Town Hall Capacity Maxed Out Again: Residents Urge BET to Fund Critical Projects, Not to Cut School Teacher Jobs

At Monday night’s BET public hearing on the budget the room was beyond capacity. In fact, it was packed that the fire marshal stopped the meeting.

Anyone without a seat was required to leave, and no one was allowed to stand in the hallway either.

The Greenwich Fire Marshal stopped the BET hearing Monday night and everyone without an actual chair was required to leave. March 25, 2024 Photo: Leslie Yager

And, because there was no overflow room organized to view the meeting elsewhere in town hall, many people were disappointed to say the least.

One attendee shouted out, “Reschedule!”

While the meeting could be viewed remotely, viewers were not afforded an opportunity to speak.

Anyone having déja vu? This happened last year, only last year an overflow room was set up so attendees could watch on a monitor in the Cone Room and come downstairs to testify when it was their turn.

Owen Benison, Omar Galal and Caleb Kaalund outside the BET hearing. March 25, 2024 Photo Leslie Yager

Over and over, residents spoke in favor of funding Old Greenwich School’s renovation and a feasibility study of extending sidewalks further along Shore Road in Old Greenwich. The latter request was also mentioned by several residents at last week’s DPW forum traffic and pedestrians safety in OG/Riverside.

Others advocated for funding for a feasibility study at Riverside School and the Glenville corridor project.

Dozens of children, parents, and teachers from the GEA opposed a six teacher reduction at Greenwich High School.

Greg Bound, Cole Sullivan and Caleb Kaalund after testifying at the BET public hearing on the budget. March 25, 2024 Photo: Leslie Yager

Among the few speakers who were not advocating funding for projects was RTC chair Beth MacGillivray who referred to a “pattern of mismanagement within our town building committees” and “bait and switch tactics to secure funding followed by repeated requests for more.”

“It is imperative that realistic numbers are established from the outset to prevent such fiscal discrepancies,” she said. “I say this after seeing CMS blow up from $70 million to $120 million with no shovel, and currently I’m hearing OGS is on the same path.”

Also, Ted Walworth, president of the Northeast Greenwich Association who could not attend as he is the Wetlands agency board and was attending their meeting, submitted a letter read by Alice Duff.

“It has come to our attention that you are reviewing a proposed 3.6% increase in our area taxes over the next fiscal year. How may pet projects  Greenwich will you have to accommodate and how many millions will you have to raise to do so?” Walworth asked in his letter. “Greenwich has long been known for pragmatic spending determined by necessity, not an aspirational wish list of inconsequential asks.”

Walworth said the “asks” were directed to targeted areas of town, rather than for the benefit of Greenwich as a whole, and that the lure to town for new residents was a stable tax and mill rate.

RTM member and OGS building committee member Barbara O’Neill committee urged the BET to fund that project. March 25, 2024 Photo: Leslie Yager

Another highlight were remarks from Barbara O’Neill, who is a former Greenwich Schools teacher and former BOE member and chair. Today she serves on the RTM and is a member of the OGS building committee.

O’Neill urged the BET to be more transparent.

She said taping all 9 days of BET budget hearings was imperative for RTM members to inform their votes.

While the hearings were televised live on YouTube and cable TV most RTM members and interested citizens were unable to sit through 9 full days of live meetings.

“Because these meetings are not taped, everyone interested is required to watch them live,” she said. “…they miss meaningful discussions about a budget that as public officials they must vote on.”

Old Greenwich School Renovation

Ms O’Neill urged the BET to fully fund the Old Greenwich School project at approximately $46.3 million.

“This number includes the $1.3 million increase in costs resulting from the BET vote last year not to fund the project,” she said, adding that to reduce the amount of the current request to $1.3 million, the committee had eliminated items totaling $3.8 million from the budget, which she described as a frustrating process where they voted to limit interior painting, repair of floor tiles and the number of security cameras.

“Despite these decisions, the community still needs $1.3 million. The four items driving this request are replacement of the non-ADA compliant playground, hiring a hygienist for safety during construction, replacing non-LED light fixtures, and replacing a section of the roof needed to support the HVAC equipment,” she said. “Ironically the committee is asking for almost the same amount squandered by not fully funding the project last year.”

