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Charter Oak Makeover Will Largely Be Funded by State of Connecticut

West Hartford legislators supported effort to fund construction at Charter Oak International Academy as a 'Diversity School,' which allows for 80 percent – millions of dollars in construction costs – to be funded by the state of Connecticut.

Updated, 10:15 p.m.

Calling the project "an investment in West Hartford's educational future," the town's legislative delegation announced to the Board of Education Tuesday night that recently-passed legislation will result in the state picking up the tab for 80 percent of Charter Oak International Academy's renovation/reconstruction cost.

The announcement was made by State Sen. Beth Bye (5th District) and State Representatives Andrew Fleischmann (18th District), Brian Becker (19th District) and Joe Verrengia (20th District).

According to a news release issued Tuesday, the legislation provides that 80 percent of eligible construction cost at eight qualified "Diversity Schools" will be paid by the state of Connecticut.

The release states that school construction costs incurred by towns are typically reimbursed by the state at rates of 10 to 79 percent, with school projects in West Hartford typically receiving reimbursement at a 40 percent rate.

"As a Diversity School, West Hartford’s Charter Oak International Academy – a West Hartford magnet school to which children throughout the town may apply – is now eligible for the maximum 80 percent reimbursement rate," announced the legislators in the release.

"We are so excited about this. It's an opportunity not only for Charter Oak but for the entire community," said Charter Oak Principal Mary Thompson on Tuesday afternoon.

"There is so much great learning that goes on here, but to have a building that reflects that learning will be wonderful for the community," Thompson said.

The Charter Oak International Academy building was constructed in 1930, and currently serves as one of two elementary magnet schools in West Hartford. It became accredited as an international baccalaureate school in 2011.

In the release, Rep. Fleischmann, House Chairman of the Education Committee who, along with Senator Bye, was instrumental in securing the funding, said, “The primary purpose of this state support is to ensure that great schools like Charter Oak have great facilities too, so that we enhance academic achievement.”

In addition, Fleischmann noted in the release, “Investments in this outstanding magnet school will go a long way in helping children to be more prepared for learning and to engage parents in the school community. In short, it will allow the town to create an even better school, and help further increase academic achievement at Charter Oak.”

In announcing the legislation to the Board of Education Tuesday night, Fleischmann praised the energy and ideas that already come from within Charter Oak. He said, "We’re hoping that you are able to use this to have the inside and the outside match. West Hartford deserves a great facility that’s appropriate for an international baccalaureate academy."

Rep. Verrengia, whose district includes the school, said in the release, “I envision this money being used to make Charter Oak the hub of the Elmwood community, with an expanded Family Resource Center to serve more residents, more frequently, in more ways.” He added, “This state funding represents a major investment in Elmwood.”

He told board members Tuesday night, “I think we all agree, at the end of the day, that it’s Charter Oak’s time.”

Sen. Bye also expressed excitement about future enhancements to the Charter Oak facility. She said in the release, “Since my years on the Board of Education it has been a goal of mine to obtain additional support for our local West Hartford magnet school facilities. Enhanced facilities are a widely recognized tool for drawing families to magnet schools. With this bill, West Hartford has that tool.”

"This legislation that allows tyou to develop a magnet school with a facility that other schools have – it gives them the facility they deserve ... It’s now up to the community to decide if they want to take advantage of this tool and how they want to take advantage of this tool," Bye told the Board of Education.

Following the announcement at Tuesday night's meeting, West Hartford Board of Education Chariman Bruce Putterman said that during his nine years on board, "virtually all of that time, all of us have been itching to do something about Charter Oak. Indeed it is Charter Oak’s time; let that be a mantra as we go forward." 

“We deeply appreciate our legislators’ efforts to support and strengthen Charter Oak International Academy,” said Putterman in the release. “The next step is to hear the Charter Oak neighborhood’s input on how best to bring about a stronger Charter Oak, and then working with the Town Council to determine what is feasible economically.”

Putterman said at Tuesday night's meeting that it is the board's hope that there will be "something new for students to walk into in the fall of 2015."

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Karen List, who could not be present for the announcement due to a family illness, said that the public would be involved in deciding how the state funds would be used, through meetings and an electronic suggestion box on the district's website.

According to the release, an Advisory Committee will be named at the Board of Education's Oct. 16 meeting, and three "Community Input" meetings will be scheduled. Those meetings will be held at Charter Oak, Smith STEM School, and the Elmwood Community Center during November.

List is quoted in the release as saying, “The state funds can be used for anything ranging from minor renovations to building an entire new school. Our thinking on the best solution for strengthening Charter Oak will be shaped by input from residents of the neighborhood as well as all West Hartford residents.”

Board members unanimously expressed excitement about the announcement, and received assurances from the legislators that the money will not be taken away and will be available regardless of whether the ultimate plans are to rebuild or renovate.

Plans must be reviewed and approved by the state, but that is the case with any school construction.

"We are getting an 80 percent reimbursement for a new school or a renovation from the state. That is absolutely unbelievable,” said Board of Education Vice-Chair Elin Katz. She said of Charter Oak, "It has a wonderful heart and a wonderful spirit. This is a chance to make it shine as much on the outside."

Thompson, who brought several parents and staff to Tuesday's meeting to receive the good news, said that no time frame has yet been finalized for the changes to the school. She looks forward to the planning process with the community.

"This will be a collaborative opportunity to share our thoughts, so the school will be pleasing to all," she said.

According to the release, a Diversity School is defined as "a school in which the percentage of minority students varies from the average minority population for the district by plus or minus 25 percent." Funding for Diversity Schools, according to the release, is not subject to any time limitation under the legislation.

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