Supporters of Greenwich Public Schools Rally at Town Hall, Max Out Meeting Room Capacity at Final BET Budget Hearing

Greenwich townspeople showed up in force at Wednesday’s BET hearing to beg, cajole, excoriate and attempt to shame the BET, and in particular its Republican members, in the hopes they might vote on decision day to fully fund both the Old Greenwich School and Central Middle School building projects. Now.

The event was the last public hearing on the fiscal 2024 budget.

The first was in January after the First Selectman’s and Schools Superintendent’s presentation of their proposed budgets.

More recently, the BET budget committee met in February but there was no public comment.

April 4 is BET decision day.

Republican BET members Nisha Arora, Dan Ozizmir (chair) and Leslie Tarkington. March 29, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

Old Greenwich School has a litany of problems, starting with sewage coming up into lower level bathrooms in classrooms after heavy rain.

The school is not ADA compliant and children with an injury frequently need to be tutored by a substitute teacher on the ground level of the building if they canot navigate the stairs.

There is no sprinkler system.

There is no modern HVAC system. Windows are cracked open, even on bitter cold winder days to circulate air, which is particularly troubling given people are still getting Covid.

The building also lacks a safe entry, which reinforces a sense of vulnerability each time there is a school shooting in the US. Just this week there were six killed including three children in Tennessee.

As for Central Middle School, it feels like old news that it was condemned for human occupancy a year ago and had to be shored and mended to be safe for students to return while plans for a new school are undertaken.

Both projects have building committees busy at work, meeting weekly.

Fund Our Schools Rally

Before the hearing, people rallied with handmade signs saying, Fund Our Schools.

Steve Rep Steve Meskers, (D-150) whose shoreline district includes the 120+ year old iconic Old Greenwich School, drew applause when he said, “The strategy continues to be delay, deny and dissemble. You need to let people know you will remember-in-November. The status quo is not acceptable.”

Democratic BET member Leslie Moriarty addressed the crowd outside town hall Wednesday before the public hearing on the 2024 budget. March 29, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager
Lucy Krasnor, State Rep Hector Arzeno (D-151) and DTC chair Joe Angland rallied outside town hall Wednesday night before the last of three BET public hearings on the 2024 budget. March 29, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager
People rallied outside town hall Wednesday night before the last of three BET public hearings on the 2024 budget. March 29, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager
People rallied outside town hall Wednesday night before the last of three BET public hearings on the 2024 budget. March 29, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

As for CMS, Meskers joked that he had been surprised to learn the walls had devices attached to them to detect their movement.

“Because of my 65 years of age I understood we were employing hall monitors, not wall monitors. It’s unacceptable the condition of our schools. It’s unacceptable that we refuse to fund our public spaces. We can do better!”

State Rep Steve Meskers (D-150) addressed the crowd outside town hall before the BET public hearing. March 29, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

Next to speak at the rally was Democratic BET member Laura Moriarty, which was significant because during the entire 3+ hour hearing she and other BET members listened silently to testimony.

“I am concerned about this budget, and this is on top of four years of budgets that we have to concerned about,” Moriarty said. “I’m concerned we are not building the type of facilities our kids need and deserve. …We have the financial ability to do it.There is no rationale for the nickle-and-dime’ing that we see every year on these budgets.”

Leslie Moriarty, a 7+ year Democratic BET member addressed the crowd at a rally before the public hearing. March 29, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

Town Hall Meeting Room Exceeds Capacity

Inside town hall, people were disappointed when the fire marshal sent everyone without an actual chair to an overflow space on the second floor in the Cone Room to view the meeting on a monitor. Individuals were able come downstairs to testify when it was their turn.

With a sprinkling of passionate comments from pickleball players desperate for more and better quality courts, patrons of Cos Cob Library seeking upgrades, flood victims in the drainage area of Echo Lane known as the “bottom of the bathtub” asking for drainage improvements, GHS hockey players urging the BET to fund a new ice rink, and First Selectman Camillo advocating for the Roger Sherman Baldwin Park project, the overwhelming number of comments were in support of the two school capital projects.

Of those, the majority spoke in support of funding the Old Greenwich School project in 2024, not in 2025 as recommended by the First Selectman in his January budget presentation.

