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

Despite unanimous support from both the Old Greenwich School building committee and the Board of Education, on Friday the Board of Estimate and Taxation’s vote disappointed people who had their hopes up for a renovation of the 120+ year-old building to start in June 2024.

The BET’s 6-6 vote along party lines, meant the motion for an interim appropriation of $39,796,000 failed to pass.

Back in 2018 the BOE identified the school as a high priority project for the town.

The school is infamous for its deficiencies. It has a history of flooding. It lacks modern HVAC. It is not ADA compliant. It lacks a PA system and a single secure vestibule for visitor management. It lacks a building-wide sprinkler system to adhere to fire code.

The Democrats – Laura Erickson, Laura Moriarty, Jeff Ramer, Miriam Kreuzer, David Weisbrod and Stephen Selbtst – all voiced support for the appropriation.

The Republicans – Harry Fisher, Karen Fassuliotis, Bill Drake, Leslie Tarkington and the Republican chair Dan Ozizmir – all listed reasons for their No votes, including that the process was being “hurried,” that it “flew in the face of due process,” that doing so did not reconcile with the board’s “fiduciary responsibility.”

Republicans said costs for building a new school had not been priced out thoroughly, though the professionals working with the building committee had done an analysis without charging for their effort.

Republicans argued it might make better sense to replace the 120+ year old school with a new, elevated building in anticipation of sea level rise.

Karen Fassuliotis said once the iconic plaza staircase was removed there wouldn’t be much of the original 1902 building left.

The building committee chair James Waters was in the hot seat, fielding questions, first from the BET budget committee at 8:30am and then from all 12 BET members at 11:00am.

He explained that if the BET approved the appropriation, the building committee could meet the June 30 deadline to apply to the Connecticut Office of State Construction Grant & Review for a possible 15% State subsidy.

But Republicans were not convinced that was a hard deadline, though Greenwich Schools Superintendent said it would mean losing a spot in the queue.

Dr. Jones said the Office of School Construction had recently reorganized their structure and were more responsive to questions.

“If we do not submit by June 30 we will not go on the priority list, which means that we will not get a number for our construction next spring in order to be able to go out to bid,” she said. “You have to get on the priority list and they have to assign a number.”

Ms Moriarty said that to submit after the deadline would involve jockeying of elected legislators, and could effectively bump another project from the queue for state subsidy.

Budget Committee Meeting

The morning started optimistically for those hoping for approval. At an 8:30 meeting of the BET budget committee, Republicans Leslie Tarkington and Nisha Arora asked Mr. Waters what the renovation encompassed and what it left out.

Waters said there had been three options, but the BOE recommended Option A.

“This building will comply with the 2010 ADA standards,” he said, adding that the front stairs would be removed.

With a nod to pending litigation, Waters said, “We are required by July 6 to go the US Dept of Education Office for Civil Rights and they will weigh in on whether they agree with our view.”

Waters said that under Option A the entire building would be fitted with a new HVAC system, a sprinkler system throughout, new plumbing, new PA system and a new secure entry way. It would not include a full roof replacement or a full window replacement. They are not replacing all of the mill work in the building. The renovated building would not be net-zero, and would not have either solar panels or geo-thermal systems.

Ms Tarkington asked about the integrity of the curtain wall and Ms Arora asked about maintenance costs of a renovated building.

Mr. Waters explained that delaying the renovation a year from a 2024 start to 2025 would add $2.931 million in costs.

“Since 2020 cost escalations have been unprecedented,” Mr. Waters said.

As the morning wore on, it looked less and less likely Republicans would vote to approve the $39,796,000 appropriation.

“This board did ask for an estimate on new build. That is not here yet,” Tarkington said.

Ms Arora said more information was needed and she planned to abstain from the Budget Committee vote, and said her colleagues wanted to “dispense with due process” in order to avoid a delay to the project.

“In this case we are asking for a separate estimate and a comparison with a new build,” Arora said. “Perhaps the right idea is to throw process to the wind and approve this request.”

