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

The Board of Estimate and Taxation met Monday night and had “an ugly, messy conversation” about whether to pursue hiring an independent cost estimator for the Old Greenwich School project to get an additional estimate from the one done by the building committee’s experts and also look at the cost of building a new school.

During the meeting a BET liaison to the independent cost estimator project was alleged to have had a conversation with a bidder that broke the agreed protocol.

Fingers were pointed. Apologies were demanded.

How did we get here?

The 120+ year old school on Sound Beach Avenue is charming but has many deficiencies. The school has been expanded more than once to accommodate pressures on enrollment, with additions in 1993 and 1997, but there has not been major work done in many years and the building continues to decay.

Deficiencies at Old Greenwich School include flooding in the lower level. There are flood barriers that go across bathroom doors and the custodians preside over a fleet of wet vacs in the basement. When there is a power failure coupled with heavy rains on a weekend, custodians are notified by the alarm company and have MacGyvered a system of hoses to move water up from “the pit” and out a window. The building also lacks modern HVAC. In fact, for several days in February, when children were still getting Covid, it was below freezing outside but classroom windows were cracked open to circulate fresh air. The building is not ADA compliant. Safety-wise, it lacks a PA system and a single secure vestibule for visitors. Further, it lacks a building-wide sprinkler system to adhere to fire code.

The effects of neglect have become increasingly urgent.

For several years the school principal and families have pleaded to the BET during public hearings to address the school’s mounting issues.

This year the begging began in January after the First Selectman Fred Camillo’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2024 did not include Old Greenwich School, but rather pushed it back to 2025. Camillo said it would be unfair to taxpayers to have two school construction projects in the same year and Central Middle School would come first.

He said he didn’t want to hold up the work of the building committee, and suggested they continue their work by seeking interim appropriations from the BET.

Crowds continued to turn out for more public hearings. On Feb 9, at a BET Budget Committee meeting, the town hall meeting room hit its maximum capacity.

In March public schools supporters held a Fund Our Schools rally outside town hall prior to a BET hearing. State Rep Meskers (D-150) who represents Old Greenwich said, “The strategy continues to be delay, deny and dissemble. You need to let people know you will remember-in-November.”

During that March hearing Republicans from the RTC warned against taking on long-term debt and talked about spending money efficiently.

“We should fund academic excellence and defund political indoctrination and activism in our schools,” said Joe Solari.

RTC vice chair Joe Montanaro said, “We need independent oversight of where our money goes. We need accountability.”

On decision day in April the Republican controlled BET voted not to fully fund the project, cutting the renovation budget from $35 million to $3 million.

Christine Edwards shares a poster with photos of an Old Greenwich School student navigating the steps to the schools front door on crutches. March 29, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager
Republican BET members Nisha Arora, Dan Ozizmir (chair) and Leslie Tarkington. March 29, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

Next, an interim appropriation was sought. On June 23, the Old Greenwich School building committee chair James Waters explained that if the BET approved the interim appropriation, it would be possible to meet the June 30 deadline to apply to the Connecticut Office of State Construction Grant & Review for a possible 15% subsidy.

Despite unanimous support from both the building committee and the Board of Education, the BET vote on the interim appropriation of $39,796,000 failed to carry in a 6-6 tie along party lines.

At that meeting Republican BET members said it might be advantageous to build a new, possibly smaller school rather renovate. They cited declining enrollment trends and questioned the wisdom of renovating to extend the life of the building dating back to 1902 when a new building would last much longer.

Building Committee chair James Waters said the community had expressed that they did not want a new building. He noted that it would be necessary to relocate students to another facility during demo and construction, if one could be found, adding considerable expense.

BET Independent Cost Estimator Project

The BET had voted in April, albeit not unanimously, to approve an independent cost estimator project for Old Greenwich School.

They approved a Request for Quote (RFQ) with a budget of $15,000 to evaluate the renovation, provide data on comps or geographically close school projects on cost of construction, and estimate the cost of a building a new school.

At the time there were no ed specs for a new school. Nor had the design development been completed.

The cost estimator project gave the authority to the town’s comptroller Pete Mynarski to act as project manager, to solicit quotes and select a vendor.

Two BET liaisons were assigned – Republican Nisha Arora and Democrat Stephen Selbst.

Now, three months later, the Old Greenwich School building committee has completed its schematic design and had their architect and outside cost estimator (their project manager) do cost estimates which were presented to the BET in late June.

They also, on their own, took a look at what a new building would cost, including abatement, demolition and cost to relocate students off site.

