By Nisha Arora, Bill Drake, Karen Fassuliotis, Harry Fisher and Leslie Tarkington, Republican members of the BET
School capital projects have been rightfully prioritized in Greenwich’s upcoming fiscal year 2024 budget. The First Selectman’s $125 million of recommended capital investments for the upcoming year allocates over 75% to Greenwich Public Schools. The new Central Middle School (CMS) represents most of this allocation at a price tag of $70+ million. While the renovation of Old Greenwich Elementary School (OG) has been recommended by our First Selectman to start in fiscal year 2025, the Board of Education (BOE) and Old Greenwich community has requested our financial board, the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET), to consider accelerating the funding of this project to the upcoming year.
Old Greenwich Elementary is the oldest school in the district, built in 1902 with additions in the 1950s and 1990s. Like many buildings of this time, the school was built without consideration for accessibility. Other shortcomings of this building include a poor layout, old mechanicals, and an aging roof. The school’s sanitary main exits the building below grade, and during periods of high tide/rainfall, causes sewage to back into the newer addition of the school that was built below the flood plain.
In the summer of 2022, the OG Building Committee (OGSBC) was established to lead the renovation efforts of the school. During February’s BET Budget hearings, the committee highlighted the limited scope of the renovation project, identifying accessibility, a four-classroom addition, and an updated HVAC system as the top priorities to be addressed. The OGSBC commented that while the scope was “bare minimum,” it was requesting $36-$41 million to complete these renovations, representing a 50-65% cost escalation from 2021 when the project was initially budgeted.
Renovate or New-Build?
A consultant’s feasibility study highlighted some of the challenges of renovating a 121-year-old school, writing, “it is practically difficult and potentially very costly to remedy the primary issue of under-sized classrooms for grades 2-5 at Old Greenwich Elementary School. These rooms are located primarily in the 1902 and 1950 portions of the building. The distance from the load bearing corridor wall to the exterior bearing wall establishes the size and shape of the rooms and the relocation of either of those walls is not practical.” In addition to the challenges of layout and sizing, replacing building systems or upgrading electric or plumbing infrastructure could reveal asbestos or other contaminants that were commonplace in buildings of that era.
Considering these challenges, we note that the proposed $36 million renovation will not be able to address the undersized classrooms or poor layout and will only provide for a partial replacement of the roof and windows. Accordingly, we can expect that even after this significant investment, the cost of maintaining a 121-year-old school will not be without challenge and expense. This renovation will do the “bare minimum.”
Because of the high price tag and challenges exposed in the feasibility of this project, we believe it is important to evaluate the feasibility of constructing a new elementary school. While there may be some in our community who would prefer to preserve this building and do a renovation, we have heard from many others that a new build might be a better path forward with the ability to start anew and build a modern, up-to-date facility that would be served for the next 50 to 100 years. That becomes especially relevant since a 400-student, 60,000-square-foot building is estimated to cost around $35 million (at $500-$600/sqft), possibly less than the proposed limited-scope renovation. Hence it is important to get feedback from the community on whether we should renovate or rebuild.
The BET has requested the BOE to evaluate the merits and budget of a renovation versus a rebuild, noting that either path would likely take several years to complete. However, the ADA and sewage issues are intolerable and cannot wait to be addressed. Accordingly, concurrent to this analysis, we must address both problems immediately. From our experience in managing these concerns at other buildings, we know that remedying these issues is relatively inexpensive. We find it surprising that they have not already been addressed, likely being held hostage to a full-scale upgrade. The ADA needs have been identified – elevator, ramps, and restrooms.
Similarly, addressing the flooding requires additional sump pumps and addressing the lateral sewer exterior to the building. Our students should never have to tolerate such a situation, even for a year. Accordingly, the BET Budget committee has proposed appropriating funds for these upgrades immediately and recommended addressing these issues this summer. We hope all BET members, including our Democratic colleagues, will support this funding.
The Republican BET majority is committed to the upgrade of Old Greenwich School and committed to providing a robust budget for either its renovation or rebuild. Critical capital projects like the Old Greenwich School require thoughtful decision-making. Budgeting isn’t and should never be political. As BET members, it is incumbent upon us to ask the tough questions and ensure we do the necessary due diligence before expending our taxpayer’s hard-earned funds. We thank the OGSBC for their work to date and hope they will join the BET in supporting the right path forward.
Nisha Arora, Bill Drake, Karen Fassuliotis, Harry Fisher and Leslie Tarkington are Republican members of the BET.