Tarkington said the project was premature as presented and that she would not support the funding.

“I think it’s frankly unconscionable not to give them the funding they need to meet the state deadline,” Ms Erickson said.

Ms Tarkington disagreed.

“There is more flexibility in terms of applying for the construction funding reimbursement and that can be done during the year,” Tarkington said.

Ms Moriarty said that the process of getting state funding after the formal deadline would require special legislation. “That requires our legislators to rely on relationships and trading information with people to get support special legislation, whereas we have a process in front of us that doesn’t call on our legislators to use whatever pull they may have for this particular thing that they may used for something else we need.”

“This is not holding up any work,” Tarkington said.

The Budget committee voted 2-1-1 on the appropriation the with Ms Erickson and Ms Moriarty voting yes, Ms Tarkington voting no, and Ms Arora abstaining.

On the bonding resolution the vote passed 4-0-0.

A third vote on releasing three conditions on the $1,086,000 the vote was 2-1-1 with Ms Erickson and Ms Moriarty voting yes, Ms Tarkington voting no, and Ms Arora abstaining.

Full BET Meeting

During the full BET meeting at 11:00am the passions rose when the Republicans talked up the advantages of new school rather than the renovation before them.

Mr. Waters listed downsides of building a new school, including cost of site work to raise the entire site per FEMA guidelines, and likely need to house 400+ students off site for 2 years, as well as the costs of transporting them there.

“Our assessment of a new school would be in the ballpark of $70-$80 million,” Waters said.

“No one in Old Greenwich is interested in a new school. I’m ignoring that for a second,” Waters said. “I’m also going to ignore the input we’ve received from historic building advocates who were none too pleased to hear that people are talking about tearing down Old Greenwich.”

He said there was information on comparable school projects in the state in 2023, and shared a spreadsheet.

“We have been discussing this new construction angle probably since our first meeting,” Waters said.

Waters said he consulted the town attorney.

“Their answer was pretty definitive that you can’t spend money on that unless they tell you to spend money on that.”

Karen Fassuliotis said she’d never known a renovation project where a new build wasn’t at least looked at and discussed by the BOE.

“If it was debated, it was very limited debate,” Ms Fassuliotis said.

“We were asked to provide an analysis. We provided it. You have it. It’s detailed. It’s based on professional input. We didn’t spend any town money on it, which I think you would all appreciate,” Mr. Waters said.

He added that three years earlier, during the Feasibility Study, a new school was discussed and debated.

Ms Moriarty said it was a challenge to estimate the costs for a new school without the ed specs.

“We have a good estimate,” Moriarty said of the $70-$80 million ballpark. “I’m not sure what spending any additional money on additional estimates of a new school would provide this board.”

Ms Arora talked about costs per square foot for a new school. “If we’re going to make a conclusion based on what a new school cost should look like it would be between 55,000 and 60,000 sq ft – whether its’ $700 per square foot or $800 per square foot it gets us to $40 to $50 million for a new school.”

“To suggest that we are going to build a 70,000 sq ft school to accommodate 450 students will never have been done in the state of Connecticut before, from the size perspective,” Arora said.

“A lot of Three-card Monty with those numbers,” said Democratic BET member David Weisbrod. “We have construction experts sitting here in our presence….They should step up and tell us the work they’ve done so we can hear it from true experts rather than numbers that just get spun out.”

Waters said, “I think there are plenty of Old Greenwich residents who would be interested to know that it is the position of the BET that Old Greenwich School should be the smallest school in town.”

Ms Arora talked about declining enrollment trends.

Mr. Waters noted additional program space was needed for special education, ESL, music and ALP.

Democratic BET member Jeff Ramer said the BET was failing to respect the discretion and judgement of its sister boards.

“We hire professionals to guide us and make recommendations. We have a highly paid and qualified superintendent and facilities managers. They came forward and recommended to their school board a renovation of the Old Greenwich School. They did not recommend a brand new school. We elect a bi-partisan school board and they unanimously voted to approve the request for funds which are before us.”