While clearly the battle lines were drawn, no one actually urged the BET not to fund schools.

Rather, some argued funding both projects in the same year was too much money at once, and questioned the town’s management of existing funding.

“How do we have leaky roofs, plumbing problems and non-ADA compliance?” asked Gail Lauridsen. “It looks like poor administrative management of vendors and staff.”

Dylan Tobin, a student at Old Greenwich School at the rally before the BET hearing. March 29, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

Dylan Tobin, who attends Old Greenwich School, shared his first-hand experience.

“Year after year the BET has not been funding our schools. There is literally sewage in my school. Please fund our schools and we will be really happy if you do.”

First Selectman Fred Camillo announced that a spot had been found at the Holly Hill dump to relocate the Parks & Rec operations from their building on the waterfront, which he said has been holding up the project at Roger Sherman Baldwin Park.

He said that relocation could be folded into the project to create “a better traffic plan” at the transfer station.

“If you can approve that, then the two foundations I’ve been in contact with, who are offering to help us with the payment of the park, to give you all a beautiful brand new park, will start.”

Lastly, he asked for $1.1 million in incremental funding for the OGS building committee continue their work through the pre-construction process.

Joe Solari testified at the BET hearing on March 29, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager
Joe Montanaro testified at the BET hearing on March 29, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

Joe Solari warned against long-term debt and talked about spending money efficiently.

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

Tracy Brown was concerned about the environmental hazards to children’s health from the sewage that backs up in the lower level classrooms at OGS.

She said her two children had both tested positive in the past two years for mycotoxins, which are mold spores from the water damaged building.

“I can guarantee you that as parents and taxpayers, we’re not going to sit back any longer and watch our kids to go school in this toxic environment. We need to voice our opinions and vote in the election next fall,” Brown said.

Joe Montanaro, new vice chair of the RTC, said everyone wanted the necessary repairs to be made.

“We need independent oversight of where our money goes,” he said. “We need accountability.”

Laura Kostin, a member of the CMS building committee and the BOE, spoke as a resident, parent and tax payer.

“Some of you have cloaked yourself in the banner of fiscal prudence when it comes to school funding. I’m here to avail you of that notion so that every person listening understands the level of fiscal negligence that is yours alone to bear.”

“Some of you say you support our school children and our schools, but those words ring hollow because they come with qualifiers,” Kostin added. “We are all tired of hearing about our schools being condemned as in the case of CMS or otherwise neglected as in the case of OGS, Julian Curtiss and Riverside Schools. They have come before you for years to ask that our capital needs be met because you alone hold the purse strings.”

“You say you support the rebuild of CMS, but you only support it if is the size of an elementary school, or if it costs $67 million,” she added, noting there had not been a single shovel in the ground since the facilities master plan outlined deficiences of school buildings in 2018.

“There is $93 million on the town’s rainy day fund, and somehow, some of you are under the impression that parents at OGS are going to be gaslighted and told that it’s not raining.”

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

Steph Cowie and Clare Kilgallen were some of the speakers acknowledging they were registered Republicans. They urged the BET to support of funding school infrastructure and said it was bi-partisan.

“It’s unfortunate that many of the GOP BET are determined to continue with the same playbook as years past,” Cowie said. “Let’s disrupt and share misinformation for others to constantly have to refute and defend. Ignore the accurate information provided by our educational experts, hired architects and and expert estimators.”

“Our message has been very clear based on my experience over the past 12 years,” Cowie said. “We find ourselves back here to fight for our schools, our town’s most utilized spaces and still the outcome is the same: Cut, defer and delete.”

Ms Cowie, who relies on a motorized scooter, said ADA compliance at OGS could not be achieved by putting in an elevator, a bathroom and making one door wider.

“Your entire school needs to be accessible. It’s not a quick fix.”

Ms Kilgallen, who served on the New Lebanon building committee and serves on the CMS building committee, spoke as a resident.

“From 1956 to 1958 New Lebanon School, CMS and Eastern Middle School were all built. It is possible to have multiple school projects happening at the same time? Do you know why? Because we have separate building committees, separate owners reps, architects and construction companies.”

She said for CMS, the $67 million proposed, reflecting a $10 million cut, would not be enough, according to hired professionals.

She noted the BET’s authority included increasing appropriations.

