BOE Tables Vote on St. Roch Church Use of Ham Ave Field and $29K Irrigation System Gift

Thursday’s Greenwich Board of Education meeting featured two controversial action items.

One was a request from St. Roch Church to use the Hamilton Avenue School field for eight days to prep and hold their annual feast in August. The meeting materials included a draft partnership agreement between the church and the BOE.

The second item was a separate request for approval of a $29,000 donation for an irrigation system from Frank Cortese and his company New England Total Landscaping for the field at Hamilton Ave School.

The request for use of the field came to the BOE directly because Parks & Rec had declined to permit it via the usual channels. The Parks & Rec Dept maintains the school district’s fields.

The conversation was a bit of déja vu.

A year ago the same request became controversial after Parks & Rec director Joe Siciliano recommended against the use of the field for the feast. The field use involves 18-wheeler trucks that bring in the rides and attractions. Siciliano noted the field had recently been renovated and grass was still getting established.

The decision was then put on the BOE whose members received hundreds of emails.

At their July 2022 meeting, Democrat Christina Downey expressed concerned the board was “setting a precedent for people who don’t like answers to questions to bombard us with emails.”

“If you go to a private school and offer to donate money to them, they take you to dinner and buy you wine – and sit you down and pat you on the back and say thank you. We put paperwork in front of you and scrutinize you and question you.”

Joe Kelly, BOE chair

“Our job is to preserve our assets, and preserve our processes, and worry about what precedents we’re setting for future groups,” she said.

The board’s vote was split in 2022: 4-2-2, with the four Republicans voting in favor, two Democrats abstaining and two opposing, which meant the motion passed.

After the field was damaged during the feast in August, the district received a donation of services from St. Roch Church and a landscape contractor, and in October, they repaired the field, which involved intermittent closings of sections of the field to limit foot traffic.

Fast forward to last Thursday’s BOE meeting.

A draft partnership agreement said St. Roch Church and community partners would donate $15,000 Hamilton Ave School PTA.

Earlier in the day two checks totaling $15,000 were delivered to the PTA from the church and their community partners for “enrichment learning opportunities for the children.”

In addition to promises to hire police and private security, as well as to enforce the district’s no-alcohol on school property policy, and protect the renovated basketball court, the draft agreement also proposed that vendor trucks enter the field from alternate access points since the parking deck is being studied for needed repairs.

BOE chair, Republican, Joe Kelly presented a motion “to authorize the chair of the BOE to execute the draft partnership agreement regarding the field use agreement and the parking garage at Hamilton Ave School.”

“Let’s sign off on it and move on, and stop talking about process and a bunch of things that don’t matter.”

Republican BOE member, Cody Kittle

School district’s chief operating officer Blaize Levitan said the draft agreement would give the church use of the field beginning August 5 to set up. The feast would run August 9-12, 2023.

Mr. Levitan said: “This is not an issue of mine. This is a community issue being brought to the board. I’m facilitating that conversation right now because, as part of the process, the event for our property is typically handled by Parks & Recreation.”

“Specifically the use of the field, which Parks & Rec is not permitting, is why this is before the board today,” he said.

Levitan introduced Representatives of the church feast, Paul Cappiali and Pastor Carl McIntosh.

Pastor Carl McIntosh and Paul Cappiali at the podium during the BOE meeting on March 16, 2023. Via Zoom.

Ms Downey asked about procedure. She said she did not believe the BOE had authority to issue a permit for use of the field.

“I don’t think we have that authority because those are under Parks & Rec,” Downey said, adding that the BOE could, however, issue a permit for the use of the parking deck.

“We don’t permit the fields,” she said.

“We do not typically permit anything on town property or school property. That is correct. That is usually handled by Parks & Recreation,” Levitan said. “That is a good point.”

Ms Downey noted the agreement referred to ‘another 12 month landscaping service agreement.’

“I don’t remember a first one that was an annual one,” she said.

