BET Budget Committee Grapples with Greenwich Schools Capital Budget: OGS and CMS

An article was circulating last week taking Greenwich’s leaders to task for their stinginess on public school infrastructure despite the town’s vast wealth.

The newspaper article talked about how equipment was antiquated at the beautiful grammar school donated by the philanthropic Havemeyer family.

It described one classroom in the district that was taught in a hallway and didn’t have enough desks, so some student sat on the stairs.

Further the article said that Greenwich, despite its vast wealth, has “an appalling lack of social conscience, and an equally appalling lack of intelligent appreciation of the changes that time is bringing.”

It described one of the ‘local worthies’ diatribe against spending, reasoning that a school is for teaching children and that children represent posterity.

“Why should we pay for favors conferred on posterity? We should not,” he was quoted saying.

The New York Times article, dated June 16, 1912, was prescient to those who forwarded it. Titled, “Rich Greenwich Spends More on Tires than Schools,” it features a photo captioned: “A school cellar – white marks show where water stands in the winter.”

Fast forward to the Feb 9 standing room only BET Budget Committee meeting where the fire marshal was present to enforce the room’s maximum capacity.

Public school parents were still stinging from the news that First Selectman Fred Camillo pushed back Old Greenwich’s major renovation and expansion to the following year’s budget, and others were scratching their heads about his $10 million cut to the BOE’s recommended $85.5 million budget for a new Central Middle School.

Frustration grew as Budget Committee Republicans, whose party controls the BET with a tie breaking vote, requested that the BOE revisit Ed Specs on Central Middle School. There was also a suggestion to “piecemeal”  the “low hanging fruit” at Old Greenwich School, and possibly install an elevator ahead of the rest of the project.

New York Times, June 16, 1912

The committee, chaired by Republican Leslie Tarkington, includes Republican Nisha Arora and Democrats Laura Erickson and Leslie Moriarty.

Before launching into discussion of CMS, there was a brief uncomfortable discussion about transparency.

“As we talk about meetings we had last year, we can’t go back and reference the tape,” said Laura Erickson, referring to the the April, 2022 decision day meeting that is not on the GCTV YouTube channel with other BET meeting recordings.

BET chair Dan Ozizmir explained in an email on Monday Feb 13 that while full BET meetings are recorded, his understanding was that that meeting wasn’t recorded either due to a misunderstanding of who was supposed to record it or a corruption of the file as the meeting was 13 hours long.

“We inquired about it last year after we realized that no recording was available. I didn’t instruct anyone not to record it,” he said.

Ms Tarkington countered by saying the BOE didn’t record all their committee meetings.

BET Budget Committee member Democrat, Laura Erickson (left) and chair, Republican Leslie Tarkington. Feb 9, 2023

Central Middle School

The budget committee then jumped into the Central Middle School frying pan.

CMS had been identified in the schools master plan in 2017 for replacement. Last February 4 it was condemned by the building department for structural concerns. Students were dispersed to other schools while the building was shored up, but the repairs were not intended to be permanent. Students returned to the building on Feb 22.

Ms Tarkington asked why requests for school construction reimbursements had not been made.

“There are now five open state reimbursements for schools for new construction projects: Hamilton Avenue, Glenville School, GPS MISA, New Lebanon School and the GHS vestibule. The vestibule is not an issue (It hasn’t been built yet), but the others are,” Tarkington said, adding that it was a long time to wait for reimbursements.

“Showing that the town’s BOE does not seek reimbursement in a timely manner to me is not acceptable,” Tarkington said, adding that her goal was to get the situation resolved before BET decision day.

“This is critically important because when we get these reimbursements, it means we have the flexibility to fund other projects,” she said.

Blaize Levitan, Greenwich Schools Chief Operating Officer, said there were no updates on reimbursements.

BOE chair Mr. Kelly said there was a difference between seeking reimbursement and receiving reimbursement.

“It’s hard to blame our team,” he said. “Our interests are aligned.”

Ms Erickson noted Greenwich retained its Triple A bond rating.

Ms Arora noted that there were different reimbursement for different towns in Connecticut and that in Greenwich, the town receive reimbursement rates at the low end for both renovations and rebuilds compared to other towns.

Page 15 of the First Selectman’s Budget presentation, January 2023.

Central Middle School Replacement

Mr. Levitan shared some background, saying that in fiscal year 2023 there was $67.5 million in the budget after Greenwich Schools administration contracted architects who came up with a rough estimate of $600 per square foot, for a 110,000 sq ft footprint building.

