LWV/PTAC Forum on Greenwich Schools Funding Tackles Balancing Low Mill Rate, Schools Infrastructure, Long Term Borrowing

The League of Women Voters of Greenwich and PTA Council held a joint forum Wednesday night to discuss the budget for Greenwich Public Schools, where almost 9,000 students are enrolled.

The context for many of the questions was the ceiling collapse at North Mianus School on Feb 13.

Before introducing panelists, Aya DeSimone from the LWV said, “Democracy works best when we engage in civil discourse. We are a non partisan organization and it’s important we conduct ourselves in that way.

Overview of the BOE Operating and Capital Budget for 2021-2022

Important dates in the budget process include a public hearing on March 29 from 7-10pm, which will be an additional opportunity for public input. The BET budget meetings are listed on the town’s website, including Zoom links and passwords.

Greenwich Schools Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones was asked what resources had been cut and not restored that were impacting student achievement.

Jones said that when her team first built the budget it was $2.4 Million more than what was presented to the BOE.

She said specifically they would like to fund elementary school social workers, and add professional development.

BET Budget Committee FY 2021-2022 Budget Meeting Calendar

Brian Peldunas, head of PTA Council, relayed a submitted question to BOE chair Peter Bernstein about the 2017 master facilities plan from KG&D that warned, “Greenwich Schools buildings are adequately maintained but many buildings have roofs, ceilings, floors, windows and ventilation systems that have reached their life span….As a tax payer and parent I feel I have the right to know if my child’s schools are structurally sound. How will we address historic underspending on maintenance?” he asked.

BOE chair Peter Bernstein noted the average age of Greenwich school buildings dated to the 1950s, with the oldest ones dating back to 1902, 1925, 1933 and 1946 respectively.

“What we did learn from the master facility plan is you should be spending between 2% and 5% of the asset value of your buildings in terms of annual maintenance,” he said. “We spend on average $10 million and lower in recent years when the minimum of that 2% would be $20 million.”

“Our requests are starting to ratchet up,” he added, noting that the district is looking at systems in buildings and had included an interim appropriation for HVAC for Cos Cob. “We had it in our request for this year, but the system is failing faster than we thought it should.”

Bernstein said that at North Mianus School, a section of the roof was already slated to be replaced in a couple years.

Of the ceiling collapse at that school on Feb 13, he said, “This was not a roof issue. Nor was this a maintenance issue.”

“This is infrastructure. These are things that lurk and live behind walls,” he said. “When you have an old house, things go. It’s the same with our buildings. There are things you don’t see unless you break into walls and dig into ceilings.”

He explained that that was why the engineers and town building department had asked the BOE to have people inspect the three oldest buildings, which were already identified for major work.

He said the BOE awaited the engineer’s report. “They’ll let us know if we can go back.”

In the meantime, students and staff at those schools have pivoted to full remote.

“Major projects are really hard. They’re expensive. Julian Curtiss School is upwards of $20 million. But if you want to keep a 75-year-old building functioning for the future, $20 million may not be enough.”

Mr. Bernstein said the reason the older schools were on the top of the list was because of deficiencies in accessibility.

“They’re not ADA accessible,” he said. “That’s not just putting an elevator on the building. They have issues with HVAC units. If you drive by some of them they have window units. And on top of that they have security issues.”

“Our challenge is we have a lot of needs and wants, as does the town side, and we’re all competing for the same dollars,” he said. “For a very long time Greenwich has had a very low mill rate. We all love the low mill rate. But we also love our facilities, our town beaches, town library, town golf course. It’s why people move here. We basically kick the can down the road every year. Projects don’t go away, they just get pushed into the next year, and the next year.”

“We can’t put all the projects we want on the list. The superintendent makes a list – she cuts things from the list. She goes to the BOE – we cut things from that list. That list goes to the First Selectman – sometimes the First Selectman cuts things. When it gets to the BET, they cut it again.”

BOE chair Peter Bernstein

Bernstein said to make all the district’s buildings ready for 21st century learning would require significant investment, commitment and real discussion.

First Selectman Fred Camillo was asked whether a new Hamill Rink and refashioned Roger Sherman Baldwin Park were more important than projects identified by the school district.

Camillo said people move to Greenwich for a variety of reasons.

“They move here for the schools. They move here for the low taxation,” Camillo said. “They move here for the proximity to New York and Boston. They move here for the high civic involvement, because we have a hospital, a great library system. We have to balance it. We have to take care of everything.”

He noted that Hamill Rink was built on a slab of ice with boards back in 1972 and had been added to piecemeal.

He said the town bought the Eastern Greenwich Civic Center back in 1967 and by the 1980s it was outdated.

“It’s falling apart,” he said, adding, “The GEMS station was 5 years in the making.”

