Submitted by Board of Education Chair Peter Bernstein and Vice Chair Kathleen Stowe
It’s time for a community conversation about how to realistically fund necessary capital projects for the schools and town. Let’s be clear at the outset – this isn’t a blame game. Rather, this is about everyone moving in the same direction for our nearly 9,000 students, taxpayers and community who should be proud of our district, especially during this pandemic. Even with recent capital investments, there is much work needed to protect our infrastructure while recognizing there are limited resources of both time and money. Unfortunately, this isn’t as easy as waving a magic wand or putting on a fresh coat of paint.
We have over one and a half million square feet of school buildings with an average age dating to the 1950s and our oldest dating to 1902. The replacement value of our buildings is over $1 billion (yes, billion with a “B”). Given the age disparity among some of our buildings, there is a
huge difference between annual maintenance, infrastructure and major projects. The town has traditionally underspent on annual school maintenance, which should be 2%-5% of the asset value or $20-$50 million per year. By contrast, we are allocated on average $10 million annually. Infrastructure projects are really about the guts of the buildings. These are the things you just don’t see lurking behind some very old walls and yes, ceilings, without tearing the buildings apart. What occurred at North Mianus should serve as a wakeup call. If you live in an old house you know what we mean.
The capital budget process starts every year with the BET issuing a Budget Guidelines letter that sets spending targets for the town departments and Board of Education, setting an expectation for everyone to meet the guidelines. This year’s letter states the following: “Capital projects are
projected at $55 million of prioritized projects to cover required annual maintenance expenses, remediation, and a few improvement projects.” This year’s combined town and schools capital request presented to the BET was about $90 million, of which the BOE requested $32 million for school projects – the bulk of which was maintenance ($12 million), remediation of Western Middle School fields ($8 million), Cardinal Stadium ($4.8 million) and GHS secure entry ($2.75 million).
So why are the BET Budget Guidelines aggressively low for capital spending when the needs are so great? First, we are still catching up from last year where nearly $20 million was cut from the BOE capital request ($35.8 to $16.4 million) based on COVID assumptions for delays and reduced revenues. Second, major infrastructure projects require the full appropriation in the first year even if it will be a multi-year project, creating lumpiness in the capital budget. Third, the capital budget is limited by the available funding to support it. There has been no growth in the funding for capital projects in the past two years (capital tax levy) and the BET use of five-year bonds require large principal repayments each year. Between the repayments and necessary maintenance, the ability to fund any major town or school project becomes a challenge.
To work within this annual capital framework, the schools prioritize necessary capital projects starting well before the budget is presented to the BET. The Superintendent and her team go through each buildings’ needs annually, including maintenance and larger projects, and put forward a proposal to the BOE. Then the BOE often -as we did this year – cuts projects from the Superintendent’s proposal. In our opinion each one of the items requested by the BOE represents and responds to a priority need. The projects that don’t make the list are pushed into out years, raising costs and clogging the future capital request pipeline. Once the BOE is done going through and approving the capital request, it goes to the First Selectman, who can – and does – make changes to our request.
At the request of the BET, the BOE undertook a master facility planning project that was completed in 2018. The outcome was a comprehensive facility maintenance plan and identification of major renovation projects to address infrastructure and educational insufficiencies in our buildings. That plan was reflected in our budget through an increase in requests for annual facility maintenance funds as well as prioritizing major project work in our schools based on critical criteria such as air quality (e.g., replacing HVAC systems and improving air filtration), safety and security (e.g., modernizing equipment and securing buildings) and ADA (e.g., switching from woodchips on playgrounds, making facilities accessible, lifts).
In terms of major projects, the master facility process identified three of our oldest buildings not to have undergone major work – Julian Curtiss, Old Greenwich and Riverside (the same schools the Town recommended closed for further inspection last week). We originally asked the BET for funds to begin planning work on all three buildings at the same time as there was
such commonality in the issues. However, the BET chose to break the projects up and only funded a feasibility study for Julian Curtiss initially, with plans to fund Old Greenwich and Riverside down the road with the effect of creating further delays and raising questions about whether the projects will be funded. The focus of these projects is not to expand capacity or to refurbish the entire buildings by bringing them down to the structure and rebuilding using modern methods. Instead, they have been scaled back to only address known issues and deficiencies. Even with the scope and original price tags cut by almost half, there are those that believe this is still too expensive.
History shows we have been forced to be reactive in managing our infrastructure – keeping maintenance low and replacing schools only when conditions are unbearable – Glenville, Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon. Two additional major projects were also completed in the past 15 years, both at GHS – MISA (fixing a deficiency known since 1970) and Cardinal Stadium (replacing the condemned bleachers).
We should discuss the best approach to move forward. As a community we need to decide the value of safe schools conducive to twenty-first century learning. Admittedly, the solution will come at a cost and this absolutely has to include a discussion about how best to finance these projects. If we expect our school buildings to last for 100 years or more, we must invest for the longer term. This includes asking why we aren’t taking advantage of the low interest rates and using 20-year bonds for major school and town projects. The time to have that conversation in here.
Board of Education members Peter D. Bernstein (Chair) and Kathleen Stowe (Vice Chair)