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

Parents have groused for years about the shortcomings of the charming, but compromised Old Greenwich School that dates back to 1902.

It has been expanded more than once to accommodate consistent pressures on enrollment, with additions in 1993 and 1997.

And while some people are talking about “smart sizing” the new Central Middle School based on enrollment projections, the Old Greenwich School enrollment has consistently been strong, and fewer Old Greenwich students head out of their neighborhood to attend private schools than kids in Riverside, for example.

Enrollment at Old Greenwich School is projected to grow in coming years. In fact, in this week, six new students are anticipated to come to the school from Argentina, Japan, Hong Kong and Britain.

Compounding enrollment pressures is the fact that many classrooms are undersized, and some are L-shaped, which is problematic for a teacher’s sight lines. The gym storage area is being used for OT/PT. Next year the science lab will be lost when the three first grade homerooms are anticipated to grow to four.

Further, construction is nearing completion at 143 Sound Beach Ave for 34 luxury apartments at The Stationhouse Apartments, and it’s anyone’s guess how many new children that will bring.

A student on a step stool to reach a sink that is not accessible.
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
The basement features a fleet of wet vacs. Feb 3, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

Until Jan 24, residents had been optimistic that the renovation would finally get underway soon, with funding in fiscal year 2024.

A host of deficiencies were addressed in the BOE’s approved Ed Specs for the renovation dating back to October 2021.

• bringing the school into compliance with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act
• installing an elevator
• creating a single secure vestibule for visitor management. (Today the sight line is broken because the main office is around the corner from the entry door.)
• managing storm water to prevent further flooding and raw sewage seeping into classrooms
• adding a building wide sprinkler system to adhere to fire code (currently only the kiln and the kitchen have sprinklers)
• addressing health issues with a building-wide HVAC system
• ensuring that new classrooms address a strong, sustained school enrollment

Also included in Ed Spec is the addition of four more classrooms.

Slide from the First Selectman’s presentation to the BET budget committee. Jan 24, 2023

But hopes were dashed.

During his Jan 24 budget presentation to the BET’s Budget Committee Greenwich First Selectman Fred Camillo proposed to push the project back yet another year.

Camillo said the major renovation at Old Greenwich School was indeed worthwhile. And, having toured the building himself the previous week, he lamented the building’s lack of ADA compliance.

“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. “Right now it’s Central (Middle School). Old Greenwich would be next.”

We are spending more than ever before.

Reached by phone on Monday, Camillo elaborated, saying it was not possible to fund both CMS and OGS at the same year, and though he was totally committed to both projects, CMS had to be tackled first.

“As First Selectman I cannot ignore what the BET recommended as guidelines,” he said. “I came in several million dollars over their target, which doesn’t make them happy because they’ll have to cut more.”

“You don’t want to hurt people who don’t have a lot of money, who work very hard to live in town,” he added. “You have to balance affordable taxation with getting much needed projects done. We serve the whole town and do our best to prioritize. “

Also, he said he didn’t want to burden the town with debt. “I don’t want to put a lot of debt on their kids. If Greenwich loses its fiscal ways that will impact their children.”

Lastly, Camillo said, “They can always come to us for possible interim money to keep the project going.”

While there are entrance doors at ground level that give the impression of accessibility, just inside there is a choice of descending 5 steps or ascending 12. Feb 3, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager
Water monitor in a ground floor bathroom wall. Bathrooms flood with raw sewage every time there is a big storm. Principal Bencivengo said in the worst flooding water has come through windows, on classroom floors. “The worst flooding is when the groundwater comes in through a toilet,” she said.
There are no accessible bathrooms on the ground floor of OGS. Feb 3, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

The OGS building committee has been meeting since October and was on time for their fiscal year 2024 appropriation. They selected architects Silver Petrucelli & Associates, and were pleased when on Jan 19th the BOE approved that recommendation.

“Buildings do teach,” said OGS parent Cristina Dawson who is a voting member of the building committee. “Our children, their teachers and administrators should have a safe place to learn, teach and live for up to nine hours per day, with fresh air, natural light, and equitable accessibility for all.”

“Why form a committee if we can’t pay the professionals to execute?” Dawson asked. “We had $1mm budgeted in FY23, and if nothing is allocated in FY24, the project comes to a halt, and the money and progress made in FY23 is completely wasted.”

She said the team in place might not be around in a year to continue or start from scratch.

Members of the building committee have said the longer it takes to do the renovations, the higher the cost. For example, the pricing work the committee does this year may be irrelevant in a year or two due to inflation, and it is uncertain whether the same firms would bid again on the job.

Certainly, delays in funding ran up the cost of the Music Instructional Space and Auditorium Project “MISA” project at Greenwich High School.

Another voting member of the building committee, Jason Brown, who has a real estate and construction background, said in an email Monday he was disappointed to be advocating for funding when he had made a commitment to build a building.

“I felt I could make a difference and assist in this process. My older kids were in OGS back in the late 2000s and the school has continued to substantially deteriorate since then. I currently have two children in OGS and the conditions are absolutely horrible!” Brown said.

