Arora Accused of Fear-Mongering for Calling Renovation in Place at Old Greenwich School Unsafe 

On Monday, Oct 16, the BET meeting agenda includes request from the Board of Education for an appropriation of $39,796,000 for construction funds for the Old Greenwich School renovation project.

Built in 1902 with no renovations in 25 years, the building is far out of ADA compliance. It has sewage coming up into basement classrooms after heavy rains (as recently as the end of September), lacks building-wide HVAC (during Covid ventilation was achieved by opening windows even in severe cold), lacks a fire safety sprinkler system, and was the subject of a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights for lack of ADA accessibility.

Per the renovation project’s education specification, the children will continue to learn in the building during construction.

The project includes a 4-classroom addition for kindergarten. During a hard look at the ed specs, the size of that addition was reduced from about 10,000 sq ft to a bit more than 7,000 sq ft.

On October 3, the Planning & Zoning commission unanimously approved Municipal Improvement for the project.

This was significant, because in his Aug 31 opinion town special counsel John Wetmore opined that it was necessary to have MI approval, per Section 99 of the town charter, prior to seeking construction funding.

MI is short for  Municipal Improvement.

That opinion was controversial. In fact, there was talk by Democrats and Republican chair Joe Kelly on the Board of Education about seeking a second opinion.

Nevertheless, at the October 3 P&Z meeting, the commission approved both the MI and coastal site plan unanimously.

That meant the project could return to seek construction funding from the BET.

Unfortunately, at the October 11 BET budget committee meeting, there were more disappointment for fans of the project who want a ground breaking in summer 2024.

Democratic Budget committee member Leslie Moriarty recalled that the conditions had been “contentiously discussed” last spring.

At the mention of “contentiously,” Republican budget committee member Nisha Arora said, “I’d like us to be able to speak as neighbors and community members, and not one party versus the other party…”

Budget committee chair Republican Leslie Tarkington said, “I think it’s absolutely amazing that MI was achieved in one meeting with P&Z. That doesn’t happen very often.”

After a vote to approve the release the remaining conditions on the A&E funding of $1,086,000, they moved on to discuss the $39+ million request.

The BET budget committee left to right: Democrat Laura Erickson, Republican Leslie Tarkington, Democrat Leslie Moriarty and Republican Nisha Arora. Screenshot from YouTube.

From there, the budget committee was split along party lines, some of the contentious discussions from last spring carried over.

Of course the elephant in the room is the town’s municipal election set for November 7.

During last week’s Selectmen debate the Democratic candidate for First Selectperson Laura Erickson, who is a member of the BET budget committee, said the mill rate was an issue in every election, but in this election the hot topic was school infrastructure.

At Monday’s BET budget committee meeting, Democrat Leslie Moriarty said both the “financial imperative” and the impact on children were considerations in moving the project forward.

“If we can get construction funding approved by the town – that requires both BET and RTM – there is an opportunity to get onto the state priority list that was closed as of June 2023,” Moriarty said.

“That would give us financial assurance that we could put a shovel in the ground next summer,” Moriarty said.

But, she warned, “If we defer action on this item…we run a much greater risk of not being in the state’s current priority project list, which would mean the town would face a decision next year of either going ahead with a project that is not state funded or no guarantee of state funding – and we’re expecting over $6 of reimbursement for this project – or we wait for assurance of that funding, which would mean we would have another year’s inflation in the project which would be $3 million or so.”

While Ms Tarkington emphasized following process and having the building committee return to her committee perhaps in December, Ms Arora brought up Ms Moriarty’s mention of a “contentious” discussion last spring.

That’s when the meeting became contentious. Again.

“The discussion that arose at budget hearings was the dollar number looked very high for a renovation,” Arora explained. “And I provided estimates of new construction that were about in the same range.”

And, she said, “With a 100-year old building, you are going to run into hazardous materials. ”

“The kids will be in this building when this renovation is going on and these hazardous chemicals are being abated,” she said. “Make no doubt there will be asbestos and other hazardous chemicals. If it were my young child I would not want them in that school.”

“Could we do a full blown renovation, to make sure we get the kids out of there and do it safely? That was the other side of the story.”

Arora questioned the estimates for a new school. She said a “true independent estimate is someone not involved in the project.”

She noted one estimate was done by Downes Construction who are working on the project, and the second was conducted by someone recommended by the project architect.

“Requesting a third party that you know is still a direct relationship,” Arora said.

Front row, left to right, Blaize Levitan, Greenwich Schools Superintendent, BOE chair Joe Kelly and Old Greenwich School building committee chair James Waters. Screenshot from YouTube

Mr. Waters said that four firms were interviewed in the RFP process for estimates, and the building committee vote was unanimous.

Waters reviewed the upcoming project timeline.

“Now, to your question, right now we are going to finish the design development process around the end of the year. We will move right into construction documents in the new year. We anticipate having them done in April. At that point the project will be ready to go out to bid – at least if we have construction funding to do so. ”

“If we don’t have construction funds and can’t run through the state process, the cost escalation is estimated to be $3 million,” Waters warned.

Further, he said, “The state is not interested in talking to us until we have construction funds behind the project. Our latest thinking is state reimbursement would be roughly in the magnitude of 15.5% or $6 million. You should also be aware that we have discussed at length with the state delegation about special legislation. We have their support. They want to help us.”

But, Waters said, “They said until you get construction funds from the BET, ‘Our hands are tied.'”

Blaize Levitan, the chief operating officer for Greenwich Schools agreed.

