Speakers are Impassioned during Fourth Central Middle School Forum

At Wednesday’s public forum on the new Central Middle School project, 29 members of the public signed up to make statements.

In July the building committee marked its one year anniversary of weekly meetings.

After the hired experts shared their presentations, including renderings and overview of parent and bus traffic patterns, layout of the building, and projected costs, Building Committee chair Tony Turner talked about the regulatory costs, noting that most of them did not exist in 1958.

“We are under a microscope today to make sure we meet absolutely all of these regulations, and in doing so is adding material cost to the building,” Turner said.

Central Middle School was constructed in 1958 and condemned on February 4, 2022.
Total Project cost for a new Central Middle School = $112,016,961
Regulatory costs are additional costs, driven by regulations = $9,609,559. A list of regulatory bodies involved in the project include the CT Dept of Education, the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Building Code, Fire Code, the Individual with Disabilities Education Act, Town of Greenwich, CT School Safety Program, State of CT, and CT High Performance Building standards. Roughly 12,717 sq ft of the proposed building were attributed to regulatory requirements, though the proposed building is only 15,000 sq ft larger than the existing building.

Just before public comments began, Mr. Turner announced the project timeline would need to be revised given what he described as unfortunate news of the previous day.

On Tuesday, special counsel for the town of Greenwich, John Wetmore opined that it was premature for the building committee to seek funding from the BET without an approved Municipal Improvement.

“This development will 1) delay the project, 2) increase its cost, if not materially so, and delay the move-in time for students,” Turner said.

By the time the experts completed their presentations, several people who had signed up to speak were not present or online to do so, but many testified nonetheless.

Michael Spilo

One of the first to speak was RTM member Michael Spilo, who is an ex-officio member of the building committee. He said the proposed building was bigger than necessary and that its budget had ballooned.

“I believe the ed specs are excessive,” he said. “Enrollment will be below 500 before the school is built and is projected to continue to decline through 2040. Despite this, the BOE spec’d the school that can hold up to 924 students, with overly large classrooms using 80% more square footage than required for team teaching in comparable schools throughout the state.”

He said the building committee had failed to keep costs realistic and failed to explore alternative locations.

Also, he suggested the building committee had taken repeated illegal votes as recently as Tuesday, and “threatened censure of those speaking out against this forced march towards a fiscal cliff.”

Spilo said the project was not scheduled to break ground before Oct 24, and “there is really no urgency.”

Lastly he said the building committee should be reconstituted with people who “understand the process” and would “strive to provide a great building, the right size, without throwing taxpayer dollars away.”

Peter Quigley

Peter Quigley, a four-term member of the RTM, noted there had been environmental issues at Hamilton Avenue School, Greenwich High School at the outset of the MISA project, and more recently contamination discovered in the Western Middle School fields.

“Before this thing gets going with the MI, I’m going to be talking about soil testing,” he said. “What kind of soil testing is being done at this site? I didn’t hear any reference to soil testing. I mean testing by EPA federal standards.”

“We’ve been through these projects for 15-20 years where there is contamination in these sites. I’m not saying it is here, but you might want to make sure that as you destroy buildings that you show soil testing and samples, and not to the state, but to the EPA, which is more stringent. You’re going to hold up fields if you find contamination.”

He pointed out that the GHS remediation was estimated to be $28 million, but he believed it had approached $70million, and that Western Middle School remediation was estimated to cost $12-$15 million.

Janet McMahon

Janet McMahon, a CMS parent, urged that the new school be built as soon as possible. She noted the repairs made to the walls and facades were temporary and “only serviceable for a period not to exceed five years.”

“I’d like to remind our community that we have less than 3-1/2 years left on the clock,” she said. “I think I speak for many when I say the CMS parent community has had enough of stall tactics. The Ed Specs have been created, voted on and approved. The conceptual design & schematics have been crated,voted on and approved. The neighborhood has weighed in with their concerns and given their blessing. Enough with the election day political shenanigans.”

Rachel Khanna

State Rep Rachel Khanna (D-149) said, “We have known that CMS needed to be renovated well before February 2022 when it was condemned and closed due to unsafe conditions. And though that should not have happened, we now have an opportunity to build a school that will address the needs of our town and families for many years to come.”

Khanna said the building committee and BOE had scoped an appropriate school that would serve the community, address safety concerns and be a “school for the future,” and that delays would lead to increased costs.

“Let’s get it done,” she said.

Alejandro Quintana

Alejandro Quintana said since moving back to Greenwich from the west coast he and his wife were dismayed by the state of Greenwich Public Schools.

“They show a lack of investment and seem to have been neglected over the years,” he said. “I would have thought in the time I was away from 2005 until now, more work would have been done on the elementary schools, middle schools and high school…Meanwhile, our neighboring towns have invested heavily in their schools.”