“Please appropriate the BOE submitted capital project budgets for CMS and OGS,” she said. “Three years ago the Rainy Day fund was $63 million. Now it’s $93 million. That’s our taxpayer dollars, ready to fund these projects. This is not election year nonsense. You are hearing from taxpayers who are fed up with a lack of proper capital investment year-on-year, while our paid taxes are held to the side.”

Beth MacGillivray addressed the BET at the third and final public hearing on the 2024 budget. March 29, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

RTC chair Beth MacGillivray urged the BET take a “common sense approach to municipal spending.”

“In these challenging times it’s more important than ever to make sure every dollar is spent wisely. The CMS project is currently the largest school project yet the cost keeps fluctuation with the size of the layout and calculation errors. The cost ranges from $67 million to $135 million, which is a significant difference that requires further investigation. It is concerning that the cost more than doubles when the project has not even started. Instead of providing ample data and studies to explain, we hear political infighting.”

Michael Carter, who attended Greenwich Schools and whose three children attended OGS, ISD and GHS, said he was also a licensed architect and worked for 40 years in design, construction, development and finance.

“I urge the BET to approve the funding to move forward with the renovations of Old Greenwich School. The improvements needed are extensive, not only including ADA compliance or access, elevators, bathrooms, doorways, etc, but also safety items such as sprinklers, security, HVAC and proper ventilation and filters.”

“Few residents in Old Greenwich would like the building demolished due to its historic presence in the village, not to mention where you would build a new school? In addition, the notion that a new school in Old Greenwich can be built for $500 or $600 per square foot, more than 20% less than recent estimates for CMS, is totally unrealistic.”

“The longer we put off these capital improvements the more they will cost,” Carter added

He said it was unfortunate the BET passed up the chance to cheaply finance projects during a low interest environment in the last four years.

“The proposed temporary fix of just adding an elevator and a few bathrooms while studying building a new school that few parents in Old Greenwich want is just further deferral and a waste of money.”

CMS PTA Co-presidents Jen Behette and Dina Urso said their job was to advocate for students, present and future.

Behette defended the Ed Specs that reflected input from teachers and administrators.

“Yet people are complaining about the Ed Specs. Those same Ed Specs that would allow for a two-team teaching model to enhance learning opportunities and growth potential, that would allow for a bigger cafeteria so that children don’t have to eat lunch at 10:30am, that would allow our principal to have a proper office and not a closet.”

She said enrollment projections were just a starting point. “No one among us has a crystal ball.”

“We’re all here to talk about the right price tag for our project we know the $67.5 million was intended to be a placeholder when you allocated that amount in 2022. The state requires adequate funding in order to proceed with the construction grant application.”

“Please do not give an inadequate budget to this project,” Behette added.

CMS PTA co-president Dina Urso addressed the BET at Wednesday’s public hearing. March 29, 2023 Photo: Leslie Yager

Co-President Dina Urso said the PTA was often asked why the BOE wasn’t applying for an emergency school construction grant.

“This has been answered several times by the BOE on record as well as in this forum by the CFO and the superintendent. The constant repetition of this query makes us wonder if there is a desire to spread misinformation about this option, which is really a red herring.”

“For those listening who don’t know the answer, it is because the town paid to make repairs to shore up the building for a finite amount of time, thereby taking away any argument that an emergency presently exists,” Urso said.

“We stand in support of OGS and Julian Curtiss, as we know they stand in support of us. After all, every one of these buildings are in shameful states, despite the nearly nine-figure rainy day fund at the town’s disposal that no one is willing to touch, even though the sky is falling in on our children.”

Myra Klockenbrink, a member of a community group called Project Zero, said net zero meant that the amount of energy a building uses is generated by the building, creating zero emissions.

“It is an investment in our schools, students faculty and community and will save us millions of dollars,” she said.

Matt DesChamps said through his service on the RTM budget overview committee he had studied the impact that funding delays had cost taxpayers.

“Imagine how much less CMS and OGS renovations would have cost taxpayers if you had approved the funds before inflationary pressures increased building costs,” DesChamps said. “Delaying necessary capital expenditures does not save money. It simply adds higher costs that build and must be paid for eventually, and often creates emergencies like we saw at CMS. These are expensive delays.”

