Op Ed: Time to Move New Lebanon Project Forward
By Jim Lash
You have to be a certain age to remember that it was Cool Hand Luke who famously said: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Harry, with whom I often agree, raises two separate important issues in his letter from last week. In his opening paragraph he says: “The Town has a problem funding a new building for New Lebanon School…” In his final paragraph he says: “The Town needs a comprehensive plan to deal with renovation and replacement of all school related facilities…”
Let’s take the last one first. “The Town needs a comprehensive plan …” I agree. But what many may not know is that the existing budget does include money to pay for a professional assessment of the condition of Town schools and to produce a comprehensive fifteen-year plan. That project is well under way and the new plan, which updates the plan from fifteen years ago, is already the subject of public meetings and should be part of the school system budget request for FY18-19 when it is submitted February 1, 2018.
As to funding for the New Lebanon School, that is the easy question. Yes, Greenwich has the money, through a combination of cash in its bank account and authority, if necessary, to bond in order to pay for the school now.
It may seem complicated but here are the facts:
• The necessary State approvals under the racial balance law have been received qualifying Greenwich for substantial State funding – about 60% of the total cost.
• If the State retracts its commitment to Greenwich, we still have the money to pay for the school and there will not be an increase in property taxes as a result.
• Just as MISA required adjustments to capital improvement priorities and ended up pushing back the schedule for New Lebanon, a lack of State funding will require the Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) Committee to adjust some priorities moving forward. That is exactly what it is designed to do.
Further, I would argue that this is exactly the right school to build. Remember, there used to be two schools in Byram. The larger of the two, the Byram School, was converted into senior housing during the last low point in school enrollment. Enrollment since then has increased by over 2,300 students. The old additions to New Lebanon do not come close to replacing the space in the Byram School.
This school is ready to be built but the process was not easy. Greenwich Schools Administration and the Board of Education, after numerous public meetings and parent surveys and meetings of the Board of Selectmen, chose the educational specifications (number of classrooms, athletic facilities, music spaces, lunchroom, etc.), received State approvals for the building design, and received Town land use agency and building department approvals. The New Lebanon Building Committee has bids to complete the construction for the approved budget.
Greenwich doesn’t have enough classrooms for the students on the West side of Town. We know this because the new Glenville School, which was thought to have spare capacity when it was built is already full and, sadly, New Lebanon is teaching in hallways and closets, renting space elsewhere, and forcing its excess students to go to schools outside their neighborhood.
Yes, there are empty seats and classrooms in other parts of town, (not as many as you may think) but the Board of Education, the professional staff, and parents town-wide are committed to neighborhood schools, which are better for children and reduce morning town-wide traffic, already a major concern.
The State approved this plan as an acceptable way to meet the requirements of the State racial balance law. If Greenwich does not build this school now, then the State has the authority and can mandate an immediate solution for us, which may include redistricting of all elementary schools in Greenwich and busing. No one wants that to happen or to have to fight against it in court.
The Board of Education has asked the RTM to take up this building project at its October 23rd meeting. I expect the BET to hold a special meeting on October 24th to receive the result of the RTM meeting and consider releasing the funds for New Lebanon. Other cities and towns in Connecticut are not waiting for the State to pass a budget.
The New Lebanon project has been thoroughly studied for years. Greenwich can and should move this project into construction.
Jim Lash currently serves as the Chairman of the BET Budget Committee. He is the Chairman of Manchester Principal, former First Selectman from 2003 to 2007, a director of the East West Institute from 2002 to 2011 and a trustee of MIT from 2000 to 2011.