Donations to Hamilton Avenue School PTA

As for the $10,000 and $5,000 donations to the school PTA, Ms Downey said the board would have to look at their gift policy to determine what is appropriate and whether the gift needs approval of the RTM.

“It’s complicated because it is not a gift from one of our partner organizations,” she said.

Downey noted the board had only received the documents the previous day.

“I have a lot of questions that need to be satisfied, which I’m not sure we can do this evening,” she said.

Democrat Karen Hirsh said that from a process point of view, typically the board does a first read before voting in order to offer a chance for public input.

“Putting this as an action item tonight may not be the right action,” she said.

Ms Hirsh said the donations to the PTA should not be included in the board’s decision or an agreement with BOE.

“PTA’s have their own process for accepting donations,” she said. “They are a separate entity with their own rules and requirements.”

“It’s an exceptionally generous offer from St. Roch, but I don’t think that’s something that is part of our decision making. I see it offers ‘another 12 months of landscaping services,'” Hirsh said. “I don’t remember seeing that come before us as a gift prior to this. I think that would be an additional gift request that we would need to consider. I’d want to see what that entails. I think we’d have to approve a donation of those services.”

She also brought up the upcoming inspection and work to the parking deck at the school and questioned the time frame.

Mr. Levitan said head of facilities for the district Dan Watson was working on an assessment for an RFP that should be done within the next two weeks and the goal was to have a preliminary report by June.

Democrat Kathleen Stowe said she agreed she was only just getting up to speed and wasn’t sure if the church was “a partner” and whether the event would be memorialized.

“Is this coming every year?” she asked. “Are we memorializing this as a partnership or a policy?”

“There a lots of bigger picture things we should be thinking about,” she added.”And it’s the first time we’re seeing this…We should defer this to our next meeting.”

Mr. Kelly, the board chair, acknowledged that his colleagues were correct in analyzing procedure, but he apologized profusely to the pastor and Mr. Cappiali nevertheless.

“If you go to a private school and offer to donate money to them, they take you to dinner and buy you wine – and sit you down and pat you on the back and say thank you. We put paperwork in front of you and scrutinize you and question you.”

Republican Karen Kowalski volunteered to help with the process.

“This is a gracious offer that should not be denied that would give Hamilton Avenue School a wonderful upgrade and wonderful field to play on.”

She said she hadn’t attended the feast but heard it was a huge hit.

“I’m happy to work with Father and Mr. Cappiali in order to get this done so that we can get this to the board,” Kowalski said.

Mr. Levitan said the checks to the PTA totaling $15,000 could be removed from the field use agreement.

“Those are being given to the community regardless,” he said.

Mr. Kittle said the decision was an easy one and he did not want to delay the vote.

“It’s so stereotypical of government agencies to say, ‘Oh, let’s spend more time talking about it. Let’s make sure the process is correct.'”

Ms Hirsh said it was early in the process.

“We greatly appreciate that they’ve come to us so early,” she said. “But I know there probably is not just myself, but other members might have questions on this. We want to make sure we dot our i’s and cross our t’s before we move forward because there are some questions.”

Republican Michael-Joseph Mercanti-Anthony said he would like to “memorialize this annual event in such a way that we don’t have to have an annual approval to it – but some longer term agreement.”

Mr. Cappiali was asked if a one month delay would hurt his negotiations with vendors.

“I’m afraid of using the vendor we’ve been using for the last few years,” he said, adding that a more reputable vendor wouldn’t even consider working with the feast without use of the field. “Covid shut down a lot of these carnival companies so there’s very few choices.”

The church website indicates a new amusement ride vendor, Commerford & Sons, had been selected.

Democrat Laura Kostin asked Mr. Cappiali, “Did Parks & Rec say no already?”

Cappiali said, “The word permit might not be the right word. The BOE has a scheduling thing on their computer and it schedules the properties. We’re looking to schedule it. Parks & Rec ultimately doesn’t get to decide who gets to use school property.”