Michael Spilo, RTM Rep who chairs both Public Works and Labor Contracts committees, and is the RTM representative to the CMS building committee, said the BOE had made a mistake in calculating the gross square footage is what he described as the latest in a series of errors by the BOE.

“The result is always the same: supersized facilities,” Spilo said. “Not the best facilities – simply the largest.”

He said New Lebanon School was oversized because the BOE had predicted it would attract 87 students from across town, but currently draws fewer than 30, with 19 coming from the adjacent Hamilton Avenue School which is also a Title I School. He said it was also a mistake that the performing arts center at GHS, the largest high school auditorium in the state, was “supersized.”

He warned against “overbuilding” CMS. “It should be right sized, not supersized to a max of 550 students, at 175 sq ft per student, which he said could be done easily within the current budget of $70 million.

Dan Quigley, former RTC chair introduced himself, saying, “Despite what some people in the room may say, I am a Republican.”

He said when he was RTC chair he strategized with Republican colleagues on the BET about winning the next election.

“The game plan was to own the school debate and to do that by committing to rebuild CMS, remediate OGS and fix necessary acute needs at Julian Curtiss School. There was no discussion about doing it if the cost is right.”

“Fiscal responsibility isn’t about not spending money,” he said. “It’s not about how much can we do for the absolute minimum. It’s about spending money in the right places and doing it right the first time. As a Republican and taxpayer, I want these projects done now, so they’re not done in the future and cost us more money. And as Republicans you should grab hold of the bull and do it, because there is a price to pay in November if you don’t.”

Jen Bencivengo, the principal of Old Greenwich School, urged the BET to approve the full funding of $35.9 million in fiscal year 2024 for the OGS renovation, and after appearing every BET hearing since 2018 she noted a common refrain has been the questioning of the cost and necessity of the renovation of the school.

She said on Monday the country again mourned the loss of children during a senseless school shooting.

“Every day I say goodbye to my child, to take care of their 400+, assuring her I will return that evening, a fear I didn’t consider when I became an educator and not a police officer or a firefighter.”

“While I understand it may sound relatively easy to put in an elevator and some ramps into a school to address ADA accessibility. What hasn’t been discussed or considered by this body is how to ensure the safety of my students and staff when there is not a secure vestibule or entry point near said elevator. If we buzz someone into our building to access an elevator from our second floor main office, they gain access to my building and there is no way to ensure the, or whomever is behind them isn’t going to turn my school into a headline on the evening news.”

Bencivengo emphasized that her school’s enrollment was continuing to grow and Station House Apartments on Sound Beach Ave was set to open nearby in a few months. That luxury development will have 34 units.

James Waters, chair of the Old Greenwich School building committee said they would be able to start construction next spring if the BET provides construction funding this year

He said in response to BET requests they had updated “stale” project costs on the 2021 Ed Specs to account for recent increases in costs of construction and a standard contingency.

“Our update is below the average cost per square foot for similar renvoations in Connecticut,” he added.

Second, the building committee had asked if it was necessary to raise the building from being in a flood zone.

“Our engineers looked at it and determined a renovation would not require riaisng the building, but a new construciton school would,” he added.

Third, he said Ed Specs had been set for 18 months, and $ 1 million accocated for the renovation.

“But still some members tout construction costs not in tune with reality – from a decade ago. It’s embarrassing,” he said.

Finally he said a BET member had floated an arbitrary $2.5 million to address flooding and ADA complaince.

“Our professionals clearly adviced this will fail to achieve ADA compliance and increase project costs by as much as 50%,” he added.

“We reminded the BET of the federal government’s requirement to bring OGS into full compliance with the ADA standards and not defer other things like air quality, building safety, fire code compliance, and approprate classrooms for students, and yet some continue to push half-baked ideas.”

Paul Pugliese, architect and member of the ARC for 40 years, said he was speaking on behalf of Greenwich Preservation Network in support of renovation rather than demolition of OGS.

Pugliese described the school as a beloved community landmark with multiple generations of families attending the school since 1904, including himself, wife and children.

“It was built on land donated by Henry Havemeyer as a gift to the town. Since that time it has always served as a school as well as a center of the civic life for Old Greenwich and Riverside for 118 years. Later renovations and expansions to the building preserved its original Georgian Revival design.”

