BET Republicans: $70 Million for New Central Middle School is Reasonable & Prudent

Submitted by Dan Ozizmir, Nisha Arora, Bill Drake, Karen Fassuliotis, Harry Fisher, and Leslie Tarkington are Republican members of the Board of Estimate & Taxation. Nisha Arora is also a member of the CMS Building Committee.

On Tuesday, April 4th, the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) approved an additional $67,500,000 to rebuild Central Middle School (CMS), bringing the total project cost to $70,000,000, including the $2.5 million approved during last year’s budget. This $67.5 million allocation was the most significant capital request this year, representing roughly 60% of the Town’s total approved capital budget for the fiscal year 2024. The BET has been unequivocal about championing this project by prioritizing and appropriating funds to support its expeditious build. Despite the BET’s approval of this extraordinary amount of taxpayer funds, one of the largest on record, there have been misleading arguments criticizing the BET’s allocation as “too little.” Those arguments are without basis.

This budget is responsible, and escalation is unnecessary
A year ago, in April 2022, the Board of Education (BOE) proposed a budget of $70 million to rebuild CMS, and the BET unanimously and quickly approved its initial design funding. The $70 million project provided for a school 25% larger than needed, of roughly 100,000 gross square feet (sqft), as presented by the then Chairman, BOE, and the Superintendent of Schools. The assumed all-in cost was $600 per square foot, once again a number suggested by BOE leadership, which many professionals considered was on the high end. However, the project scope increased during the design phase, and the design ballooned to 140,000 sqft. As a result, the BOE increased the project’s budget and requested a total of $90 million plus for the build, indicating costs could likely be closer to $100 million. The BET analyzed the two drivers of this cost escalation – increase in size and price per square foot. The BET determined that this escalation from $70 to $90 million can be avoided if we work together and make small compromises on sizing and costing.

State guidelines and comparable projects can help provide a framework for sizing CMS. Since towns receive state funding for new school construction, ranging from 10-70% state reimbursement, the state sets size and budget guidelines depending on the maximum enrollment the school will observe over the next eight years. For a 500-student maximum enrollment, as in the case of CMS, state reimbursement guidelines recommend building around 80,000 sqft. Towns can elect to build larger, but the state does not reimburse the overage. Greenwich receives only 10% reimbursement from the state. At the current proposed size of 140,000 sqft, our reimbursement rate will be closer to 5% meaning Greenwich taxpayers will cover roughly 95% of the project cost.

Several new public middle schools have been built in Connecticut over the last few years. In Oxford, with a similar sized enrollment to that of CMS, the Town recently built a new 82,000 sqft middle school. In Cromwell, CT, a middle school with a similar sized enrollment to that of CMS, is currently being built for 83,000 sqft. For Greenwich, a 100,000 sqft new school, as originally proposed, would still be 25% larger than state guidelines and most other schools in CT. We could find no example of any middle school being built to be 50-75% larger than the guidelines, as in the escalation request. As Greenwich, we do have resources but we should still be equitable to all other students in our surrounding communities.

Is building a 50-75% larger school in one of the wealthiest towns in the state and country the right thing to do? Based on state guidelines and comps, we have requested the BOE to adjust the proposed school’s size and keep it 25% over state standards – a step that would make escalation unnecessary.

Building cost consideration
The architect hired for the CMS project and the construction managers indicated a construction cost of $400 to $450/sqft. The total cost consists of construction, architectural, and other soft costs, which sum up to less than $600/sqft. The BET should not approve a budget above the going market rate. There is a discussion of a recession which should provide more room for cost control. Providing robust budgets and not inviting waste is essential.

Small compromises will ensure CMS is built on time and within budget
Looking ahead, the BOE will soon reconvene to consider revising educational specifications. The CMS building committee has made some recommendations, but it is ultimately the BOE’s decision on if or how to reduce. To make the state grant deadline on June 30th of this year, the BOE must submit a plan that meets both the educational requirements and the BET budget. The timeline should and can be met, but the BOE needs to make small compromises. A new CMS that is roughly 100,000 sqft, and still 25% larger than our needs, can be built with the $70 million budget.

Some articles in the press have eschewed this rational thinking and implied a 100,000 square foot, $70 million school is too small and insufficient.

Those viewpoints are utterly misleading and unreasonable. Greenwich should build the best school possible but also be mindful of taxpayers’ dollars. We are in uncertain times, and there is no reason to burden each household with extra thousands in property taxes when reasonable choices can avoid it. CMS is an important project for our community – let’s work together to ensure we can get it done on time and within budget.

Nisha Arora, Bill Drake, Karen Fassuliotis, Harry Fisher, Dan Ozizmir and Leslie Tarkington are Republican members of the Board of Estimate & Taxation. Nisha Arora is also a member of the CMS Building Committee.