The ongoing controversy over the size and cost of the proposed new Central Middle School just will not go away. In fact it seems to be coming to a head as the June 30 deadline to submit a request for grant money to the state draws closer.
The brouhaha all started when the first Selectman’s proposed budget presentation in January included a $10 million reduction to the BOE’s recommended $85.5 million budget for a new school to replace the 50s era building that was shored up after being condemned for human occupancy by the Greenwich Building Dept in Feb 2022.
Last month the Republican controlled Board of Estimate and Taxation approved the reduced amount of $67.5 million to replace the building, but based on the Education Specifications for the building it is likely the estimate from Turner Construction will come in higher.
The pot boiled again on Monday at CMS morning drop off when RTC chair Beth MacGillivray and RTC member Nita Spilo handed out flyers to parents urging a smaller less expensive school than the Ed Specs call for.
Later the same day the schools superintendent Dr. Toni Jones sent out an email saying the incident with the flyers had violated Board of Education policy about distribution political materials and disrupted traffic, making some students late for class.
On Wednesday the Republicans published a letter saying Dr. Jones overreacted.
The building committee managed to keep a lid on the pot Wednesday night during the community engagement forum featuring a panel of consultants.
The building committee chair Tony Turner stated at the outset they would not entertain questions about the proposed school’s size or cost.
But on Thursday, the simmering disagreement boiled over at the regular BOE business meeting when it came to light that Republicans were accusing CMS PTA of holding a secret meeting where building committee Chair Tony Turner and Vice Chair Clare Kilgallen were guests, and kicking a member off the executive board.
Greenwich Republicans have tweeted repeatedly to characterize that meeting as having been “confidential” and of a “political nature” and lamenting the removal of a board member with “an opposing position.”
During public comment, PTA Council president Frances Wu Nobay pushed back on the idea that the PTA was politicized.
She explained that PTA Council was the umbrella organization that coordinates, connects with and collaborates with the district’s 15 PTAs and town bodies including the BOE.
PTAC is a 501(c)3, as is each independent neighborhood school PTA.
“PTAC and PTAs are non-partisan, non political and we welcome all Greenwich Public Schools families,” Wu Nobay said. “While we are nonpartisan and non political, we do advocate, and we advocate strongly for all students, for all families, for teachers, for schools, and the best darn buildings.”
“Advocacy is apolitical,” she said. “Advocacy is why we speak tonight, and since the founding of PTA in 1897.”
“As PTAC president, I hope this helps clear up any confusion about the role, purpose, efforts of PTAC and our 15 neighborhood school PTAs,” she added.
Minutes late, former BOE member Peter Sherr addressed the board, saying that PTAs had access to special taxpayer funded resources and urging them to create policies with “guidance on what is acceptable and not acceptable.”
“These resources are at taxpayer expense and they include use of town IT resources, rent free access to public buildings, and special access to staff,” he said, adding that outside organizations associated with Greenwich Schools, such as PTAs, must adhere to the district’s “values of openness, transparency, integrity and non-bullying.”
He asserted that the meeting where the CMS PTA board met with the building committee leaders had technically been a public meeting.
“Despite having clear whistle blower rules, also in their bylaws, the CMS PTA leadership retaliated against a parent who disclosed this meeting that was actually in this public domain,” Mr. Sherr said. “I hope you will refer this matter to the policy committee so that the events that recently happened here at CMS are not repeated at other schools.”
CMS PTA co-president Dina Urso explained she had previously had conversations with Mr. Sherr about some of his points.
“Since apparently he wants to bring it into this forum, we want everyone to understand that we were quite shocked by the position. We were quite shocked to hear comments that people are concerned about policy and transparency.”
Urso agreed the CMS PTA was indeed an independent organization. But, she said, “Our views are our own and not subject to outside organizational pressures.”
She added that the CMS PTA had been advocating for the project for over a year, but that it was up to the Board of Education to determine the size and scope of the building.