That estimate came out to $66 million.

Unfortunately, in three months since the BET voted to approve the independent cost estimator project, Mr. Mynarski has not been able to select a vendor.

He explained on Monday that that two estimates came in tens of thousands of dollars higher than the budget. One bidder returned with a new bid just below $15,000, after that candidate became aware of the budget, which was not a secret.

Motion to Discontinue Independent Cost Estimator Project for OGS

BET Democrat Leslie Moriarty made a motion on Monday to discontinue the cost estimator project.

She said given the status of the information available, it was not a good use of town funds to duplicate the work done and verified by several town bodies.

Democrat Jeff Ramer said he had originally voted in favor of the cost estimator project, but it had been under certain conditions, including that the process would be “sterile.”

“It said at no point may any member of the BET directory or indirectly communicate or confer with the estimator…” he recalled.

Without naming the person by name, Mr. Ramer said a bid being seriously considered had come through a member of the BET.

“It means to me that is a bidder who views that member of the BET as being their source of business,” Ramer said. “It was interesting to me another bid was offered in its place to get within the $15,000 figure.”

On the basis he believed the protocol had been breached, he supported Ms Moriarty’s motion.

Ms Arora said she was disappointed at Mr. Ramer’s comments, “and some implication that there was some foul play and how the process was carried out.”

She said Mr. Selbst, the Democratic liaison, had not attended the meeting with Mr. Mynarski about the project. She said made the phone call to the vendor and immediately passed the phone to Mr. Mynarski.

“I find it disappointing the implication that the process was not followed,” Arora said.

Mr. Weisbrod, who voted against the cost estimator project, agreed he believed the protocol was violated. “I’m not accusing anyone of foul play, but I’m saying as a matter of fact we agreed to a protocol and the protocol was not adhered to. Therefore the process was tainted.”

“Essentially this is a vote of no confidence in the building committee,” Weisbrod said. “Why in the world would we spent $15.00, never mind $15,000 on a tainted process with no validity, and no substance and no inherent value.”

Arora said no member of the BET had communicated with the estimator. The person was a bidder, not someone who had been hired.

Republican Harry Fisher said an apology was in order.

Mr. Ramer said, “It is simply Philadelphia lawyer-ism to say, ‘Technically he isn’t the estimator so I can say any dam thing I want to until the moment he is hired. I can poison the well any way I want because if I do all that before the technical hiring, that works.’ No.”

Mr. Ozizmir asked Mr. Ramer not to talk about ‘poisoning the well.’

“I’m sorry but the poisoning of the well is exactly the point, and I’ve been asked to apologize for pointing out the fact someone was having conversations she was never supposed to have. Fervently, I decline to apologize.”

Ms Moriarty said while she voted for the independent cost estimator project, it was because it was a condition on A&E funding. “I felt I was handcuffed,” she said.

“What additional information is going to be gained by spending $15,000 to bring a new person in who is going to FOI the information that’s already out there and say yes or no, ‘I might change this or that comma,’ and meanwhile we put our comptroller in a difficult situation,” Moriarty said.

Republican Bill Drake reflected on the vote to have the independent cost estimator project.

“It passed 11-1, this board decided to do this. In my observation what we’re hearing today is a post facto review to say, ‘Yeah we all agreed to it but here today we want to toss it, set it aside or ignore it.”

“The liaison’s role is to advise the project manager and to provide transparency,” Mr. Ramer said. “There is no provision for the liaisons to be in any communication whatsoever with the estimator….A point that was raised, discussed and voted on, and became part of the instrument, and is now being breached.”

Ms Arora said she was offended by Mr. Ramer’s comments.

“There was one conversation with the bidder which was made in a joint phone call with Mr. Mynarski on the call. I said, ‘Hello, this is Nisha Arora, I’d like to introduce you to Mr. Mynarski, who will be running this project.'”

As for Ms Moriarty’s point that the Old Greenwich building committee already produced cost estimates on a new school, Arora said, “If you were building your own house, if you were doing a renovation project and your architect said it was going to cost $40 million, would you go out and get a second bid?”

She said the idea was to get additional information to have more confidence in the building committee’s numbers.

“It was basically a phone call to introduce,” said Republican Karen Fassuliotis said. “This is being blown up and made into a political argument.

Mr. Ramer said, “The fellow on the other end of the telephone would easily deduce from that his source of business is the lady who made the introduction.”