Dina Urso – CMS PTA co-president

Dina Urso described the PTA as child advocacy group working for the students’ best interest, and felt strongly the project needed to stay on track.

“Further delays must be avoided,” she said, adding that the PTA was non-partisan, and represented parents who want their children to go to a school that met modern standards and supported modern educational methods.

“We also represent taxpayers who share our support for responsible, effective use of our tax dollars to deliver this school capital project rather than continue to kick the can down the road,” she added.

“We have been disheartened by the rancor and finger pointing that has surrounded this project since its inception. The PTA itself has been targeted by some in this community who have tried to paint our voice as something it is not, in pursuit of their own agendas.”

Urso said the project had been politicized. “The bottom line is this is a school building to teach students in, not a battleground for politicians to campaign upon.”

Joe Rossetti – Member of the CMS Building Committee, previously a project manager for Turner Construction

Rossetti, who spoke on his own behalf, said he had no children or family or relatives who might attend or benefit from a new CMS and had not been affiliated with all political parties for at least 35 years. He said he had managed large public and commercial construction projects for over 30 years, including private and public schools in Fairfield County.

As for the current estimated cost of $112 million, Rossetti said it was based on well developed schematic design, and the BOE ed specs had been approved by the state. Also, he said the price had derived from two independent estimates and that a third party hired by the building had confirmed the magnitude of the estimate.

He noted that to date the town, via the BET, Board of Selectmen and RTM, had only approved roughly $70 million for the school despite the building committee’s and BOE’s much larger funding recommendation and requests based on comparable new schools’ costs.

“The $70 million was not based on any specific drawing, design, details or estimates. It was in essence, a placeholder,” Rossetti said. “It is clearly inadequate funding to build a new school.”

He added that without wholesale changes to the building, the site or the BOE specs, he did not believe it was possible to achieve any further cost reductions.

“I do not know the motives for some elected officials who do not support adequate funding of this or any other Greenwich school project,” Rossetti said. “Perhaps they do not see great value in supporting our educational system. Maybe they feel lower funding will maintain lower taxes and it might enhance their chances for upcoming re-election. Whatever, their reason, it is shortsighted.”

Lastly he said, “I also recommend we all learn the respective CMS opinion and stances of their candidates for local office, and vote accordingly this fall. That will make a difference.”

Steph Cowie

Steph Cowie, who has extensive building committee and PTA leadership experience, brought up the memo from the town attorney that the building committee could not pursue interim funding without an MI. She pointed out that precedents had been set with other projects that received funding or interim appropriations without an MI or final site plan.

“This late charter enlightenment by some BET members will undoubtedly cause a significant delay and cost to the project. This felt more like a gotcha moment and not a collaborative discussion to see how to resolve this issue in a timely manner.”

“This project has had tremendous oversight and eyes on it. Since May the project costs have been clear and have not changed materially. It was clear to everyone that an interim would be needed to complete this project above the BET budget of $70 million. The estimates were peer and independently verified to the actual market rate.”

Ms Cowie said a $40 million interim appropriation would allow the ability to build to the ed specs, and allow the ability to apply to the state immediately, versus in June 2024, to be included on the priority list for state reimbursement.

Bob Chaney

CMS parent Bob Chaney spoke about size and scope of the project.

“There are people in town, and some spoke tonight, who want to shrink the size and scope of this project and who talk about declining student enrollment. This is not a valid reason to shrink the school. The reason CMS needs to be built to this size is because of the two-team teaching system. The current school enrollment does not matter. It’s the amount of classrooms needed that matter.”

He added that the existing CMS classrooms are just 600 sq ft.

“With the average class size being 24 students, the rooms in the new school need to be at least 800 sq ft,” Chaney added. “We also need to take into consideration that this building was built in the 1950’s. They didn’t allocate for special education space or a media center. They also didn’t take into account the necessity of larger classroom sizes – sizes that naturally increased due to ADA and modern building code compliance.”

He said it was also not possible to go smaller than the two-team model requires, and noted that model was also in place at Western and Eastern Middle Schools.

State Rep Hector Arzeno (D-151)

State Rep Hector Arzeno said his support for the project was unwavering.

“CMS students deserve a school that meets their needs, one that allows them to be educated in a safe environment, and one that is welcoming and accessible to all. For too long our buildings have been allowed to fall into disrepair and then languish with needed updates that go unfunded. This school needs to be funded to it can be completed on time.”

Mr. Arzeno said that if called on, he would help in any way he could in Hartford.

Note: This article was updated to reflect that Joe Rossetti was formerly a project manager for Turner Construction

See also:

CMS Building Committee Votes to Request Interim Funds from BET, Town Attorney Appears to Invalidate Vote Sept 7, 2023

P&Z Watch: CMS Pre-App Proposes Removal of Rock Outcropping July 20, 2023

CMS Building Committee Votes 7-1 Not to Explore Siting Options Including Pomerance Park July 11, 2023