GFP Top 5 Greenwich Schools Stories of 2015: Yoon, Start Time, New Leb, MISA, BOE Shakeup

John Yoon

Mr. John Yoon leads the band at graduation in June 2014. Credit: Leslie Yager

Last April the superintendent suspended longtime band teacher John Yoon with pay and sought to terminate him. Greenwich Free Press broke the story on May 13. (At GHS, Longtime Band Teacher is Out on Paid Leave.)

On his part, Mr. Yoon fought back, and ultimately demanded his hearings be public. He hired attorney Daniel Young, and what started out as 6 days of hearings became 9.

Greenwich Free Press was one of just two news outlets to cover the entire 9 days of public hearings as to the fate of longtime Mr. Yoon. Our hearing coverage was well read, and chronicled testimony of Dr. Winters, Superintendent McKersie, Mr. Yoon, the father of Student A who had complained about Mr. Yoon last winter, GEA president Carol Sutton, several former and past students of Mr. Yoon, band parents, and both a current and past GHS teacher.

At the conclusion of the hearings, which spanned several months, the arbitrator, M Jackson Webber issued his 120 page report which summarized accepted “findings of fact” and a recommending Yoon’s termination.

Yet, on December 10 the Board of Education declined Webber’s advice. Barbara O’Neill began her remarks by pointing out that the band director was known for giving students adequate chances to make up their grades.

“I read in the document that any student who had a poor grade had the opportunity to make up any work,  …and by showing up and working hard got an A. This student A chose not to do that, and chose to be late when others left the science class.  Again there’s lots of teachable moments. But band is different than a math class. When you’re all together it takes the whole group to function. You don’t have time to call Johnny over and say, ‘You need to do this better.’ You have everybody else waiting to perform.”

“It should have been a given that he get the proper supervision and help – He did go out on his own and get some. But that’s the failing,” O’Neill continued. “When someone fails, it’s a two-way street. In a situation like this there should have been that support for him as he went along. Or else they should have gotten rid of him if his behavior was so bad.   So they tolerated it to a point. Why? Because they didn’t document it? Because they didn’t really have the evidence?”

Jackie O'Malley

Jackie O’Malley embraces John Yoon after the Board of Education decided to discipline rather than terminate him on Wednesday night Credit: Leslie Yager

Mooney

Dr. McKersie’s attorney Thomas Mooney, Dr, McKersie (partially obscured), GHS Headmaster Dr. Winters seated in the front row at Julian Curtiss School on Wednesday night as the Board of Education discussed disciplining Mr Yoon rather than terminate. Credit: Leslie Yager


nap mat

School Start Time Debate. As recently as 1981, GHS started at 7:51am. And earlier, when GHS was in what is now Town Hall, the school day ran 9:00am til 3:00pm.

When the Mianus Bridge on I95 collapsed in 1983, traffic was snarled for months, and GHS start time was pushed back earlier to get school started before the worse of rush hour traffic. The problem is the district never changed it back.

1981 GHS block schedule

1981 GHS block schedule

Though parents have been advocating for school to start later for many years, in Aug, 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics  officially recommended delaying start times of middle and high schools to combat teen sleep deprivation.

“Studies show that adolescents who don’t get enough sleep often suffer physical and mental health problems, an increased risk of automobile accidents and a decline in academic performance. But getting enough sleep each night can be hard for teens whose natural sleep cycles make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m. – and who face a first-period class at 7:30 a.m. or earlier the next day.” – AAP

The first selectman, Peter Tesei, is a strong advocate of later start times, and he spoke at an August rally for delayed start time organized by former Board of Ed member Peter von Braun. He also urged the Board of Ed in October to “be bold.”

napping on the floorValerie Erde, who opened a chapter of Start School Later, a national 501(C)3 has been a passionate advocate for changing start time. At the December Board of Ed meeting, again, a number of parents – many of them medical professionals – spoke passionately in favor of delayed start time. One after another, they urged the BOE to issue a mandate to the school start time committee, who they say are not unanimously in favor of the change.  The Superintendent demurred. He said it is healthy to have disagreement and discussion.

The superintendent also asked that parents not blame Gus Lindine, the GHS Athletic Director, and said that the additional “stress study” he hopes will to nail down other sources of stress in the lives of GHS students besides lack of sleep be put under the purview of Dr. Winters at GHS, rather than the start time steering committee.

The next school start time steering committee  meeting is Jan 5.


Board of Ed candidates, Nov. 2015

November Municipal Election. This election cycle, the surprise was not so much Peter Tesei’s landslide victory for his fifth term at First Selectman, but the stiff competition for Board of Education seats.

Newcomers Lauren Rabin (R) and Gaetane Francis (D) won big. And while BOE  chair Barbara O’Neill (6074 votes) held on to her seat and Peter von Braun lost his (5898 votes), Mrs. Rabin was the top Republican vote getter with 6377 votes.

