Letter to the editor from Lucy von Brachel, Byram, June 13
I am a New Lebanon parent, a Byram homeowner, and an active volunteer in the community. I am writing in support of Scheme B — building a new New Lebanon School on the William Street ball field.
The 11th-hour rejection of Scheme C (building a new school in the ravine adjacent to the field) by the Board of Selectmen and the new emphasis on Scheme D (building on the existing site) has been disheartening at best.
Not only did the rejection of Scheme C negate the thoughtful hard work by the professionals and neighborhood leaders who worked on the pre-feasibility and feasibility studies, it also fails Byram on many levels.
Following are concerns and thoughts, some of which have not received adequate attention, that I would like to put forth to the Greenwich community.
What’s wrong with Scheme D?
- Dispersing students to various schools for a minimum of two years will work against any attempts to diminish the achievement gap. Also, this 2+ years of dispersement would come on the tail of six years of losing a pre-k, moving the kindergarten offsite, and a continuing lack of space. These continued indignities have been demoralizing for the entire school community.
- Many families in the New Lebanon community do not own or have ready access to a car and this would prohibit parent involvement in their children’s education, not to mention make it difficult to retrieve to their children in the event of an injury or illness. Per the CT Center for School Change report from 2013-14 commissioned by the Board of Education, strengthening parent involvement in our Title 1 schools is essential to closing the gap.
- Many have been concerned that a new school on the ball field would be “too large” and have emphasized that the Scheme calls for a three-story building. Firstly, the plans put forth are “ sketches”, not finalized architectural renderings. It would not be difficult to reduce the height of the building as proposed in Scheme B to two stories. Secondly, I would argue that putting the same square footage on a smaller footprint on one of the highest points in the neighborhood would make the school appear much larger and would be farmore out of character with the neighborhood than a building at street level. Homeowners along Mead Avenue would have a huge building looming over their homes.
- Others have argued that because the current site was considered the best site in the late-1950s, that it must still be the best site today. This argument does not take into consideration the much larger square footage and increased enrollment of the proposed new school or the fact that in 60 years, much has changed in the fields of architecture and engineering that remedy many of the concerns that prohibited building on a ball field 60 years ago.
- The outdoor play areas made available in Scheme D are barely adequate for the existing population and would not serve the needs of a school with 400+ students.
- The access to the front of the school is completely inadequate for the current population. Come and visit any weekday from 7:45 to 8:15 and imagine another 50 cars added to the mix.
- There are families, such as my own, that are fortunate enough to be able to spend a considerable amount of time and energy, and in some cases money, on moving their children to other schools to avoid their being moved around multiple times. This pre-emptive action also enables families to better control their children’s education. One of our children is leaving New Lebanon this year for another magnet school. Other families are choosing private or parochial school. Us fortunate families, and I’m sure there is plenty of data to support this theory, are choosing to leave New Leb at a higher rate than the less fortunate. And, that will only increase with multiple years of construction and political in-fighting looming in our future. This, too, will significantly add to the challenge faced by the district in fostering racial balance and closing the achievement gap at New Lebanon. And those of us that do move our children elsewhere do so with a very heavy heart. We love our school and community and don’t want to separate our children from such a warm and loving community. But when our school, PTA, and community leaders are forced to put all of their energy into fighting for a great new school, education suffers and the students, teachers, administrators, and parents become demoralized. It’s time to let New Leb move forward.
What’s right with Scheme B?
- It allows for a more creative use of the available space. Remember, these Schemes are works in progress and it is important that we support the Scheme that allows for the greatest flexibility in meeting the needs of everyone in the community. There will inevitably be problems once a site is selected (arsenic in the soil, for example), but should those problems arise on the existing site, there is no room for flexibility.
- More fields! Better fields! Safer fields!
- Despite any concerns about construction noise, keeping the kids together in one place is, without a doubt,going to be infinitely less disruptive. How anyone could argue otherwise is beyond me.
- The current playground is tucked away and is often frequented by older children playing basketball on afternoons and weekends. Not only is this unsafe and intimidating for elementary children, it’s pretty sad that the hoops on the tiny square of asphalt hidden behind the school are the best place to play basketball in the vicinity. Scheme B can bring fields, courts, and playground equipment into the neighborhood and will do a far better job at maintaining security AND bringing people together than what could be done with Scheme D.
- It has the support of the school community and neighborhood community.
- After months of study by the pre-feasibility and feasibility study teams, Scheme B was chosen as the best choice for a new school.
In the BoE Public Hearing on Tuesday, June 9th, a few community members that spoke in favor of Scheme D stated that Scheme D would cause a temporary inconvenience, but would benefit the community more over the long-term.
However, all of those speakers failed to give any plausible or factual reason for how Scheme D would be better long-term. The William Street ball field is a great community resource but is far from a “Village Green”. There are no benches, the turf is scruffy and poorly maintained, and it’s too small to host most Parks & Rec activities. Sometimes, I see children playing soccer there, but more often I see a handful of people walking their dogs. In fact, I am more likely to run into friends, neighbors, and other NL parents in front of the library, at the school during the many events that are open to the community, or at the Byram Beach than I would if I were picnicking in the field.
Finally, this continued battle has intimated to the Greenwich community at large that Byram is troubled and that it doesn’t have the support of the rest of the town. This battle has convinced Greenwich families from other parts of town, those that might send their children to New Leb as magnet students because of its strong IB program, tightly-knit community, and multi-cultural population, that the school is actually “bad”. It has labeled this community as needy and distressed. Despite all of this being absolutely false, the negative attention has been detrimental to our property values, to the racial balance of the school, and to our community spirit.
It is time for the Board of Selectmen and Board of Education to make decisions and to make them wisely and without concern for the fall elections.
A vote for Scheme D, which was thrown together in a few weeks and has only anecdotal evidence supporting it as a viable choice, would just add to already teetering pile of town boondoggles and demonstrate to the town at large, once again, that Byram doesn’t deserve the best. A vote for Scheme B will help Byram meet its potential and become a stronger community. A vote for Scheme B confirms what the many committed community members who have worked on this project have already determined: the William Street field is the best location for a new school. And, finally, a vote for Scheme B proves that the town at large, including its leaders, supports our community.
Lucy von Brachel, Byram