First Selectman Fred Camillo said his top priorities for funding were the sidewalk extensions along Shore Rd near the beach, the Old Greenwich School renovation and the Glenville Corridor project. March 25, 2024 Photo: Leslie Yager

Greenwich First Selectman Fred Camillo said his top priorities included funding for a sidewalk extension along Shore Rd. He clarified that the sidewalk would stop before the property owned by Lucas Point, the association that owns the causeway and grants the town an easement. He said a map on the town website showing the sidewalk going further had been in error.

Camillo also urged the BET to fund the Old Greenwich School renovation. “We know if we put this off a year, it’s not going to be the same price. Every single thing is going up.”

He also advocated for the Glenville corridor project saying it had support from the community and most of the funding would be reimbursed.

Louis Zackson from the GHS class of 2027 testified before the Board of Estimate and Taxation against staff reductions at his school. March 25, 2024 Photo: Leslie Yager

Staff Cuts in Public School Budget

The youth of the town had a loud voice Monday night in opposition to staff cuts. GHS freshman Louis Zackson said teachers already had class sizes so big at the high school that they were unable to teach all students adequately.

“I see students literally twiddling their thumbs because there’s not enough teachers to properly education them in classes like math, science, social studies or reading because they can’t get to every student with a class size of 30 kids,” Louis said.

“Teachers already go through a cutthroat culture…By firing six more you’re just going be adding gas to the fire… I think this town needs to wake up and realize kids are the future.”

Greenwich Education Association president Lil Perrone said the union opposed the cuts of 6 full time teaching positions at GHS as well as cuts of 4 middle school teachers, among others.

“Class sizes will increase. Certain courses will not be offered, and we are already short paraprofessionals,” Perrone warned. “We cannot play politics with our children’s education. We need to fully fund the budget.

“There are increases and obligations that are mandated without our input. Our special education caseloads are up,” Perrone added. “The district  still is short four psychologists, two speech/language teachers and paraprofessionals.”

As examples of these mandates and obligations, Perrone pointed to the state  delaying kindergarten age which will extend preschool, and the extension of Community Connections that allows students to stay in school until the age of 22.

Further, she pointed increased enrollment trends, increased utility costs and increases in pay for substitute teachers in order to compete with other districts. Greenwich pays $165/day if a sub is there 5 days. Norwalk and other districts pay subs $240/day.

Numerous members of Greenwich High School student government also urged the BET not to cut the six teaching jobs at their school.

Student body vice president Omar Galal urged the BET not to cut teaching positions at Greenwich High School. He compared the cuts as removals of doors on a house.March 25, 2024 Photo: Leslie Yager

Student body vice president Omar Galal described the teacher reduction in the BOE budget as absolutely unacceptable, akin  to removing doors from a house. “But I’m optimistic because I have faith in the BET that they will rectify the mistake in this budget.”

Student body president Caleb Kaalund said the executive committee wished to relay the BET of “the anguish” of the entire student body about the school budget.

“The removal of 6 teachers would inflate class sizes, strain teachers and decrease individual engagement between students and faculty,” Caleb said. “In a school community with over 3,000 students and staff these negative consequences are felt tremendously.”

Sophomore class president Joell Molina pointed out that adding a single student to a class added 5 minutes of paper grading for the teacher, representing 25 extra minutes across five classes for the teacher.

“This adds to an already heavy workload for a teacher and less individual attention per student,” he said.

Extension of Sidewalks on Shore Road Closer to Tod’s Point

Morgan Evans said he grew up in Old Greenwich in the 70s and 80s and at the time the homes en route to Tod’s Point had unadorned lawns and there was a visible footpath running parallel to the road.

“The proliferation of walls, fences and well groomed hedges has eliminated cut-throughs and pushed pedestrians off the paths and into the roadway,” he said. “The town has long been aware of the problem.”

Mr. Evans said the dangerous lack of sidewalks was a tragedy waiting to happen and been known for over two decades.