“Last year I was listening, and what I heard was the principal has the first right of refusal. And if the principal either didn’t want to decide or turned it down, then the entity would have the right to go to the superintendent. And if the superintendent either turned it down or wanted to throw it to the board, that’s what would happen,” Mr. Cappiali said. “I think out of an abundance of respect is why it’s at the board.”

“This is directly contradictory to what we learned last year,” Kostin said. “We never – no baseball league has ever asked us about when they could use our fields. No soccer. No football. This is something Parks & Rec does exclusively because they management over our outdoor facilities.”

“I love that you’re checking with us, but I don’t believe this is really our job unless there has already been a ‘no,'” Kostin said.

“They are not permitting the use of the field,” Levitan said.

Mr. Levitan said Parks & Rec had indeed said no to a permit for use of the field, but then deferred to the BOE. He said if the BOE approved it, Parks & Rec would walk it through the process including insurance, risk management, police and fire, etc.

Mr. Kittle balked.

“Let’s sign off on it and move on, and stop talking about process and a bunch of things that don’t matter,” he said.

Ms Hirsh suggested tabling the motion and returning to it during the following meeting.

“To address one comment. We have policies and procedures for a reason. It’s not just about making it difficult,” she said. “They’re there for a reason, whether you like it or not.”

“This is already a disproportionate amount of time that’s spent not on student achievement or capital planning, or strategic plan,” Kittle said. “Can I make a motion to vote on this?”

Mr. Kelly said there was already a motion on the floor but that Mr. Kittle could call the question. “But before you do that, I would like to say something.”

“I believe we have a strategy we can put forward that will get this motion to pass,” Mr. Kelly said. “It will bring all members of the board on board. We have to address a little bit of procedure. Karen Kowalski has agreed to work with staff to solve or tie up loose ends.”

Mr. Kelly withdrew his motion.

“I motion to authorize the chair of the BOE to executive the draft agreement Hamilton Ave School,” Mr. Kittle said.

Kowalski seconded the motion, but then asked what would happen if the motion did not pass, and whether there would be an opportunity to bring the proposal to the board again.

Mr. Kelly said yes, and that even if it failed it could be brought before the board at the next meeting.

Hirsh said, similarly, if it was tabled, it could be put on the agenda for the next meeting.

“I don’t think you’re going to get it to pass tonight? Do we want to go through that process?” Kowalski asked. “Or, let’s take the next month, let me work with staff the next month to get it to the point where we might convince some of our colleagues.”

Mr. Mercanti-Anthony said that considering the community conversation, it would be a different conversation to convince the board to overturn a vote than to consider a vote for the first time at the April meeting.

“I understand exactly what you mean,”Pastor McIntosh said. “And I agree that we should table it,”

“Divine intervention,” Mr. Kelly said. “Perfect.”

Mr. Kittle withdrew his motion.

“I’m really disappointed. This is a colossal waste of time relative to other things this board should be working on…We’ll do whatever we need to do to distract from the real issues.”

Donation for Irrigation System

Next was an action item on the agenda concerning a donation of installation of a 29-zone irrigation system valued at $29,000, at Hamilton Ave. School valued at $29,000 the Hamilton Ave School field from Frank Cortese of New England Total Landscaping. The paperwork includes an estimate from Make It Rain LLC of Shelton for $28,000 for 29 zones, (110 heads), plumbing work & 1 GFI outlet

Ms Downey made a motion to accept the donation, conditional upon a fully executed GPS purchasing contract, insurance as required by the town risk manager, a fully executed 15-year full service maintenance, and all relevant town permits.”

Similar had questions similar to the previous motion.

“We only got this last night. I see there is a maintenance agreement involved, but we haven’t addressed things like water usage or electricity costs for the district to be paying in connection with a sprinkler system. A little more clarity would be helpful for me…unless Blaize (Levitan) has answers.”

Mr. Levitan noted that the donor, Mr. Cortese from New England Total Landscaping was not present.

Mr. Kelly asked Ms Downey if she wanted to withdraw her motion.

“Happily,” she said.

“Send questions to Dr. Jones, please,” Kelly said.