In fiscal year 2024 the Board of Education’s submission for the building had increased to $85.5 million.

“How did we get to $85.5 million?” Levitan asked. “The Board of Education had to have their budget done by October. Based on six architects’ submissions, we came up with $698 per square foot. The Ed Specs are for 115, 311 sq ft….That’s $85.5 million. …This is just an estimate.”

“This is the largest capital request in the history of the town on any infrastructure project,” he acknowledged.

“What about the $2.5 million already appropriated in fiscal year 2023 by the BET?” he asked. “We worked with the Office of the First Selectman and lowered the dollar amount from $85.5 it should have been $83 million.”

“In fiscal year 2024, the First Selectman’s capital budget before us today is $75.2 million,” Levitan said.

“The First Selectman is moving the middle point between the BET guideline of $67.5 million for the project and the BOE’s proposal of $85.5 million, less the $2.5 million already appropriated.”

“That’s how we get to the $75.2 million for CMS: an all-in number including Architecture & Engineering, legal, demolition, site work, furniture, construction and technology.”

“The big question is can the First Selectman’s budget proposal work with the BOE Ed Specs?” Levitan asked. “Things like Net-Zero would not be possible at this dollar amount.”

“I’m not sure if this is a good number,” Mr. Kelly said, noting there were missing data points. “As we progress it might cost more, or we might be giving money back if we put this number forward.”

Leslie Tarkington and Democratic Budget Committee member Leslie Moriarty. Feb 9, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager
BET Budget Committee member Republican Nisha Arora. Feb 9, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

Ms Moriarty noted the project had the attention of the entire community, and that while enrollment was anticipated to decline, in the long term, enrollment was cyclical.

She said it would be helpful to understand from the BOE and administration’s perspective how they got to the Ed Specs.

Dr. Jones explained that the building’s current size is 110,000 sq ft and the plan is for 115,000 sq ft — an increase of 5,000 sq ft. There are 31 classrooms at CMS and the Ed Specs call for 30. Jones said today some of the 31 classrooms are less than 650 or 600 sq ft, which she said was “well below what they should be” considering the state calls for 800 sq ft for a classroom.

“You’re adding square footage in the classrooms alone,” she said. “The core classrooms don’t change,” she said, adding that every grade level has two teams of five teachers, and that if enrollment decreases slightly, the team model is consistent and the number of classrooms doesn’t change.

She listed three three key areas that needed enhancement.

“The cafeteria is proposed to be larger than the one now, so that if the utilization is higher, children don’t have to eat lunch at 10:30am,” she said.

The second area made larger is the media center. The third area made larger than typically found in a middle school would be the auditorium.

“The auditorium is really looked at as a community space,” Jones explained. In fact, for decades the CMS auditorium has been used for monthly meetings of the 230-member Representative Town Meeting.

Mr. Levitan said the “teaming model” supported a range of 480 to 720 students.

“That means you wouldn’t make any changes to academic space,” he said.

BOE chair Mr. Kelly described being confident in a BOE calculation based on 660 students.

Ms Tarkington said that since the previous BOE chair and superintendent presented to the Budget Committee in 2022, enrollment projections over the next decade had further declined.

Ms Tarkington said the BOE failed to return to discuss changes in Ed Specs and project cost.

“Send it back to the BOE,” she said. “Should a building committee even be formed until at least we have that?”

“Your board is not responsible for thinking about real estate projects – how to fund them, how to budget them,” Ms Arora said, referring to the BOE. “The enrollment of CMS was over 700 two decades ago, and the square footage was 110,000 to 115,000. If we look ahead, by the time we apply for this grant the enrollment is 490. The average is 450 over the next decade…There is also a structural trend of declining enrollment, not just in Greenwich. It’s across the state and the country.”

She said it was not true that anyone on BET was against education or wanted to bus students.

“What we want to do is right-size these projects so that we can do more. We have three or four other schools in the pipeline,” Arora said.

She said it might be possible to apply for an emergency grant. She suggested Mr. Kelly contact the governor.

“We are proposing building a 110,000 sq ft school,” Arora said. “There will be opportunity costs to other schools.”

“We have to get the scope right. If there is an opportunity to right size this, we should think about it,” Arora said, adding that architects and vendors should not define the budget.

She warned that once a dollar amount was appropriated, the cost “goes there.”