“The way we established the protocol was there was to be no conversations, so we don’t have to be in a dialogue about ‘This was innocent,'” Ramer said. “There was to be a bright line, that there would be no conversations. As the story was relayed to us, that was breached at least twice by a BET member.”

“Legally, I don’t think you have an argument that it was breached,” Fassuliotis said. “We need to calm down a little bit.”

Democrat Miriam Kreuzer said she was uncomfortable that one of the bidders had started with a high number and revised it to come in just under $15,000.

“That doesn’t smell good to me,” Kreuzer said. “I’m feeling a little icky.”

Ms Arora said there was “no foul play.” She said the first bidder who came in under $15,000 had been aware of the budget, and the other three bidders, one came at $90,000, one at $40,000 and one at $70,000.

She said town administrator Ben Branyan’s advice was that because it was an RFQ rather than an RFP it was acceptable to return to the bidders and tell them the budget, which was done.

“The real disappointment to me on this board is coming from the distrust in the process and the implication that some of us were under the radar,” Arora said, adding that the only reason she knew of the particular bidder was they were the CMS middle school estimator.

“I’d just appreciate it if there was a little bit of trust we could have with our colleagues,” Arora said.

Laura Erickson said she too was troubled by the process and didn’t think, given the new information in the past month, that the cost estimator project was unnecessary.

She questioned whether $15,000 was enough to estimate both a renovation and a new school.

“I don’t think it’s necessary to move forward,” Erickson said.

“It’s a colossal waste of money,” said Mr. Weisbrod. “If you want a rough estimate, it’s been provided by the building committee. This process is a fool’s errand to begin with, and now it’s been in my view, unquestionably tainted. One conversation is one conversation too many because the protocol said at no point will there be any conversation.”

“It was basically a phone call to introduce, and there was no other discussion,” Fassuliotis said. “I don’t understand how this is tainted by somebody calling up and saying, ‘This is Pete.’ I’m just flabbergasted by that.…This is being blown up and made into a political argument.”

BET chair, Republican Dan Ozizmir said the wording about dialogue with vendors boiled down to differences of opinion.

He said he would not be supporting the motion. The motion failed in a vote of 6-6 on party lines.

The next item was an executive session to discuss responses to the RFQ.

Mr. Ramer said there were things the public had the right to see and he objected to the discussion being held in executive session.

“Tonight we have had here some pretty ugly, messy conversations about a lot of things,” Ozizmir said. “Parts of that discussion are unfortunately appropriate in a public environment, and that’s what we did.”

“No one here is tying to prevent any appropriate conversation,” Ozizmir said. “To Jeff’s point, based on the policy, we are not the body to make this decision. We have delegated what was our authority to our project manager (Mr. Mynarski).”

“I believe there is some rationale to that,” he added.

The motion for executive session was tabled. Instead they took up a different motion to direct Mr. Mynarski to re-issue the RFQ and voted to have Mr. Mynarski reissue the RFQ.

Mynarski asked what he should do with the current bidders?

“Just simply include them in the new batch? And go back and tell them there is a $15,000 limit?” he asked.

Mr. Ozizmir, “Yes, absolutely let people know.”

Laura Erickson asked for clarification on the scope of work for the estimator.

“Are we being realistic with the $15,000 and what we are expecting?”

Ozizmir said he was confident it was enough, considering two bidders already said the could do the project for $15,000.

Erickson said the CMS building committee was given a quote of $15,000 to $20,000 to do an independent cost estimate.

“I don’t want to be in the same place at a meeting in August,” Erickson said.

Ozizmir said Mr. Mynarski could potentially secure bids in the next two or three weeks and make the decision to hire someone.

Erickson asked whether the independent cost estimate would include renovation or building a new school?

Mynarski said the RFQ included an independent estimate of the renovation per the Board of Education’s ed specs and recent comps of similar size renovations and new school construction in Connecticut, as well as other non public school construction projects in the Greenwich area when available. Finally, the RFQ asks for quantitative data of renovating older buildings and risk contingencies such as contamination or asbestos.

Mynarski said having the new information from the building committee in the past month would make the job easier.

Ms Moriarty made a request.

“Any leads that a BET member may have for an estimator, please just provide the name to Mr. Mynarski, and please do not contact them directly?” Ms Moriarty said.

“Absolutely, yes,” Ozizmir said.

Rendering of renovated Old Greenwich School (not final).

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

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

BET Budget Committee Grapples with Greenwich Schools Capital Budget: OGS and CMS Feb 14, 2023

Building Committee “Moving with Purpose” on Renovation Plans for Iconic Old Greenwich School March 25, 2023