“Despite this knowledge and petitioners’ requests, the town has failed to remedy this dangerous condition. It can be difficult to prove municipal liability even where the town’s action appears negligent,” he added. “It is less difficult to reach a settlement, especially if the inured party is sympathetic.”

He said not extending the sidewalk was pennywise but pound foolish.

Greg Bound and Cole Sullivan, high school students whose recent letter to the editor urging the town to extend sidewalks along Shore Rd closer to Tod’s Point was widely read, said that unusually warm weather on March 3 drove thousands of people to the beach, creating a queue of cars extending all the way to the 3-way stop at the intersection of Shore Rd and Sound Beach Ave.

He said families walking or biking to the beach or walk their dogs were forced to share the road with hundreds of drivers, creating a very unsafe situation.

Further, he said the dangerous curve in the road made it difficult for both drivers and pedestrians to navigate, while a sidewalk would alleviate the situation.

Cole said as a new driver he was even more cognizant of the need for sidewalks.

“Now that we’re driving we have to worry about mothers walking with their children who don’t have a sidewalk to travel on,” he said.

OG parent of young children, Nicole Chaudhri, said Shore Road was not designed to carry the entire population of Greenwich to the beach on  a regular basis. She noted the last two Sundays were cold but sunny, and the amount of traffic on Shore Road was “unreal.”

“I tried to cross the street with my children, pushing my double stroller and it was terrifying.”

She said as a parent of school age children, it was a luxury to even get to the hearing at town hall, and that if the meeting was held at Old Greenwich School after drop off on a weekday morning there would be a million terrifying stories from parents.

Old Greenwich School

In addition to Ms O’Neill, numerous residents urged the BET to approve the funding for the Old Greenwich School project, including Alan Gunzburg, chair of the First Selectman’s committee for People with Disabilities, who is the liaison to the Old Greenwich Schools building committee

“I’m here to address the critical issue that demands our urgent attention: the violation of civil rights of students, professionals, teachers, administrators, parents and grandparents at Old Greenwich School,” Gunzburg said. “Every day that this school remains open perpetuates this injustice and it is imperative we take decisive action to rectify the situation.”

Old Greenwich School Principal Dr. Jen Bencivengo also urged the BET to fund the project.

Bencivengo said enrollment at her school enrollment was constantly on the rise, and that the renovation was before the BET for the 7th consecutive year.

She said the building committee chaired by James Waters had met 83 times over the past 75 weeks, participated in countless design meetings, budget meetings, architect/engineer/contractor walk-throughs and completed hundreds of hours of report and design review.

Cos Cob Library: “Sorely needed, shovel-ready renovations”

Several residents advocated for the Cos Cob Library project. RTM D8 chair Cheryl Moss described Cos Cob Library as the jewel and hub of the neighborhood, and noted it had not been updated since it was built 25 years ago as an undersized branch.

Ms Moss said residents were frustrated by the lack of room for programs, lack of teen space, rooms to study, and tutoring space, and noted that the proposed renovations were created through direct community input and endorsed by the Friends of the Cos Cob Library and the Board of Trustees.

“Most importantly, the requested contribution from the town is solely for capital maintenance items which amounted to just 14% of the renovation cost,” she said adding that remainder of the project would be funded privately.

After the meeting, GHS student Owen Benison said in an email, “Democracy only functions when the voice of the people can be heard. The choice of the Board to hold this meeting here, year after year, instead of moving to a larger venue (when they face the same issues each year) is a choice that has a quantifiable negative impact on democracy in Greenwich.”

“I hope the BET heeds the overwhelming support we heard here tonight for the schools when they make their decisions,” he added. “This school system and all the children it serves deserve to have adequate funding for the coming years.”

BET decision day is Wednesday, March 27 starting at 9:00am. The meeting can be watched on GCTV channels 24 (Verizon) 79 (Optimum), GCTV on YouTube live or in person in the town hall meeting room.

See also:

High School Students Urge Town to Install Sidewalks On Shore Rd to Tod’s Point

March 20, 2024

Residents Urge Town to Add Crosswalks, Sidewalks, Enforcement in Old Greenwich & Riverside

March 21, 2024

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

Feb 6, 2023

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

March 30, 2023