“It’s all about prioritization and making sure there’s a balance,” he added. “If we did all parks, or all schools, it wouldn’t be good.”

Camillo said public-private partnerships would help free up capital for the school projects.

“We’re in deep negotiations with an anchor donor for the civic center and several people approached us about the rink,” Camillo said. “The goal is to free up money to go to other places where it’s needed.”

Mr. Bernstein was asked why wasn’t ADA compliance being addressed at all of Greenwich’s schools as opposed to waiting for each building to be rehabbed.

“This isn’t about slapping an elevator on the building,” Bernstein replied. “It’s about making sure all aspects of the building area accessible. Are doors wide enough? Are sinks available? …Can they get into the main entrance? At OG they enter by the dumpsters.”

Bernstein said there was money in the budget to tackle those three buildings first because they have needs across all three categories: ADA, HVAC and security, but the community ought to have a conversation about what they want as far as balancing the town’s low mill rate, aging school infrastructure and long term borrowing.

“We prioritize maintenance and keeping the buildings running, but there’s bigger things that need to get done,” he added.

This year, the budget guideline letter the BET puts out says, ‘Capital projects are projected at $55 million of prioritize projects to cover required maintenance expenses, remediation and a few improvement projects.'”

“There’s not really a whole lot left for projects,” Bernstein said.

“It’s not an easy thing to say, ‘We’re going to do this year just ADA,” he said. “The old way they did facilities planning in the district was to say, ‘This year we’re going to do all new lights,’ whether or not they needed new lights – or bathrooms or painting.”

“The way we do it now is based on a plan the BET asked us for, that the town funded,” he added. “We’re using that to make better decisions about what gets prioritized. But we can’t do it all.”

Camillo answered a question about the recent results of a 100 page field study commissioned by Parks & Rec.

He said the study was was driven by field user groups and individuals who have been very vocal over decades, and noted there were residents who grew “alarmed” when they saw the study, which identifies 27 fields, including school fields.

“A couple of them were out of place,” he said, adding that he had met with neighbors of Cos Cob’s Loughlin Ave Park, where the study suggested a little league complex with splash pad, parking lot and concession stand.

“I explained it’s just a concept, and it’s not even close to funding,” Camillo said. “That particular rendering fits well in certain venues, but it didn’t fit in that particular park.”

He said parking was necessary at an improved field, and that would become a sticking point.

“Not every field in that study is going to happen,” he said. “Athletics is a huge part of growing up. It’s right up there with education. We want to make sure we have enough venues, and safe, accessible venues, and ADA inclusive.”

Brian Peldunas of PTAC noted a PCG’s consulting report on special education was anticipated to be completed soon, and asked about interim funding for out-of-district placements.

Mr. Bernstein said the results and action plan were eagerly anticipated, but that some of the recommendations might not be about money.

“We do send a lot of students out-of-district,” Bernstein said. “Some are settlements, some are because we don’t provide services. If we can bring them back, there may be a savings of money.”

Nancy Weissler, one of the moderators, asked Mike Mason (BET chair, Republican) and Leslie Moriarty (BET, Democrat) about the BET’s long term plan for the capital funding needs of the school system over the next 5 years.

Mr. Mason said capital spending for BOE recommendations included HVAC, security, Central Middle School, but did not include soil remediation or Cardinal stadium phase 1 and 2.

“The question was out there about why we didn’t approve the last couple years of capital request from the BOE. One example that comes to mind is Western Middle School’s remediation. I think that’s $8 or $9 million. Last year it was in the budget and it was not funded because we didn’t think we’d have approvals from the state to commence the work.”

“The year before there was a request for feasibility studies of JC and OG,” Mason said. “There was discussion of whether we want to do feasibility studies that far ahead, so the decision was to postpone one.”

Since 2006, we put $290 million into our school buildings, between maintenance and large projects,” Mason said. “That doesn’t include projects done by DPW for the schools. That comes down to about a $20 million average.”

“Currently the BOE has $30 million in capital they’re working on diligently and we’re about to add another $30 million.”

“That’s the plan, it’s been working,” he added. “We put a lot into our infrastructure.”

Leslie Moriarty from the BET said it was disappointing that the architectural and engineering funding for Julian Curtiss School was delayed last year.

She said the detailed BOE master facilities plan has only existed since 2018.

Moriarty said all departments should come to the BET if the guidelines don’t represent their needs.

“We don’t need any more evidence that it’s critical we fund this plan,” Moriarty said. “But not everything can be done at once.”

“The BET, I hope is a willing partner in trying to move things forward,” Moriarty said. “Unfortunately, what has happened in the past is that …the BET tends to start with how to fit the plan into the BET’s financing model. That’s a conversation that needs to change. The question should really be how to change the financing structure to meet the identified investment needs.”

