WHHS reconstruction plan arrives at major milestone
Last week, the reconstruction of West Haven High School took a major leap forward with the “topping off” ceremony of the last girder placed in the first phase of reconstruction. The steel superstructure has been underway for months, and what has been mostly an abstraction has suddenly come into focus. No longer is the project just an “artist’s rendering,” but a concrete and steel reality.
We are the first to admit that we have had our doubts about this project since it was first announced nine-plus years ago by Superintendent of Schools Neil Cavallaro. Our objections were not about the need for it, nor the costs. The current building, opened it 1964, has had several overhauls and many repairs.
Those overhauls and repairs were paid for by various grants from the federal government as well as state funds. They required that the city retain the building for a specified period of time. The reconstruction would put the city at risk of having to pay back several millions of dollars. While some thought such a possibility was remote, in a municipality with the monetary problems West Haven has, we thought any risk was too much.
What concerned us most was the lack of transparency, the autocratic decision-making, and the condescension that seemed to be present when questions about those decisions were asked. During the nine intervening years, we have come out against decisions made by the leaders of the school system, primarily because they lacked public input.
We used – many times – the experience of the Town of Guilford, which rebuilt its high school and completed it in 2016. The planning, construction, and step-by-step planning included the taxpayers with public meetings and information sessions. Unfortunately, such was not the case here. Yes, there were some meetings, but the public was not so much informed as told what was happening.
The biggest controversy came in 2012 with the decision to close hands-on shop programs. For almost two years the school system was embroiled in a kerfuffle that could have been avoided. The lack of communication helped bring down an administration.
Add to the mix turmoil concerning the number of classrooms, layout plans and other changes that compounded costs, and further delayed any attempt at beginning construction. Finally, the comedy of errors continued with the funding issue. The delays required a special act of the General Assembly. That act didn’t solve the problem until finally funding was secured.
With the “topping off” ceremony, the problems of the past seem to be truly behind us. The project, estimated at more than $130 million, is continuing apace. Over the next two years, the rest of the plan is expected to follow through with a 2020 completion date still the target.
The ceremony Friday was an important step in the plan. It also points to the work that still needs completion. We’ve had our doubts about the plan – mostly from a lack of process point of view.
Nearly 10 years after it was first announced with fanfare, the concrete and steel of the first phase of the reconstruction is completed. It has been a long road to hoe – and one hoed not particularly well. It is a milestone worth celebrating, however, and gives the hope that the controversies of past years are gone, with the promise of better things to come.