Then, on Nov. 19, the board voted on offices, Republican Peter Sherr cast his vote for Democrat Laura Erickson rather than incumbent, Republican Barbara O’Neill.

After the ouster, Mrs. O’Neill, who was elected vice chair, quietly switched seats with Mrs. Erickson and sat silently during the meeting.


 

GHS students cut the ribbon at the grand opening concert in the GHS Performing Arts Center, Oct. 7, 2015. Credit: Leslie Yager

GHS students cut the ribbon at the grand opening concert in the GHS Performing Arts Center, Oct. 7, 2015. Credit: Leslie Yager

GHS Performing Arts Center Finally Opens.

On Oct. 7 night the entire Greenwich community turned out for the grand opening concert in Greenwich High School’s spanking new Performing Arts Center.

Designed by Perkins+Will to meet LEED Silver standards, the 35,000 square foot Performing Arts Center, which features a tiered, 1,325-seat multi-purpose auditorium, will support musical and dramatic theater, choral, band and orchestra groups, dance performances, and movie and speaker presentations.

The PAC also includes an orchestra pit, a set design room, green room, two dressing rooms, piano, prop and costume storage rooms, and a large galleria entrance. The new building is fully WiFi enabled.

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 10.12.55 PMOn Oct. 7, every seat was full and there were several standing ovations, including one for Rob Mathes whose original composition “Can You Hear Me?” was performed by combined choirs, symphony orchestra and wind ensemble.

Genny Krob also received a standing ovation for having the foresight to push for a new auditorium many years ago.

Mathes, who was a band kid at GHS himself, graduating in 1981, was photographed with fellow band members from class of 1981.

contributed photo lisa bologna

Contributed photo, Lisa Bologna: Chris Brugo, John Bologna, Tom Giles, Rob Mathes. GHS class of ’81.

Rob Mathes, band student at 1981 SRO.

Band students in 1981. Contributed photo, John Bologna.


With the Performing Arts Center open, the last phase of the MISA project (Music Instructional Space and Auditorium) turned to demolition of the old auditorium. Seating just about 850 students, and suffering from poor acoustics and the dilemma of poor climate control – when the AC was on you couldn’t hear the performance – the work required a “noise variance” which is effect until January 8.

Though the demolition set off the fire alarm on Dec. 18, by Christmas, what remained was mostly rubble, a couple pieces of copper squirreled away in the corner, and a very unpleasant smell.

 

Old auditorium at Greenwich High School reduced to rubble, Dec. 24, 2015. Credit: Leslie Yager

Old auditorium at Greenwich High School reduced to rubble, Dec. 24, 2015. Credit: Leslie


New Lebanon School. The Board of Education’s embattled New Lebanon School building committee has been rebuffed multiple times by the Board of Selectmen who approved a “Municipal Improvement” for a new school on the existing New Leb footprint. The problem is the school and its footprint are tiny, and enrollment continues to swell. Kindergarten has been housed across the street in BANC, a windowless former candy factory.

Working with Tai Soo Kim Architects, the committee  has pushed for “Option 1,” short for building beyond the school’s original footprint and dipping into the wooded ravine between the school and  I95.

The architects and building committee have argued that keeping hands off the ravine, forces them to design a multi-story building.  Tai Soo Kim pointed out that multi-story schools are problematic for young children who lose valuable instructional time climbing and descending staircases.New Lebanon school community at Board of Ed meeting

The New Lebanon School community turned out in force at the June Board of Ed meeting to support Scheme B, which would result in a new school being built on an existing field along William Street. Credit: Leslie Yager

Scheme B support

In early June a public forum in New Lebanon’s tiny gymnasium was packed with supporters of “Scheme B,” short for a new school on the William Street ball field. It was not to be. Credit: Leslie Yager

The New Leb school community originally had its sights set on building a new school on the William Street ball field, which many in the community took to calling the “town green.” Ultimately, the Selectmen voted against “Scheme B” in June.

The new building is a candidate for significant reimbursement from the state as it is a magnet school designed to alleviate its racial imbalance. The new school will have room for students from other Greenwich school districts.

Everyone does agree it is increasingly urgent to replace the overcrowded 50’s era school where students are taught in closets and the cafeteria is so small students start lunch shifts in mid morning and finish just before dismissal.

On Dec. 9, at a special Board of Selectmen meeting, First Selectman Peter Tesei said many other factors could still bring the project to a standstill, including remediation.

“We’re dealing with things that are unknowns,” Tesei said. “Have all the geological testing been done in there? I believe under Option 1 you’re bringing soil in there?” the First Selectman asked. “Talk to us in terms of environmental assessment you’ve done with this land that would assure us that  the moment we put a shovel in the ground that we’re not going to be hit with some type of impediment.”

The building committee has selected both an architect and construction manager for the project, but they have yet to agree with the Selectmen on a design for a new school. Stay tuned.


