school HVAC systems using some of the $32.6 million the district most recently received from the American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund.

“I would say at this point the plan is to spend more than half of that on HVAC projects, though it’s a moving target,” said Ryan Fealey, finance director for Stamford Public Schools.

The remainder will fund social-emotional learning programs, summer school, parent facilitators, technology specialists and other support for students and staff dealing with challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, Fealey said.

Besides the $32.6 million — which will be spent in the 2022-23 budget year that begins July 1, and the year after that — the school district received an earlier tranche of $14.5 million in ESSER money. That will be used to cover similar operating expenses, plus capital expenses that include HVAC improvements and adding space to improve indoor distancing, Fealey said. 

A little more than half of that tranche is being used this budget year. The rest is slated for 2022-23.

“Some will be used to offset operating costs in 2022-23,” Fealey said.

In the initial 2020 tranche of ESSER funding, the school district spent $2.7 million on personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, distance-learning software and other COVID-related expenses. That year the city also got $5.3 million in Coronavirus Relief Fund money for similar expenses.

Fealey provided the information late last month as part of the school district’s 2022-23 budget presentation to the Board of Education’s Fiscal Committee. 

According to the presentation, Superintendent Tamu Lucero is requesting a 4.6 percent increase in her operating budget, or $13.3 million more than this year. If the increase is approved, it will bring the school budget to $306.9 million, up from this year’s $293.6 million.

Lucero told the members of the school board committee that higher wages and health-care costs, and adding 83 positions, drive the increase.

The new jobs include 33 para-educators, 34 teachers, four administrators, and five positions for school psychologists, social workers and speech therapists.

After the school board votes on Lucero’s budget request, it must be presented to the Board of Finance and the Board of Representatives by March 8.

The city has the same budget deadline.

Besides school HVAC systems and storm drain repairs, American Rescue Plan money will cover some renovations at the Yerwood community center and improving ventilation at the Ferguson Library, Dennies said. Of the $49 million, $14.9 million has yet to be allocated, she said.

Mayor Caroline Simmons wants to set aside $6 million to cover the city’s share of whatever infrastructure funding it receives from the federal government in the coming months, Dennies said.

“The federal funding is not 100 percent” for repairing city roads, bridges and other projects, Dennies said. “We want to make sure we’re ready to go with our match funding.”

The Board of Finance and Board of Representatives may not add to the school or city budgets; they may only leave them as is or cut them. The finance board must complete its work by April 20, then hand the budget over to the Board of Representatives, which has until May 15.

Stamford Targets School HVAC and Storm Drains With Federal Dollars

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