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

Anticipation is building over what the Republican-controlled BET will decide about the timing of funding the Old Greenwich School renovation project. April 4 is BET decision day.

The topic has been top-of-mind for months.

It started in January when First Selectman Camillo presented a budget that didn’t support construction funding for the renovation in 2024.

“We’ll get that done, but it was just pushed out to fiscal year 2025 because we can only do one at a time,” Camillo said in January. “Right now it’s Central (Middle School). Old Greenwich would be next.”

The Old Greenwich School was constructed in phases starting in 1902, with additions in 1950, 1957 and 1995. Some renovations were also completed in 1993. No significant capital projects have been completed at this campus in 25 years.

Camillo also said he didn’t want to burden the town with debt and he needed to stay within the BET budget guidelines.

And yet, the building committees for Central Middle School and Old Greenwich School both continue their work with the hope to break ground in 2024.

Both projects have some urgency.

Central Middle School was condemned for human occupancy in February 2022. Students were farmed out to other schools until the building was was shored up to reopen safely but not permanently.

Old Greenwich School has a raft of issues ranging from lack of ADA compliance, to sewage coming into lower level classrooms during heavy rain, to lack of a safe entry vestibule, to lack of a modern HVAC system.

Though the Old Greenwich School Ed Specs were created in 2020 and approved in 2021, ever since Camillo proposed to defer the renovation, Republican and Democratic members of the BET budget committee have been at odds over the project, including suggestions in February to do the renovation piecemeal starting with an elevator.

They have also asked about the cost of constructing a new school altogether.

At last week’s Board of Education meeting, Karen Kowalski commented on a motion to reaffirm the BOE’s commitment to the renovation that “Old Greenwich is ready to go.”

Kowalski, who also served on the feasibility committee that created the Ed Specs in 2020, said, “The overwhelming support from the community was to keep that school. It is iconic.”

“We know both schools aren’t going to get built,” she added.

Laura Kostin, a member of the CMS building committee, pushed back.

“I think we have the means in this town to do both,” Kostin said. “With approximately $93 million at last glance in our rainy day fund, let the BET look the Old Greenwich community in the eye and try to justify a vote against funding for this school.”

Christina Downey said it was not the Board of Education’s place to pick a favorite.

“Our role is to advocate for what we believe our students need,” she said. “I think we all agree that our students need both facilities. I don’t think it’s our job to tell the BET which should go first because I think we do want both. It’s incumbent on them to find a way to pay for it.”

“The BET has created a construct of a capital ceiling. I know this is the biggest capital budget in the history of the town, but these are exceptional circumstances. There are years of deferred projects. Not a single one of our master facilities plan projects has been done. That’s 6 years we’ve been waiting. Maybe when you wait six years you have to ante up… I think it’s fully appropriate for us to ask for both.”

The BOE reaffirmed their support for the renovation despite rising costs. Construction costs have risen and are anticipated to continue to rise. The updated estimated project costs for the Old Greenwich School renovation are $35.9 million if the project is done in fiscal year 2024, or $38 million if it is done in the fiscal year 2025.

That vote was 7-0-1, with Kathleen Stowe abstaining. She said she didn’t like that the motion included the option of a $1.1 million interim appropriation and possible one year delay.

“We’ve been talking about this for a very long time. To me it’s just flat out wrong to delay it another year,” Stowe said. “I think it should be $35.9 million. Now.”

The BOE also passed a motion unanimously to direct the OGS building committee to start the Municipal Improvement process.

Engineers at Old Greenwich School. March 23, 2023

Throughout the wrangling, the building committees have not slowed down.

This week the OGS building committee chair James Waters went before the Board of Selectmen to say the committee was “moving with purpose” and asked them to approve MI for the renovation.

“We’ve made significant progress since you convened us in October,” Waters told the Selectmen on Wednesday.

He said if construction funding were provided in the coming year’s budget, the committee anticipated breaking ground next spring, and if not, they would be ready to go the following year.

“We certainly don’t want to slow you down,” Camillo said. “I appreciate the good work and speed at which you are working. Government doesn’t usually work that fast.”

Camillo asked if the $1.1 million in incremental funding being requested was enough.

“Right now we believe it’s going to be enough to get through the pre-construction process,” Waters replied.

Selectwoman Lauren Rabin brought up the increase of contingency from 10% to 20%.

“At what cost does it make sense to renovate versus build anew?” Rabin asked.

Waters said it was important to raise awareness with the town about how construction costs have increased since 2020 when budget numbers were first produced.

“We want to ensure really good transparency,” he said. “We don’t think it’s appropriate for new construction building to have a 10% contingency.”