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Email news tips to Greenwich Free Press editor Leslie.Yager@GreenwichFreePress.com
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  • Great year end summary, Leslie! Happy New Year and Thank you for all your wonderful articles. You are a great journalist, and a town treasure, My wish for 2016 is that the BET and RTM stop fighting necessary funding for our public schools . Greenwich should have the best public schools in the country. Sending kids to delapidated school buildings with inadequate facilities is a disgrace. Why does the town fight necessary infrastructure improvements? Getting the GHS Perfomance Art Center done took years of struggle and would never have happened without Genny Krob, MISA, and public school advocates. It should have never been so difficult. There should be no road blocks to getting the New Lebanon School project done and Central Middle School should be next on the building list. It is awful. Here is hoping the new Board of Education team bring more fangs to the negotiating table! Thanks for all you do Leslie in support of our schools. Wishing you peace, happiness, and good health.

  • Chris von Keyserling

    Leslie, thank you for the best journalism in Greenwich.

    As to the subject of school funding, there is fault on both sides of the issue. Greenwich already spends a top dollar per student average in its budget. We have (despite doom sayers) one of the best school systems in the country. Just look at the stream of achievements by our students in all areas and ages. Are there challenges still? Of course. We should always be challenged as circumstances and technology shift.
    However, the money that is appropriated by the BET and RTM is not always spent wisely and efficiently by the BOE and administration.
    They could get better value out of the present budgets to the advantage of the students education. There has been an unfortunate habit by the GPS to delay and avoid direct action unnecessarily, out of doubt, lack of self assurance, and need to “look good”. What is desperately needed is a little more courage of conviction by the BOE, and a great deal more management of the Superintendent and staff (not advice and consent).
    That change of mind by the BOE would go a long way to instilling confidence in their budgets by the BET and RTM. These groups are susceptible to the old fogies who think ignorance was good enough for their education, so why waste money on today’s students. Plausible doubt campaigns are sadly effective.

    Clear, firm action by the BOE would bring the leadership and credibility upon which the appropriation funding is secure.

    Happy New Year
    Chris von Keyserling

  • Hmmmm, sorry Chris, Greenwich does not have one of the best school districts in the country by a long shot. Look up the stats. Just visit other school districts in Fairfield County or Westchester.
    Do you have kids? Did they go to the public schools? Four of mine did and had to endure disheartening conditions at Julian Curtiss, Central Middle School and Greenwich High School. At Julian Curtiss, pots and pans where brought out to collect water in classrooms during rain storms. This led to huge black spots in classroom ceilings and the growth of uncontrolled mold that made our kids sick. No one wanted to make the repairs because of the cost…. there was a dirty secret…. Asbestos ceilings. Central? Please! It is a dilapidated shack of a school.You’d think you were sending your kids to a school in a third world country. Greenwich High School, which was built on a swamp and toxic waste dump, is only now getting a face lift after decades of neglect. The Student Center looks like a prison. Getting from one end of the building to the other in a school that houses 2,900 students is a hike ( poor design and planning thanks to cost-cutting by the RTM in the 70’s ) and the atheletic fields are insufficient for the school size and lack proper facilities. Unless you are on a Varsity team, it is almost impossible to find a place to engage in after-school sports.
    The RTM and BET need to get a grip. The reason Greenwich per student cost is high is because the cost of living and getting anything done in Greenwich is so high. The RTM needs to account for this factor in their cost calculations. The school system operates on a shoe-string and the school officials and tax paying public school parents (most of Greenwich citizens) have to fight for every penny. We have to drag ourselves and our kids to the RTM meetings to demand funding and spend hours enduring the hostile, archaic and monolithic proceedings designed to sabotage public school funding. I have watched our school administrators and Board of Education representatives fight tooth and nail over the years for our kids; many talented teachers and officials have left the area in despair. How many Superintendents have we lost to town politics in the last twenty years? I lost count.
    No, the fault lies squarely on the shoulders of anti-public school, cost cutting policies of the BET and RTM and it fanatical unwillingness to fund infrastructure projects with long-term debt even when borrowing costs are almost negligible.
    My kids are grown, I am no longer fighting for them, but I will continue to speak up for the public school student because I truly believe education is a right not a privilege. And, in Greenwich, one of the richest towns in America, we should at least be one of the top rated school systems in the country. We are not.

    Oh and by the way, everyone should be aware that the famous Havemeyer building at the entire 10 acre property belongs to the Board of Education not the town … at least until they sign over the deed over to the town. These properties are NOT RESTRICTED for educational use. This was always a myth. The property was bought by the School Meeting House District in the 1880’s and the building was donated without restriction by Havemeyer. I have the documents to prove this and delivered them years ago to Tesei, the then Superintendent, and The Board of ED. The towns 2007 valuation of these properties was around $270 million. So if the RTM and BET want the Board of Ed to vacate the Havemeyer, then they should negotiate in good faith with the Board of Ed and properly fund our public schools.
    We need to equip the next generation with skills they need to compete in the twenty first century labor force. If the RTM and BET members do not understand this simple concept, they should step down.