Nisha Arora: Funding the rebuild of our schools

Submitted by Nisha Arora, Member of the Greenwich Board of Estimate and Taxation

The capital needs of our Greenwich Public Schools represent greater than 50% of our overall capital budget over the next three years. The rebuild of Central Middle School and the renovations/expansions of Old Greenwich and Julian Curtiss elementary schools represent the bulk of the funding needs, with the BOE requesting roughly $127 million to complete these three projects. As a member of the BET budget committee and the appointed BET liaison to the BOE, I have spent significant time assessing these projects with a fresh lens and with an objective to ensure our schools’ needs are addressed both expeditiously and within a reasonable budget. Below is the summary of my analysis and personal assessment.

Structural concerns identified at Central Middle School (CMS) took this capital project to the top of the BOE’s priority list, and rightfully so. Both the budget committee and the full BET showed strong leadership in making an unequivocal commitment to immediately address any imminent needs. While the administration has proposed a 2026 new build, I, along with many of my colleagues, believe this is too slow. Allotting 4+ years to address safety appear to contradict the emergency that has been raised. I have put forward a detailed proposal to fund this project on an accelerated 2.5-year timeline, allowing for a Fall 2024 CMS opening.

Specifically, I have requested the BOE to consider applying for the state’s 10% reimbursement grant by June 30 th , 2022 (vs. June 2023). This would allow the project to shave at least one year off the timeline, without any comprise on design, engineering, or build. Unfortunately, the school Superintendent and the BOE Chair have not been supportive of this acceleration, citing inaccurately that quality would be compromised. But our community needs to know that my caucus and I are ready and eager to provide accelerated funding for this project. The ball is in the court of the BOE.

The renovation and expansion of Old Greenwich (OG) is long overdue. Having toured the school with Principal Bencivengo, I noted the lack of accessibility, the need for an updated heating and cooling system, and the need for additional space to address its frequent flooding. A consultant-led feasibility study identified the need for a 5000 sqft addition, 5000 sqft renovation, a new HVAC system, and accessibility upgrades including an elevator and ramps. I believe this project has likely stalled due to its inflated budget. The BOE has requested $25.5 million – this price tag fails the smell test in my books. Estimating $5MM for HVAC/accessibility, that estimates a $2000 per square foot cost of construction. To put this cost into perspective, this is 4x the cost the state estimates for new school construction. (It is important to note that KG&D is the consultant behind OG’s estimate – the same consultant that created the facilities master plan and estimated a rebuild of CMS at an outrageous $120 million). While I plan to support this project in its entirety, I will ask for a new independent cost estimate of this project before the design work starts. I believe a $500/sqft is a more appropriate metric for this project. In light of the school construction scandals plaguing many towns across Connecticut, it is especially important our school and financial boards do the appropriate due diligence on budgets, and not be afraid to demand transparency and accountability.

Finally Julian Curtiss (JC): I toured JC with Principal McGuire earlier this winter and noted similar accessibility and HVAC concerns. Like OG, a consultant led study has identified a more expansive renovation to address its challenges, budgeting $31 million. The $5 million being asked for ADA and HVAC seems to be a very timely project and I believe there will be consensus to fund that immediately. As for the $26 million expansion and renovation of the school, many members, including myself, have real concerns. Is it prudent to invest on such an expansive renovation for a school that has observed a 33% decline in enrollment over the last decade? JC has an estimated annual cost/student of $33,000 – the second highest of all of our fifteen public schools and 25% higher than the average GPS spend of roughly $26,400/student. A responsible approach to address the challenges of JC is to separate the project in two phases – the first to be completed immediately to address accessibility and HVAC, while pushing the expansion to Phase 2 with a more thorough analysis of a cost-benefit of such an expansion.

I am of firm belief that we should take the politics out of budgeting. Afterall, we are one community that all want the best services and with thoughtful fiscal prudence. But we must also be prepared to ask the tough questions, remove our personal bias and work to solve problems for the larger community. I pledge, in my role, to do just that.