He said he’d spoken to Mike Mason, former BET chair, and was advised that it was important to have a 20% contingency for a renovation project.

Also, he said comparable new construction in Connecticut, based on the last three years, was $734 per square foot.

“Obviously our Ed Specs do not call for new construction,” he added.

“The numbers we put together, on assessing new construction we think would roughly double. Our Ed Specs will produce good estimates by professionals, not just cost escalation. We’ll do the same with this rough estimate on new construction and let the decision makers decide.”

Still, Waters said, “At this stage we have no reason to believe that we will be shifting course.”

“What we’re hearing from Old Greenwich where many of us are residents, is people don’t want to wait. They’re ready for this and they think the town needs to get this project done.”

James Waters asked the Selectmen at their March 22 meeting to support an MI for the OGS renovation. It was a first read, and the Selectmen will tentatively take a vote at their next meeting. Meeting materials included a detailed memo with anticipated costs and timeline for the project (starts on page 76).

2018. Old Greenwich School was identified in the district’s 2018 Facilities Maser Plan and 2020 OGS Feasibility Study as requiring critical renovations.
2021. The BOE unanimously approved Ed Specs in 2021 focusing on core deficiencies. As this plan and study were created, a complaint was filed with the US Dept of Education’s Office for Civil Rights claiming that the school discriminated against children and adults with disabilities because of the building’s lack of ADA compliance. Federal ADA regulations date back to 1990.
The complaint was addressed in a 2021 Resolution agreement signed by the superintendent saying that the town expected addressing the ADA non-compliance through a renovation contemplated for 2023.
The school also lacks a secure entrance, sprinkler system and proper HVAC system. Further the school has serious plumbing concerns on the lower level including periodic backup of raw sewage as well as space deficiencies. The school, like much of Old Greenwich is in a FEMA AE flood zone.

That sentiment came through at last week’s BOE meeting.

Board member Kathleen Stowe, who has been on the board the longest, abstained from the vote to reaffirm commitment to the renovation, explaining she didn’t like that it included the option of $1.1 million and one-year delay.

“We’ve been talking about this for a very long time. To me it’s just flat out wrong to delay it another year,” Stowe said. “That’s my issue with this motion. I think it should be $35.9 million, now.”

During public comment, parents spoke passionately in favor of the funding and avoiding further delay.

Caterina Moura Kim lamented the lack of a secure entry to the school, the flooding and raw sewage that comes up in the basement classrooms, the poor air quality and lack of an appropriate HVAC system resulting in windows being cracked even in cold winter months.

“What are we asking of them that we would not tolerate in our work environment or our own homes?” Ms Moura Kim asked.

Courtney Murphy described how her daughter’s first grade teacher had to create a divider in the door frame to prevent sewage coming into the classroom.

“The lack of accessibility is not just about an elevator. It prohibits students with a disability or injury from attending, and it makes assemblies with grandparents or other guests impossible,” Murphy said.

She also said she was concerned about the BET’s request that the building committee explore the cost of new construction, despite being busy creating the schematic design for the school’s renovation.

Murphy said the “ask” from the BET was “late in the game – over 2 years after a feasibility study was done and 1-1/2 years after the BOE approved the OGS Ed Specs.”

“Construction costs have gone up significantly. We need to face reality,” she said. “It’s unrealistic to think that a new construction school would cost the same as a renovation.”

“It’s important that the BET keep up with the building committee,” Murphy added.

Next Steps

At the Selectmen meeting, Waters told the Selectmen that in the past six months the building committee had hired a project team including the architects Silver Petrucelli & Associates and the construction firm Morganti Group to provide Owner’s Rep services.

Soon they plan to interview for the Construction Manager position.

The Schematic Design process is underway and includes space programming, design decisions, site surveys and environmental testing.

Waters noted that the building committee aimed to submit a pre-application to the P&Z commission in May or June 2023, and follow up with a formal application in July 2023.

In the meantime, there is a BET public hearing set for Wednesday, March 29 at 7:00pm in the town hall meeting room. (GCTV on cable or YouTube live or in person). Submit written comment here.

On the agenda are possible cuts to Central Middle School and project delays for the Old Greenwich School.

Further out on the timeline of course are the November municipal elections.

The Board of Selectmen and the BET are elected in odd numbered years. Thanks to the town’s arcane system, the party receiving the majority of votes cast for BET candidates assumes the BET chairmanship and vice chairmanship positions. The chair gets a tie-breaking vote.

Wednesday’s Selectmen meeting was a first read. They will tentatively take a vote on the MI at their April 13 meeting.

Click here to submit public comments for the April 13, 2023 Board of Selectmen meeting.