Levitan said the administration had reached out to Dept of Administrative Services multiple times and learned that, “essentially, until we have an application and construction funding, for DAS, it is not a serious project. ”

“The sooner we are able to start talking to the state with a fully funded project, the sooner we will be able to lock in our true reimbursement and make adjustment in our design process and to maximize our state reimbursement,” Waters said.

“We can keep designing, but we will not be able to get that feedback (from the state),” Waters added.

BOE chair, Joe Kelly said his board was “very informed” and had voted unanimously.

“We have scrutinized (Waters’) work. This is a very strong recommendation that we go forward with this by the BOE.”

Ms Erickson said it was unfortunate that the deadline to apply for the state project priority list had been missed.

“Steve Meskers said to me repeatedly, that without a project there is very little to discuss with his colleagues,” she said. “If we’re hearing it’ll be a year’s delay and $3 million (more), what is the reason to delay?”

“I’ve had many conversations with the Office of Grants Administration and DAS, and they will certainly talk to you hypothetically,” Arora said. “You missed the June 30 deadline you are on the priority list for the following year.”

“The three legislators would have to go through the exercise of getting special legislation through,” she said.

“Mr. Meskers came to us and I asked him how many times has special legislation been used? What does the state look at to get special legislation. He has no experience. He’s never done it before,” Arora said.

“The more balanced and fair way, and transparent way to the community is for you to move forward, understand what this project is going to cost, get further along in your design,” she continued. “Go out and get those bids, and that $39 million could be $37 million, $38 million. It could be $42 million – we don’t know and come back to us and say this is the actual funding this project requires, and come to us for the June 30, 2024 deadline.”

Mr. Kelly said he was concerned that with CMS already delayed, and based on what Ms Arora said about missing a deadline not constituting an emergency, and waiting until June 30, 2024 deadline to apply to the state, that would effectively push both projects out another year.

Mr. Waters said his committee had done everything the BET budged committee had asked including MI approval and seeking community feedback with multiple public forums.

“I think you know we can get it done,” he added. “Or, do you not want to break ground in June 2024?”

He warned that the delay would lead to a projected $3 million cost increase and put at risk the state reimbursement, which is $6 million.

“My math is that is $9 million,” Waters said.

Mr. Levitan said an application could be submitted at any time.

“It gives the building committee and architects the ability to talk to DAS,” he said. “We are advised the most important thing is to get the application in.”

“We know the neighborhood, the ballpark, we can support this project at this point in time,” Ms Moriarty said.

Ms Arora said she was concerned the cost might be tens of millions of dollars more than anticipated.

“Mr. Waters, you said when you came to us earlier you fulfilled all of your obligations. But you have not fulfilled the independent estimate and the discussion on evaluating a new building,” she said.

She then repeated her concerns about hazardous materials.

“The reason I was concerned about renovating a 100-year-old building is the chemicals and asbestos and hazardous materials that will be in the building and exposed as the renovation goes on,” Arora said.

“Your committee can move forward and has enough funds to move forward with this project and continue onwards, and come back to us, James. You can come back to us in a month or two months,” Ms Arora said.

“There is no urgency to get this done in the next two or three weeks…do it in the right way and follow the process.”

Mr. Waters said across the country schools are renovated with children present, including 100-year-old-schools.

“I’m sensing misinformation being shared with the community,” he said. “We have been clear there will be some abatement with this project. It is wholly incorrect for a member here to come up with crazy accusations about chemicals and asbestos. It’s fear mongering. I think It’s beneath this body.”

“The number one most important thing is the kids will be kept safe. I’m appalled that someone would insinuate otherwise.”

“James, look at this not from fear mongering, look at it from transparency,” Arora said.

“We’ve had 65 public meetings,” Waters said. “We have discussed in multiple occasions in a transparent manner.”

Stephen Selbst, the BET liaison to the building committee was allowed to speak. “Supporting fund now makes sense. It is still subject to our state delegation coming through. The community wants this to begin in summer 2024 and not summer 2025. It makes a big difference.”

Ms Tarkington said she wanted to see design development documents, or progress on them, and have the building committee return to her committee in December.

Moriarty made a motion to approve ED3 $39,796,000 for the Old Greenwich School renovation project. Ms Erickson seconded the motion.

The vote was 2-2 with the Republicans voting no. The motion failed.

After the meeting, State Rep Meskers (D-150) reached out to say, “I know how to do my job and seek state funding. I have been very successful.”

The item is on the agenda for the full BET meeting on Monday Oct 16 at 6:30pm.

It be held in person in the town hall meeting room as well as on YouTube live and Ch 79 on cable.

See also:

P&Z Watch: Many New Faces Testify; Old Greenwich School MI is Complete

Oct 3, 2023

Selectmen Reaffirm Referral of Old Greenwich School Renovation to Planning & Zoning

Sept 30, 2023

BOE May Hire Attorney for Second Opinion on Wetmore ‘Section 99 Memo’ Delaying CMS Timeline

Sept 9, 2023

P&Z Watch: Feedback Positive on Old Greenwich School Renovation August 9, 2023

BET’s “Ugly, Messy Conversation” on Discontinuing OGS Independent Cost Estimator Project
July 18, 2023

BET Republicans Turn Down Old Greenwich School Interim Appropriation, Favor New School  June 23, 2023

Town Lines up to Push Old Greenwich School Renovation Forward…What will the BET do?
June 20, 2023

With Blessing from Selectmen, OGS Building Committee to Proceed to P&Z with Pre-Application in May: “Every Week Counts”
April 13, 2023