OPINION: Revitalizing Old Greenwich Elementary – Unveiling the Facts behind the Renovation

Submitted by Nisha Arora, Bill Drake, Karen Fassuliotis, Harry Fisher and Leslie Tarkington, Republican members of the Board of Estimate & Taxation

The 121-year-old Old Greenwich Elementary School (OG) needs an upgrade or a rebuild, and the project is currently being debated by town boards.

Here are the facts:

The BET has taken immediate and timely action to make urgent improvements at OG.

Earlier this spring, the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET), the town’s finance board, approved the school’s partial renovation with a requirement to complete additional cost due diligence before its funding. Noting the renovation estimate at $38 million was nearly the cost of a new build, 9 of the 12 BET members voted across party lines to obtain an independent cost estimate and complete a rebuild/renovation analysis.

In addition, since the partial renovation would not be completed until 2026, Republicans on the BET led the efforts to approve an additional $1.5 million to address flooding and ADA compliance concerns immediately, ahead of the upcoming school year. This additional and immediate funding also had the support of most BET members across party lines.

The current renovation proposal has not followed process and raises concerns.

During the last week of June, one week before the town’s fiscal 2023 year-end, the Board of Education (BOE) and the Old Greenwich School Building Committee (OGSBC) provided the BET with a new increased estimate of $42 million and requested its expedited approval to meet a June 30th state grant deadline. The BET was given a short window to review construction documents and approve funding, prior to any town agency approvals. Specifically, the BET was asked to waive Municipal Improvement approval, as required by the Town Charter, and additionally requested to forego its independent cost analysis, an analysis necessary considering the inherent conflict of the existing estimate being provided by the project architect.

Bypassing town approvals and foregoing an independent cost analysis raises concerns. Noting that Greenwich taxpayers will be directly funding nearly 85% of the renovation cost, our finance board did not believe it to be prudent to approve such a significant capital outlay without town approvals and additional vetting of costs.

The proposed economics for a partial renovation potentially exceed the cost of a new school.

Current enrollment at Old Greenwich, including PK, is around 400 and is predicted to slowly decline over the next decade.

In Connecticut, 20 new elementary schools have been built over the last decade, seven of which have an enrollment range similar to OG. A size and cost analysis for these seven elementary schools is provided in the chart below, showing an average size of 59,000 gross square feet (gsf) at an average cost of $36 million.

Understanding the cost of a new school is important to evaluate the upper budget limit of a renovation. As renovation costs start approaching 60-70% of that of a new build, it becomes important to understand the tradeoffs. The proposed partial renovation still leaves an aging roof and exterior walls, inefficient windows, and narrow hallways. Is it clear that environmental hazards like asbestos and lead, contaminants commonplace in buildings of that era would be 100% remediated? Should we consider a full renovation or “renovate like new” for OG – a solution that would preserve the historic building but ensure a complete renovation? What would this full renovation cost?

Moving forward responsibly, together
On March 27th, the full BET board voted 10-1-1 to complete two independent estimates – one for the partial renovation and one for a new 400-student elementary school. On July 17th, the full board reconfirmed their support for the independent estimate with a vote of 10-2-0. The Town Finance department is currently leading the effort to complete this independent analysis and hopes to complete it by the end of summer.

An expedited $42 million renovation was not approved at the June 23rd BET special meeting. BET Republicans reiterated their support for the OG project, supporting a thoughtful path forward and town process, which includes the completion of the independent cost analysis and the requisite agency approvals. Looking ahead, we hope to work together across the aisle to advance this project responsibly. Political expediency should have no place in this discussion. The best decisions are made when we listen to each other, focus on facts, and debate openly and rigorously.

Nisha Arora, Bill Drake, Karen Fassuliotis, Harry Fisher and Leslie Tarkington are Republican members of the Board of Estimate & Taxation.