On Thursday morning the entire New Lebanon School community gathered to break ground on the future site of a long overdue new school.
The existing New Lebanon School, constructed in the 1950s, features a small gymnasium and a miniature cafeteria that results in lunch running from 10:0am until 1:00pm. The common rooms are vastly undersized, which impacts programming in the building.
Longtime staff recall a time the school’s enrollment was much lower. In fact, 20 years ago the enrollment was about 180 students. Today the enrollment is 265.
As the school became crowded, pre-school was taken away and not replaced.
More recently, the district opted to house the entire kindergarten in the Byram Archibald Neighborhood Center, a windowless space across the street on Delavan Ave, a move that brought a modicum of relief.
The Lebanon “annex” allowed an additional homeroom at the main building and enabled OT and PT to be moved off the auditorium stage.
Since June 2015, the New Lebanon building committee worked in earnest to plan a replacement of the crowded, too-small school, which is designated by the state to be racially imbalanced.
A definition of “racial imbalance” is calculated on a school’s population having 25% more or less than the town’s overall minority population.
BOE Chair Peter Bernstein, who serves on the New Lebanon building committee, brought along a copy of School’s First Day of School, by Adam Rex, about a brand new school.
Bernstein said the first meeting of the building committee was held on June 18, 2015, which was 903 days earlier, and more than 100 ago.
Indeed, the ground breaking was a long time in the making and the building committee had its work cut out.
Building committee member Dean Goss, a veteran of 14 building committees, said there had been a gap since he last served on a building committee.
“The amount of paperwork has grown tremendously,” he remarked. “It has to do with increased bureaucracy in Hartford.”
For two years, Goss and the committee worked their way through a maze of disagreements and set backs, starting with where to place the building.
Many wanted to build the school on the William Street ball field, referred to as “the village green” by those who opposed it. For a time this was referred to as “Option B.”
Others wanted a rebuilt school placed on the existing footprint, which would have necessitated busing children to other schools or housing them in modulars on site or at Western Middle School during construction.
Ultimately everyone agreed to locate the new school over the ravine behind the existing school. That will necessitate removal of about 172 trees, though they will be replaced. (Most will be planted at New Lebanon School, and the balance will be planted on other district locations).
Principal Barbara Riccio, now in her 7th year leading the school, said students will benefit from watching the construction from the existing school.
“There will be a viewing deck, and the construction manager, who happens to be a woman, is looking forward to doing Q&A sessions with children,” she said, adding that the children will take a photo of the work site every day to chronicle its progress.
“They’ll also photograph and learn about all the equipment and machinery,” she said.
Riccio been a consistent presence and advocate for the project, while key jobs at the BOE administration turned over including facilities director and superintendent.
“I’m just grateful these children will get the building they deserve,” she said on Thursday. “This will give them the opportunity to really shine.”
The new school will have seats for children outside the catchment area. The idea is to “magnet in” students to balance the backgrounds of the students within the building.
The approval of the town’s diversity plan by the CT Board of Education made the project eligible for grants with up to an 80% reimbursement.
Ironically, the school already has a magnet program with its IB component.
Unfortunately, the school has been challenged to accommodate magnet students for two reasons. First, there was, until two years ago, no transportation was provided. Second, the lack of space has made it impossible to accommodate additional students.
While Thursday was a joyful day, state funding for the school was uncertain for quite some time.
A Dec. 29 memo to Connecticut legislators from Secretary of Policy and Management (OPM) Benjamin Barnes, recommended against state funding. Barnes suggested that Greenwich could afford to pay for its own intradistrict magnet school.
State Senator Scott Frantz, a member of the Greenwich delegation, who persevered for years in fighting for funding for the school, alluded to similar bumps in the road.
Frantz said the process was fraught with “shenanigans.” He said final negotiations with the state weren’t completed until about a week ago, but that 80% funding for the project is finally confirmed.
He said on the state’s part, it was the right thing to do, both morally and legally.
“At the end of the day it is a mandate, what they are asking us to do,” Frantz said.
Frantz introduced “rock star” Mike Bocchino, the State Rep representing Byram who previously served as New Leb PTA president, who described some of the challenges the school teachers, staff and volunteers rose to, given that kindergarten was relocated to BANC.
“Today is a historic day for the town of Greenwich, considering what transpires in Hartford and what little we receive back from them,” Bocchino said, going on to thank the Greenwich delegation and the entire community for their perseverance.
“To go over to BANC every day – including special ed teachers, ESL teachers and reading Champions volunteers – and then have to come back, is truly a testament,” Bocchino said. “You kept our community together. You kept our kids together. Thank you so much for that.”