“”There’s a lot of people listening. There are builders listening. There are architects listening.”

Ms Tarkington lamented that the BOE and BET had not “dialogued together.”

Ms Erickson said that no matter what the state said, Greenwich’s costs were higher as evidenced by New Lebanon School, Eastern Greenwich Cohen Civic Center and the GHS vestibule project.

Second, she said, “I’m going to flat out rejected the premise that there’s an opportunity cost, that if we build this school this way, that we won’t have the opportunity to build other projects. I think that’s a false narrative that we have to turn it around.”

“There is a way to do these projects. There is a financing model we can adopt. We can plan appropriately. I’m just rejecting that flat out,” Erickson added.

Erickson said the CMS Ed Specs had been discussed at length, and voted on by elected BOE representatives.

“We should appropriately focus on the budget, appropriately ask these questions,” Erickson continued. “This is a perfectly valid conversation, but at the end of the day, it’s not our lane.”

“On the budget, we have better numbers now. There was an RFP that went out. We had eight architects respond. There is an owners rep on board,” Erickson added. “We will get better numbers as we get closer to the project. To say say that the budget is now going to define the project, no it’s the opposite. The Ed Specs define the project.”

Ms Erickson said she was discouraged to hear that the amount might not allow for a net zero-ready building.

“No disrespect, the things we need to talk about that have been festering for a long time – let’s have this conversation, let’s figure out a budget and let’s build this school,” she said to loud audience applause.

Ms Tarkington reminded the audience it was a public meeting, not a public hearing, and not to applaud.

“Maybe you do that in a Board of Education meeting,” she said to a chorus of groans.

Mr. Kelly said that when he worked on private projects, the low bidder is called “worst bidder” and excluded from participation.

“But we have to take the lowest bidder here,” he said. “If you come in below the going rate on a building, you’re going to get hammered on add-ons and change orders.”

Ms Arora said she disagreed with Ms Erickson’s comment on the BET’s “lane.”

“We are the fiduciary to all the residents in this community,” she said. “The budget defines the Ed Specs, not the other way around.”

“If we are going to build 30-40% larger, it is an opportunity cost. We do not have unlimited funds. That’s not how public money works,” Arora said.

“If the budget looks like it’s going over, we should ask questions,” Ms Arora said.

“We’ve been here an hour. I haven’t heard a question,” Ms Moriarty said.

Ms Arora said the Ed Specs might need to be adjusted. “We need to be open to that discussion.”

“I know it is being proposed to be 40% larger than the maximum enrollment. That’s a fact,” Arora said. “Questioning the size or the scope of the project should not be misinterpreted as we are not in support of the project.”

“We’ve just wasted an hour,” Ms Moriarty said.

Ms Erickson asked Mr. Levitan if there was a number to add to the budget to make sure the building would be net-zero-ready.

“Do the Ed Specs say this needs to be a net-zero building?” Ms Tarkington asked. “I don’t remember any discussion of that (from last year). Is this just another thing being added on?”

“There was reference to ‘sustainable,'” Ms Erickson said. “In today’s vernacular, net-zero ready is that technology.”

Levitan said net-zero was not part of the Ed Specs. “I believe it’s a request of the town’s energy management advisory committee.”

Ms Arora said building a school larger than necessary worked against sustainability.

“The best thing we can do for the environment and energy efficiency is to build a right-size school,” she said.

Ms Tarkington asked Mr. Kelly to see if the CMS building committee could review the Ed Specs. “Do we really need to build a community auditorium?” she asked. “Can you do that over the next couple of weeks?”

Ms Tarkington suggested the RTM meet in the GHS performing arts center which has a capacity of 1,325.

Ms Erickson thanked Mr. Kelly for his willingness to be collaborative, but said she was worried about the building committee’s “tight, aggressive schedule” to meet a state deadline. She noted there is a community engagement session scheduled for March 8.

“What would your direction be to the building committee be at this point?” she asked.

“I am 100% positive that nobody is going to change their vote,” Mr. Kelly said.

BET Republicans Bill Drake, Harry Fisher and Dan Ozizmir. Feb 9, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

BET member Bill Drake, who is not on the Budget Committee, urged Mr. Kelly to have the Ed Specs revisited and avoid a 660-student school being turned down.

“I don’t think a 660-person school is going to get passed,” Drake said.

Mr. Kelly replied, “It’s not 660 students, it’s a goal to be 75% to capacity. 511 is 75% of capacity we’re building toward. It’s not really 660.”