He said the GPN supported future renovations that continue to address student needs while preserving an architectural treasure.

“Rainy Day” Fund Explained

On Thursday we reached out to Mr. Ozizmir and town comptroller Pete Mynarski to ask how the Rainy Day Fund worked.

Mr. Ozizmir said the “Rainy Day” fund was actually a reference to the General Fund Balance, and ha to do with the ratio of cash on hand to revenue, which in turn correlates to how Greenwich is rated by Ratings Agencies.

“Our General Fund Balance has been a source of confusion for years,” Ozizmir explained. “The Rating Agencies require and set the parameters for the amount of General Fund Balance required to support our AAA rating. The BET and our Finance Team have worked closely with the rating agencies to demonstrate to them that Greenwich should be allowed a lower Fund Balance than other AAA CT towns. Pete and his team have been successful in this. Our General Fund Balance is 8.9%, the average of the other 15 CT AAA is 13.8%. Greenwich is the second lowest.”

“If we were at the Connecticut average, our balance – if we had the same relative fund balance as the average AAA – we would have $112.88 million instead of $72.800 million, or an additional $40.08 million, which would have required an additional $40.88 million of taxes.”

“In short, our General fund balance is required by the Rating Agencies and not excessive,” Ozizmir said.

Further, he explained that the $93 million number circulating included both the Risk Fund that is dedicated to potential legal settlements and the Capital Non-Recurring fund that is used for emergency interims, that sadly are very common.

Greenwich uses more of its Fund Balance every year than other AAA Towns. Last year Greenwich used $23.5 million of the fund balance to support the budget, and $8 million of the capital non-recurring fund to fund capital projects, reducing the fund balance from $13 million to $5 million. We need funds in the account for emergency interims. We hold $3 million in our risk fund for legal settlements. 

“This is a complex issue but I feel the analysis of our Comptroller demonstrates that Greenwich has a clear policy and manages its General Fund Balance in an appropriate way,” Ozizmir said.

For his part Mr. Mynarski noted several speakers Wednesday night suggested the Rainy Day fund was high and should be spent down to pay for capital projects, specifically CMS and OGS.

He said that for budgeting purposes, Greenwich’s General Fund Balance at June 30, 2022 was $72,800,587.

As to the reference to $93 million, he said the speakers were being told this information from a source that combined three funds that added up to that figure.

“Two of those funds are used specifically for unexpected events and legal settlements. They are not intended to be part of the budget process we are going through right now,” Mynarski said. “For example, one fund was used to fund repairs for Superstorm Sandy for about $5 million. This same fund is used to fund unfortunate events like the water damage events over the past number of years at North Mianus school, Cos Cob School, Hamilton Avenue School, and currently the water damage to the Havemeyer Building.”

Mynarski explained the other fund, the Risk Fund, is used to pay legal settlements, such as the recent $5 million settlement with the Palosz family, not the General Fund Balance.

Interim appropriations out of each fund must be approved by both the BET and RTM, and are outside of the normal budget process.

Mynarski said it was false and misleading for anyone to suggest Greenwich had too much money in its General Fund.

“The Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) best practices recommend that municipalities maintain a reserve of 16.67% in their fund balances,” Mynarski explained. “They use that figure to cover two months of expenses as an emergency backup.”

“We are slightly below that recommendation on a budgetary basis, much lower on a Generally Accepted Accounting Practices (GAAP). If you compare Greenwich to its other 15 triple AAA Connecticut communities, we are second to last with monies in our General Fund.”

He said for the period ending June 30, 2021 (most recent figures available) the mean percentage of unassigned fund balance as a percentage of revenues is 13.8 %. Greenwich is at 8.9%, second to last behind West Hartford that went out and issued a $325 million Pension Obligation Bond to cover outstanding pension liabilities.

In order to maintain the Town’s triple AAA bond rating, Mynarski said, “The credit rating agencies require Greenwich to maintain this level of cash in the General Fund. Not me, not the BET, not the taxpayers.”

“Losing the triple AAA will cause borrowing costs to go up,” he added.

Finally, Mr. Mynarski explained that people making statements about the “Rainy Day” fund were being misled and misinformed.

“The Town uses the General Fund Balance on a routine basis,” he explained.

See also:

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

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