Molly Saleeby, the RTM rep on the building committee, said the group did not know the project would be deferred to 2025 prior to the Jan 24 budget presentation.

“I’m confident the BET will provide the necessary funds to allow our highly productive building committee to continue its work into and throughout the upcoming fiscal year so that this long overdue project is not delayed and stays on schedule for an anticipated fall 2026 completion,” Saleeby said in an email over the weekend. “I find anything less simply unacceptable, unconscionable, and an extreme disservice to the students and their families who’ve waited far too long for these critical improvements.”

There is more to ADA compliance than installing an elevator

A delay of the project will also extend the school’s lack of compliance with the ADA, a potential liability for the town.

The building has a total of six different levels, all accessed by flights of stairs. There are a total of 77 steps to move from the bottom to top of the school.

Yet there is far more to ADA compliance than installing an elevator.

Most of the school’s bathrooms are not ADA compliant. The ground floor rooms where a second egress is required are not compliant. The front plaza entrance, with its grand staircase, is not compliant.

A wheelchair could not access this first floor cloakroom. Feb 3, 2023
OGS principal Jen Bencivengo and building committee chair James Waters. Feb 3, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

A complaint was filed with the US Dept of Education, Office of Civil Rights, alleging that the district discriminates at OGS against people on the basis of disability. OCR conducted an investigation and noted in an April 2021 letter to Greenwich Schools superintendent Dr. Toni Jones the district’s stated intention was to do a major renovation to address accessibility. “The District’s ‘goal is to have the design for renovation completed by 2022 and to begin construction no later than 2023,’” OCR wrote to the superintendent in a summary of their preliminary investigation.

The District signed an Agreement with OCR that noted OCR would monitor its implementation.

At the annual Old Greenwich Association annual meeting on Jan 30, OGS building committee chair James Waters said the committee was disappointed by the recommendation to defer the renovation.

“Unfortunately one of the consequences of this recommendation is that it would actually be deferred for two years until summer 2025 or fiscal year 2026 depending how into town politics you are, because there is no incremental funding to complete the pre-construction phase,” Waters told the OGA.

“There is no doubt in anyone’s mind in this room that OGS requires an urgent renovation,” Waters told the OGA gathered at the Sound Beach Fire house.

After Mr. Waters spoke, State Rep Steve Meskers whose 150th district includes Old Greenwich, addressed the project’s delay more bluntly.

“It’s unconscionable. I’m very unhappy with that,” he told the OGA.

“The dip” is three steps down and five steps up. The corridor is not long enough to accommodate a ramp. Feb 3, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

Touring the Building

Mr. Camillo toured the school on Jan 19, and GFP toured Old Greenwich School on Friday, Feb 3.

At noon on Friday the temperature outside was 21°, yet classrooms had their windows cracked open to circulate air.

Principal Bencivengo said someone had tested positive for Covid that morning, but the only way to circulate fresh air was through the windows as there is no building-wide HVAC system.

And while the skies were clear, there were signs of frequent flooding in the building including water alarms on bathroom floors, removable flood gates ready outside bathroom doors, and mismatched sections of floor where new replacement tile ran out and a different type started.

Under the front plaza staircase, an errant sandbag outside a door leading to classrooms. In the past water and sewage have entered the building so frequently that classroom materials are kept in plastic tubs and placed on desks and shelves every afternoon. Feb 3, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager
Custodians showed guests the sewer ejector, known as “the pit” in the basement of Old Greenwich School. Feb 3, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

The custodians’ basement domain includes “the pit,” technically called a sewer ejector.

On Friday, they explained that while one of them is on duty on weeknights until 9:00pm, weekends and the overnight hours can be problematic if there is heavy rain anticipated. In that event they put orange floodgates in place and prepare in case the water monitors signal the alarm company.

If there is a power failure coupled with flooding, one of the custodians has to travel from as far as Stratford if they get a call from the alarm company. In those cases, a custodian will connect a hose to the sump pump and pump the water out the window.

Cover over “the pit” up from which water rises in a storm. When there is a power outage and there is no power in the pit, OGS custodians have to travel from home to use a sump pump and a hose to pump water out the window.
When there is a power outage and there is no power, OGS custodians use a sump pump to remove water from the pit through a hose and out the window.

Jan 24 Public Hearing

During the Jan 24 BET budget committee hearing, OGS Principal Jen Bencivengo noted it was the fifth year she had requested funding for the school’s renovation and expansion.

She said Jan 26, 1992 had been a turning point in US history for millions of citizens with disabilities. “That was when compliance of Title II of the ADA went into effect requiring state and local governments to give people with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from programs, services and activities.”

Bencivengo said recently an OGS student with an injury had been unable to access his third floor classroom with his friends.

“His cast prohibits him from climbing the 77 steps from the ground floor to his classroom, leaving him limited to a wheelchair on the ground floor of the school with a substitute teacher,” she said.

The principal said students with permanent physical limitations are turned away from the school entirely, and are directed to more accessible schools in town.

“It is unconscionable to think a child with a physical limitation, 33 years after ADA was passed, is not able to attend their neighborhood school. It’s shameful,” Bencivengo added.