Ms Erickson repeated what Mr. Levitan had said earlier. “The school is designed to house an enrollment between 480-720 using the two team model.”

She asked Mr. Kelly to check with the Town Clerk and the RTM if they would be willing to switch their meetings to another building.

“I’m sitting here seething a little bit,” Ms Erickson said. “Somebody just said there is a prediction that this BET will turn down this school.”

“I think it’s tragic,” Erickson. “The fact that someone is saying this board is going to turn this down, meaning in essence my vote my work is not valued, not respected or matters at the end of the day, is something I feel I have to publicly out.”

BET chair Dan Ozizmir commented: “Nobody in the room knows what the number is going to be. The last day is April 4. …We just need to get some more information.”

Per code a second egress is required for ground floor classrooms. In this classroom children are expected to go up the stairs and climb out a window. Feb 3, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

Old Greenwich School

BOE Chair Joe Kelly said it was important not to stop the work of the Old Greenwich School building committee.

“The building committee had suggested in order to keep their work going, if we’re going to move the project into the next budget cycle, that they need $1.1 million to continue their work,” he said.

“Speaking to James Waters he needs this $1.1 million to keep his fine, good work going forward. We’re requesting that in the budget, understanding that the full project is going to be put off to the following budget.”

Ms Tarkington asked for a breakdown what the $1.1 million would be used for.

Mr. Waters submitted a document with that information and Ms Tarkington said the committee would review it.

Mr. Levitan described the $1.1 as “additional A&E money to keep the design going forward so that the package can be ready to go for state reimbursement the following year.”

Ms Tarkington said she worried about capacity of staff and committees to complete multiple building projects. She asked where will children be taught during school construction.

Dr. Jones said it was not uncommon to have the students in a school while a new space is being constructed.

“In fact, it’s a wonderful learning opportunity for students,” she said.

Mr. Levitan said the Old Greenwich building committee had outlined and voted on a document that addressed the plan for students in the building, timeline and cost.

“We do not have capacity across the district,” Jones explained, adding that when North Mianus School ceiling collapsed, the district rented space in a disused private school in Stamford and bused 200 students there. She said it had not been ideal, for example, that CMS students who were dispersed sat in the GHS PAC auditorium and the hallway outside it.

“I’m concerned the $24.5 million number (for OGS) has been around a few years and I’m concerned it may be a stale number,” Erickson said.

Ms Arora said she wasn’t convinced the building committee would be ready this June to have definitive Ed Specs and a dollar number.

“The $24.5million, we don’t know if it’s the right dollar amount,” she said.

“This school is very old. I’ve toured it. It needs a lot of work,” Arora said. She wondered if installing an elevator could be done this year.

“There are some things that are low hanging fruit,” she said. “I want to make sure we explore it.”

She asked about the root cause of the sewage and flooding in the building.

“How much are we willing to invest in this building for renovation? It’s already a 120-year-old building. If we’re going to look to take this building down in 15 years or 10 years…”

“We can do this piecemeal if we need to,” Arora continued. “I see a lot of shaking heads in the back. There is a commitment on this board to get these things done, how much gets done depends on budget.”

Mr. Levitan said the BOE had “a really tough capital year.”

“They made tough decisions. For example no one wants to Riverside School getting pushed out and a different renovation plan than what was chosen for Julian Curtiss.”

Mr. Levitan said he didn’t believe would not be cost effective to do an elevator first in a phased approach.

The basement features a fleet of wet vacs. Feb 3, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

Ms Arora said she wanted to know the root cause of the school’s flooding. “Is there something we can do in the interim to prevent some of these issues?”

Mr. Levitan said the building committee was addressing the fact that parts of the school were in a flood zone.

Republican BET member Harry Fisher, asked, “At what point do we bump up against local, state or federal regulations about the required height of the building and off the ground, and that we might be looking at razing the building or totally replacing it? Has that been looked at in depth?”

Mr. Levitan said the building committee planned to work through that question with the architect.

Dan Watson, the head of facilities for the district, said, “The architects are on top of it. The floodplain is kind of odd, but it’s not the entire building. There is a portion of the building in the floodplain. There’s another portion of the building that is in what’s called high wave zone. The architects need to do their due diligence.”

See also:

Disappointment Echoes as Major Renovation at Old Greenwich School Deferred to FY25 Feb 6, 2023