Mr. Ramer noted that on Wednesday night the Board of Education had voted against a request for $100,000 to pay for estimates on the cost of new construction.

He also noted the building committee was bi-partisan and had been approved by the non-partisan RTM.

“The building committee met 53 times,” he continued, adding that the building committee had voted unanimously to approve the schematic design and changes to the ed specs.

“They did do a considerable piece of work to estimate the cost of what new construction would be,” Ramer added. “It was laughingly called ‘back-of-the-envelope.’ It was a hell of a lot more than a back-of-the-envelope.”

As for the idea of missing the June 30 deadline and asking for funding by special legislation, “I’m not so sure you can go to the legislature and say to a lot of the small towns in the state that are struggling financially that tony, wealthy Greenwich would like to have special funding and couldn’t find it with its capability to meet the June 30th date.”

Ramer described the talk about new construction as a deflection and disingenuous.

“To me, it feels like Groundhog Day, that I’ve been here too many times on school construction before,” Ramer added.

Ms Erickson said it was a familiar refrain from some BET members that the town should be building smaller schools rather than building the schools that the BOE and building committee recommend.

“The average of the state schools are perhaps illuminating, but we decide in our community what kind of schools we want to build,” she continued.

Ms Erickson said if the BET failed to authorize the interim appropriation for a $42 million renovation that could break ground next June, and instead started from scratch on a new school that might potentially not start until 2027, children would continue to be taught in a building with many deficiencies.

Republican Harry Fisher said he felt a fiduciary responsibility with taxpayer’s scarce dollars.

“I don’t feel that I’m going to abrogate that responsibility by doing what some of my colleagues ask and defer to the experts, and defer to the building committee and to the Board of Education,” Fisher said.

He said after factoring in new windows and roof after the renovation, the cost would approach $50 million over 10 years, while a 70,000 sq ft building would cost $65 or $70 million.

“That in my mind reaches the tipping point of how we should responsibly allocate assets.”

Further Mr. Fisher said he didn’t think the community had had an opportunity to weigh in on the alternative of a new building in a formal public hearing setting.

“This is being rushed to us,” he said adding he was not prepared to vote.

Leslie Moriarty said talking about a new school was a delay tactic.

“We have heard from parents. They were the loudest voices at our public hearing on the budget. We heard from the BOE who voted unanimously for this particular proposal and I think we’re selling them short to say that they didn’t understand the alternatives.”

Moriarty said there had been discussions about building a smaller building at Central Middle School, but that proved unsuccessful.

“Our students and our population are different than other communities,” Moriarty said.”We are more diverse, we have more breadth of programming, and we have a changing population and we should be proud of that.”

Miriam Kreuzer said she didn’t think it was fiscally responsible to ask taxpayers to foot the bill for multiple millions more for a building that the Old Greenwich community didn’t want.

“How is that fiscally responsible?” Kreuzer asked. “In the meantime we are delaying and it’s getting more expensive.”

Mr. Weisbrod was skeptical. “To think that those expressing opposition to this necessary renovation would open their arms and happily fund a new school for $60, $70, whatever million dollars, when the same voices all last year adamantly refused to consider a nickel more than $67.5 million for a middle school that’s twice the size.”

Republican Bill Drake said, “Hurrying this through this time, under these circumstances, is not a great thing to do. The larger discussion of this scope and this project deserves to happen.”

Nisha Arora pointed a finger at Democrats. “We are being asked today to approve a proposal that reeks of conflict of interest and inappropriateness.”

She said it had been a conflict of interest to ask the architects and vendors on the renovation project come up with estimates on building a new school. “Should there be a lower ethical standard for public spending? It’s shameful.”

“It’s shameful that some members who do not intend to return to this board are now going to use pubic money to launch a political hit job,” Arora said.

“Please admonish the member for making political statements,” Ms Moriarty said.