“Please continue the commitment you made to support the next steps in our renovation,” she said. “Please adequately fund Old Greenwich in fiscal year 2024, and ensure that we are able to continue on the architectural and design process we have begun.”

There was a positive test for Covid on Friday at OGS, where classroom ventilation involves cracking open windows even during frigid cold weather. There is no building-wide HVAC. As far as cooling, the PTA paid for window units in every classroom. Feb 3, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager
The gymnasium, which has no HVAC, gets hot but there is only one row of windows at left that open.
In the gymnasium a second row of windows are operable but require a long pole to open. Unfortunately the pole went missing four years ago.
The 1997 building addition, which includes the cafeteria and music and art rooms, features central air conditioning. Other than the ’97 addition, only the front office has central air.

Several parents shared compelling stories at the Jan 24 hearing.

Brian Jacoby said he and his wife moved with their three public school children from New York to Old Greenwich seven years earlier.

“On a rainy day in OGS you might find sewage overflowing in lower level classrooms,” he said. “At a recent parent-teacher visit, ‘Principal B’ was apologizing to new parents for the stench that reminded us of New York City gutters on 100° days.”

“For OGS’s front door, does the town need to see more complaints to the civil rights team?” he asked.

“It’s an original time. There’s no playbook for a post-pandemic period,” Jacoby continued. “But no environment is perfect. When money was loose and growth rampant, we asked when the good times were going to end. From OGS’s eyes, the BET didn’t spend the maintenance capital when money was basically free. And now we’re told that the pool of capital is limited and won’t support maintenance in 2023. While we all love a low mill rate, we can’t expect to uphold our quality of life or real estate values when educational infrastructure is falling apart.”

Matthew McCabe agreed with Mr. Jacoby about the wisdom of planning ahead.

McCabe said the lack of HVAC at the school impacted children with asthma. He lamented the lack of compliance with ADA, which he said was hard to reconcile given the school’s emphasis on teaching the value of inclusion.

McCabe touched on the flooding situation, and frequent pump-outs from “the pit.”

“You’re looking at a situation that sewage flooding can come in, and the only mitigation for it is a single choke-point of a manual laborer who might be available when the incident happens. That is a recipe not only for failure of the plant, but also for additional spending.”

Alternate egress in a kindergarten classroom on the ground floor features a flight of stairs.

OGS parent Michael Partridge, whose wife teaches at the school, described the situation for their daughter who injured her knee and used crutches.

He said his wife’s classroom was downstairs and fortunately their daughter could stay with her until someone was available to help her up and down the stairs three or four times a day.

Craig Berendowski, a parent of three, with two at OGS, said, “One of the things Covid taught us through it all is the importance of classroom learning, kids being in the classroom with their peers. It’s important to their academic and social development.”

“My nine-year-old broke his leg a few weeks ago and this became very real to him. Three decades of neglect was a personal thing for him. He loves school so much and is excited every day to go to school,” Berendowski said. “You can imagine his crushing defeat when he realized he might not be able to attend school since his classroom is on the third floor and there is no elevator. It was one of the first things he asked my wife and I with tears streaming down his face. ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to go to school? I can’t go up and down the stairs with crutches. What if someone bumps me. Dad, there’s just so many stairs.’ Suddenly his joy for school became fear of school. His excitement was replaced by anxiety. His camaraderie was replaced by isolation.”

“Inaction has been a long term failure,” he said. “It’s time for us to be leaders and start addressing the needs of our children and faculty.”

There is still hope in the community that the funding will be approved for FY 2024.

“We’re taking a hard look at the numbers and we’re going to talk to the BET next week to see if we can remedy that,” Waters told the crowd at the Jan 30 OGA meeting. “The building committee is confident we can move forward in the next year if funds are provided.”

There will be another BET hearing that will include school capital from 1:00pm to 4:00pm, including funding for OGS on Thursday, Feb 9.

Update: This article was updated to reflect that the coat closet is not part of Mrs. Williamson’s classroom.

The advertised completion of The Stationhouse Apartments is 2nd Quarter 2023. The development will have a total of 34 units. Three units will be designated as moderate units under Greenwich’s Building Zone Regulations Section 6-110 and 1 unit will be designated as an affordable unit under state statute 8- 30g. The development includes one, two and three-bedroom units.
Principal Jen Bencivengo by one of the orange floodgates that are considered weekend flood prevention. In a heavy rain custodians check the toilets to see if they’re overflowing and erect the floodgates. Feb 3, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager
Floodgate outside a bathroom where students use a step stool to reach the sink. Feb 3, 2022 Photo: Leslie Yager
OT/PT room was originally the gym storage room. The windows were made operable and a window AC unit installed.
A marker on Old Greenwich School indicates 1902, the year it opened, and SBPS, which was short for Sound Beach Public School.
The front of OGS has a steep wide flight of stairs. The one ADA compliant entry is around the side of the building by the dumpsters.
From the rear of the school, the additions from 1993 and 1997 flank the original school built in 1902.
Steps in poor condition lead to the gymnasium. The school is a polling place and ramps are put in place for election day.