Bernstein, Stowe: A promise to fully fund is not the same as fully funding

Submitted by Board of Education members Peter D. Bernstein (Chair) and Kathleen Stowe (Vice Chair)

On the morning of February 13th, a plaster ceiling fell on a sprinkler pipe causing a flood as well as the collapse of a hung ceiling at North Mianus School. The Superintendent and her team worked quickly to relocate 12 classes to multiple locations while navigating COVID.  Now we are focused on repairing the school and getting the kids back to their classrooms.

Greenwich has an interim finance process in place exactly for emergency situations like this. Unfortunately, ignoring the longstanding practice of using conditions, the BET’s majority has decided to push funding for repairs into the future. The limited funding they voted to approve covers only the immediate remediation, not the necessary repairs. This raises the specter of meaningful delays on the project 

The facts are fairly straightforward. The BOE unanimously requested funding for the full estimated amount of construction to restore affected portions of the building and rectify any potential code issues that are identified. The cost estimate, constructed by professionals, is based on the industry standard cost per square foot, and included a standard contingency, should the bids come back above the estimate. 

Responding to assertions that no delay will occur, the Superintendent clearly explained the timeline: creating plans, publishing an RFP, identifying the lowest qualified bidder, negotiating a contract and initiating work. As the BET knows, no contract can be signed without money being appropriated, so necessary work will not begin until the BET and RTM act on the full amount. Artificially adding process will easily cause a delay now that will result in a longer delay later. Between lead time in procuring materials, availability of contractors and sub-contractors during the busy summer building season and other unforeseen circumstances, the risk is real.

The BOE is following the same interim process recently used for emergency issues at Greenwich High School in the Performing Arts Center and science wing and for Cos Cob School. Those were all unanimously approved by the BET and ultimately approved by the RTM. Similarly, the BET approved an interim project in November 2000 for the South Stanwich Road Causeway repair, an emergency where plans weren’t crystal clear, timing was an issue because of the reservoir and contained a large contingency. There were no conditions and no thought of waiting on a more fully developed plan. The BET understood emergency in that project. Yet, certain BET members are suddenly holding an emergency school project to a different standard, creating another unnecessary step to return to the BET and then having to go to the RTM for a second time.

Additionally, during every budget cycle, the BET approves funding of projects often without final plans and without all required approvals in place. The BET commonly conditions funds in those situations and earlier this month for nine projects included in the 2021-2022 budget. A motion was made at the BET meeting to fully fund the repair for North Mianus with a condition and this was rejected by the BET Republicans.

However, what really made Friday’s BET meeting feel like theatre was that the Republican BET members agreed to the outcome prior to the public meeting and on April 15, 2021, published a letter to the editor letting the public know what they decided. Good governance requires public officials to come to meetings with an open mind, taking into account facts presented, hearing from appropriate experts and listening to constituents as part of the decision-making process – all before taking their votes in public. 

During Friday’s meeting, the BET Chair stated that people are “scaring” parents and the narrative is getting people upset.  We believe the North Mianus parents are smart enough to see the issue for themselves and we’ve heard clearly from them that they prioritize returning their children quickly and safely to their neighborhood school.

Finally, certain BET members unnecessarily suggest our staff is “new” and doesn’t “know process”. Our staff is made up of experienced professionals who have navigated COVID and numerous other challenges thrown at them and are often complimented on their understanding of the town’s processes and budget needs. Suggesting otherwise is counterproductive and does not serve their goal to distract from the failure to provide the funding necessary to repair the North Mianus school in a timely manner.

Unfortunately, all of this has become part of the pattern and practice in seeking to delay the funding of school projects and infringing upon the Board of Education’s role in determining how to best serve our students and prioritize the needs of our buildings.

In the end it is the students who will truly be affected by these short-sighted actions.

Board of Education members Peter D. Bernstein (Chair) and Kathleen Stowe (Vice Chair)