Mr. Ozizmir declined to make admonish Ms Arora.

Laura Erickson rejected the premise that the process was not being followed or hurried.

“There is no conflict of interest. There is nothing nefarious going on,” she said. “We are failing our children. We are failing the Old Greenwich community. You pay lip service that we all want to do the right thing. Well then do the right thing.”

“Great speech, Laura,” Ms Fassuliotis said.

“A lot has been said about how our board delays projects, does not support education, does not support our kids, does not support our schools. This is posturing. Nothing more.”

Fassuliotis placed fault not with Republicans, but rather with the Board of Education for not having a robust debate to compare cost of renovation versus building new.

“The vote today of Republicans is not going to be about the failure of Republicans to support this project,” she said. “It’s not about one state Representative saying that Republicans hate children.”

Stephen Selbst said as a public servant he tried to balance his fiduciary duty with the express wishes of the community.

“What I’ve heard today is that the community wants this renovation as promptly as possible. I remember at the budget hearing that the loudest voice, over and over, was for this renovation, now,” Selbst said. “When the ed specs were developed, the BOE actually canvased the community. The community has spoken again and again….I know how much rancor there’s going to be if this community is told, ‘Oh, no we’re not doing the reno, we’re doing a new school.'”

“What’s going to happen when the sea level rises. We’re going to have to build a new school anyway, so stop with the rhetoric,” Fassuliotis said.

BET chair, Republican Dan Ozizmir commented last, saying that while he was hoping for “more robust analysis” of building a new school, the building committee had done a good job overall.

“We do currently have a plan. The plan is we’re going to get Central Middle School this year. I’ve heard a lot of noise that Central is not going to get done this year,” Ozizmir said. “We’re going to get Central done this year.”

Ozizmir listed what the community would not get with a renovation: “Everybody wants a high efficiency building, and CMS and all the other new builds in Greenwich are going to have that – this school will not, along with new windows.”

He said resiliency, elevating over the flood plane and sustainability were also important issues.

Lastly he said it wasn’t clear what the expected life of the building would be.

“(Mr. Waters) mentioned 100 years, but there is reason to think the expected life may not be that long,” Ozizmir said.

The vote was 6-6, resulting in a fail.

Afterward, Alexis Voulgaris, the RTM moderator, sent an email to all 230 members saying the June 28 meeting to consider the appropriation was canceled.

State Rep Steve Meskers reached out with his reaction to the vote.

“The bonding agenda came out today announcing $6.5 million for the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich, and it should be voted on favorably when the commission meets next Friday,” Meskers said. “It’s interesting that our state house delegation is advocating for children, yet these people can’t get behind our kids here in Greenwich. It’s shameless.”

As for Ms Fassuliotis’s remark about hating children, Meskers said, “She accused me of saying Republicans hate our kids. I didn’t say all Republicans hate our kids, just the BET members. They show it every time with their  votes. It’s a miserable vote by miserable people.”

Greenwich First Selectman, who was unable to attend the meetings on Friday, responded to a request for comment on the vote.

“This is a project that has my full support,” Camillo said, adding, “While I understand there are legitimate questions that need to be addressed as well as more work to be done before this is shovel ready, I am confident that the full funding will be available when answers have been received and details given. Let’s all commit to modern and up to date schools, whether CMS, OG, JC, or Western, that will benefit all who study in them as well as be a  source of pride for generations to come.”

“One reasonable and significant question that was out there was how much more, in terms of years, does a new school buy us as opposed to a renovated one?” Camillo asked. “Was that asked at the meeting, and if it was, was it answered?”

“We have to get this thing done, but if I’m going to pay for something and I’m wondering whether to rebuild or renovate, you want to know the difference in cost and what the differences are in lifespan.”

See also:

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

Disappointment Echoes as Major Renovation at Old Greenwich School Deferred to FY25

Building Committee “Moving with Purpose” on Renovation Plans for Iconic Old Greenwich School