Urso emphasized the importance of the project staying on schedule.
“The repairs in 2022 – as we understand it – were intended to last about five years,” she said. “If there is delay on the front end, our concern is that the repairs might not have the lifespan to carry this building through until the end of the project.”
She brought up the June 30 deadline to submit an application for state grant money.
“This opportunity may be missed if there is not adequate funding,” she said. “We look forward to hearing from Turner Construction in the coming days and find out what the cost estimates are, and whether the allotted budget will be viewed as adequate by the state.”
Urso’s co-president Jen Behette said the previous night’s community forum had been informative, but parents continued to have questions.
She suggested the BOE hold a town hall format meeting to answer questions from parents.
“While last night’s forum was a legitimate form of outreach, we have received questions and concerns about two other not so seemingly legitimate attempts over the past few weeks,” Behette said.
“The first is a survey many received from (former Republican State Rep in district 151) Harry Arora. It was written in the same format and with the same markings as emails he sent when he held political office. It, however, leaves out the fact that his wife is a voting member of the building committee. Parents of CMS and feeder schools were confused as to whether the contents of the survey were being seriously considered as viable options.”
Specifically, she asked the BOE to clarify whether they were indeed considering busing children to another location for a year. She also asked if the survey results had been shared with them.
Second, she brought up Monday’s incident with the flyers.
“Drop-off and pick-up and at CMS is a sight to behold, and not in a good way,” she said describing drop off as a double-helix of chaos.
“To have outside adults think this is a good time to hand out flyers is confounding to say the least. Parents have reached out to us and to you, and we appreciate the effort you made to the CMS community to make sure our school remains a school and not a three-ring circus,” Behette said.
During her updates, Board of Ed member Laura Kostin, who is the BOE’s representative on the CMS building committee, noted that the previous night’s community forum, the architect, SLAM, had presented the latest version of their draft site plan as well as draft floor plans and rendering of the building exterior.
She added that the committee anticipated a conceptual design estimate from Turner Construction early in the coming week.
“If it comes in above our current appropriation level from the BET – and based on information from Turner it likely will – the BOE will need to meet and decide our next steps,” Kostin said.
“If we need an interim appropriation we (BOE) will have to meet and make that determination and request funds from the BET, and if they are so inclined to give us an interim appropriation it will have to be voted on by the BET and RTM. All of that has to happen by a June 30 submission,” she said, noting there was a significant amount of paperwork involved as well.
BOE chair Joe Kelly said a 25-30 page document including estimates from Turner Construction was anticipated to be received on the evening of May 23.
“We’re going to try to have a combined meeting with the BET and BOE, with Turner Construction, who will present that to us and give us the breakdown on what costs we have,” Mr. Kelly said. “There’s also some possibilities of value engineering if necessary because there are materials we can make decisions on.”
He joked that Mr. Mercanti-Anthony’s preferred ‘diamond windows’ might need to be replaced.
He said there was a tentative May 30 meeting scheduled with the BOE, CMS building committee and the BET.
“We still have to figure out if it’s the building committee that actually goes for the appropriation or us (BOE),” he said. “There’s a lot of moving parts over the next couple weeks.”
Ms Kostin said the revised Ed Specs, which for example eliminated a proposed Maker Space, were still being edited and were not yet available for the public to review.
Lastly, Ms Kostin addressed Ms Behette’s comment about Mr. Arora’s survey, saying the board had no knowledge or involvement.
On the matter of the CMS PTA executive board’s meeting with the leaders of the building committee, Ms Kostin quoted assistant town attorney Aamina Ahmad who said, “It is my understanding that the meeting was that of the PTA executive board. The initial analysis of the law department was that the FOIA posting requirement was not violated by virtue of the chair and vice chair attending the PTA executive board meeting. This was later confirmed by a Connecticut FOIAC representative. There was no violation of our FOI practices by the building committee or the PTA.”