Submitted by Alex Popp, Linda Tommasino and Bonnie Zeh
We are writing to recommend that the $1.7million for further exploratory work on the $26 million Julian Curtiss School (JC) capital project be allocated to update ADA/HVAC and Safety. While we are supportive of capital funding for our GPS, we also believe that every capital project deserves to be scrutinized to determine its need and viability.
We fully support the renovation of our schools for ADA compliance and we want to ensure that HVAC systems and security are up to the highest standards. However, we do not support the addition of extra classroom space when enrollment is dropping, or costly features which do not advance the academic mission of our schools.
Over the past five years, the number of JC students has declined by almost 25%, from 361 to 272. This number is inclusive of children who are practicing remote learning.
The 2020 GPS Enrollment Report (11/5/20, p12) states that “Over the ten-year projection period, projected enrollment in the school (JC) could average about 215 students compared to the average of 328 students observed over the past ten years.” The steady decline in the enrollment data directly contrasts with the argument that we should be expanding Julian Curtiss’ capacity.
The BOE’s 2017 Facilities Master Plan projected current elementary capacity to be about 4,300 students, while present enrollment is only 3,804. Clearly there is a growing abundance of excess capacity in our elementary schools. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Fewer students produce a better teacher/student ratio, which is something we all want.
Although the JC proposal includes ADA and HVAC upgrades, which are necessary, it also includes; Pre-K infrastructure (constructing two classrooms), construction of a Science Room, expanding/relocating the cafeteria, relocating the media center, building a courtyard, adding a breezeway and expanding administrative offices. These are nice additions, but none are necessary for the school to function properly in an era of decreasing enrollment.
It is also clear that there has not been a community wide discussion about the need to expand public Pre-K with its attendant costs. Additional staff will need to be hired, and salaries, pensions and healthcare benefits will be legacy costs for the foreseeable future. This is a worthy topic for debate, however constructing Pre-K infrastructure before having that discussion is putting the cart before the horse.
The schools are in a state of perpetual litigation risk due to our ADA non-compliance. Currently, there is an ongoing investigation into Old Greenwich School’s lack of ADA compliance. These risks could cost our town millions of dollars if left unaddressed. Equally important is the fact that our students, staff and family members with disabilities are not able to access our GPS facilities in a safe and seamless way. When it comes to school capital projects, accessibility, inclusion and safety should be the top priority for the GPS.
The BOE has essentially linked “wants” with “needs”, and we believe a better option would be to present a capital plan that separates urgent “needs” from “wants.” This will eliminate the need to “choose” one over the other and hopefully lead to less contentious public debate.
The argument made by some that our schools need to be “brought into the 21st Century” is equivocal. Teaching brings our schools forward, and JC has some of the best elementary teachers in our GPS as well as a well respected Principal. The fact is, adding capacity during what is a long term period of declining enrollment is not practical and could ultimately result in the need to close one of our elementary schools (it has happened before).
We acknowledge that making an argument against any type of spending on schools is a perilous endeavor. We saw emotions boil over during last year’s BOE operating budget debate, and how quickly people were publicly ridiculed as “anti-school” or “anti-education” due to their beliefs. We want a JC plan that makes the necessary upgrades to the school, but is also cognizant of our town’s overall ability to fund over a billion dollars worth of proposed school projects in the coming years.
Alex Popp, Linda Tommasino and Bonnie Zeh
• 2020 GPS Enrollment Report
• 2018 GPS Facility Master Plan
• Elementary Square Footage, Enrollment and Capacity (March 2017)
• 2017 GPS Enrollment Report -2015 GPS Enrollment Report