Mr. Peldunas relayed a question about the “budget tension” created when there is a 2% budget increase cap despite a contractual 3% salary increase for teachers. That “tension” has meant either efficiencies needed to be found or programs needed to be cut.

Moriarty said, “Now it seems we’re not having the right conversation. The makeup of the student population, parent expectations, and increased state requirements are all changing the way we need to look at school funding.”

“Money is not always the answer,” Moriarty said. “Going forward, the BET should be funding the negotiated labor contracts in the budget guidelines and reflect trends in enrollment, changes in educational delivery, changes in demographics, and new mandates….We have got to figure out a way for the BOE and the administration to have a communication with the BET about these changes.”

Moriarty noted it was important to balance support for schools with the cost to taxpayers.

Mr. Mason pointed out that this year there was $7 million more budgeted due to union contracts, out-of-district tuition and salaries.

“What people don’t understand is that the BET has been very supportive of BOE policies,” he said, adding that the people of Greenwich needed to understand that the BET has been very supportive of BOE policies.

“We supported the BOE policy for the highest starting salaries for teachers, lowest class size guidelines for any peer community, the high level of curriculum, maintaining the neighborhood school network.”

Mike Mason, chair of the Board of Estimate and Taxation.

Further, Mr. Mason said what’s not in the BOE budget are items the BET must support, including health care, contractual costs, pensions, unfunded liability for non certified staff, workers comp, School Resource Officers, legal expenses, fields and ground maintenance, snow removal, fleet expenses, insurance premiums, and legal settlements.

He said the BET had also funded programs including Teen Talk and Kids in Crisis.

Mr. Mason added, “Our student spending per pupil is actually on the rise because of declining enrollment…We don’t know if it’s a blip because of Covid.”

“When you start adding it up, our spending is generous,” he said.

Asked about whether there should be a community conversation about borrowing to fund projects and maintaining low, predictable mill rate increases, Mr. Mason said, there already has been a dialogue in town, “at levels one would never expect.”

Asked about long term borrowing to address the school district’s long term capital needs, given low interest rates, Moriarty said the current assumptions in the capital plan given from the First Selectman do not support the needs of the town’s schools.

“The town needs to support and continue borrowing in tranches to meet the cash flow needs of capital projects,” Mr. Mason said. “The question to the taxpayer is every time you want to borrow $10 million, do you want to pay an extra $1.8 million interest back?”

He said there were other efforts under way. “We’re working on reform on our pension obligation for unfunded liability that would free up a significant amount of cash. We’re working on restructuring the Nathaniel Witherell (town owned nursing home) so that facility is not a huge drain.”

Mason said the BOE had inherited facilities that needed a lot of work.

“We have to prioritize. The current debt model is working,” he said. “We have to find efficiencies and prioritizing. We just can’t do it all at once.”

There was a question about Greenwich High School Cardinal field Phase 2, which would include a second egress to the campus. Mr. Mason put the stadium project in context of other projects including stadium phase 1a and 1b, $4.5 million of dollars in interior work, the security entrance building addition, and remediation for fields 2, 3, and 4.

He noted that State of Connecticut is planning to reconstruct the bridge under Hillside Rd at East Putnam Ave.

“I don’ know how much we can throw at Greenwich High School and what the impacts will be to staff, neighbors and kids,” Mason said.

Toward the end of the forum Mr. Bernstein said the “blame game” and finger pointing following the NMS ceiling collapse was not fair.

He said recent water incidents were not from leaks. The Cos Cob flood was the result of a faulty faucet, not pipes leaking.

A flood at GHS was the result of wrong parts being used that were behind walls.

At GHS, the district has been exploring different water monitoring approaches, including staffing the building during off hours and during school breaks.

“We run the heat to keep the buildings warm so the pipes don’t break,” Bernstein said, noting the replacement value of the district’s school buildings was $1 Billion. “We do have a million square feet of buildings.”

Superintendent Jones said the engineering report on the NMS inspection had arrived earlier in the evening.

“It was the plaster ceiling that fell on the water pipe,” she said. “It wasn’t a pipe on its own.”

Mr. Bernstein said the district does prioritize projects.

“This false narrative that we don’t prioritize doesn’t sit well with me. Our facilities team and administrators take the list, walk the buildings, use external experts…and make the request based on actual needs. To blindly say we’re going to adopt a plan for 15 years doesn’t work.”

Bernstein said it was not fair to blame the BET, the BOE, or the Superintendent.

“We have a system in town we’ve all benefited from. We have low mill rate increases. That’s the way we’ve wanted it forever. If we want talk about long term financing, it’s going to be the BET, the BOE, the RTM and and all the citizens and parents who want the projects done with haste can say, ‘Can we change our model?'”

“Stop the false narrative and stop blaming everybody. This is about rolling up our sleeves up,” Bernstein added.

Bernstein acknowledged there were other school districts where multiple projects were tackled at once using long term bonds.