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Why Investing More in Public School Buildings is a Good Idea

One reason I love my office is that it is in my job description that I be knowledgeable about Greenwich, including its history. I therefore make the time to learn all I can. If only every Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) member shared my interest in local history. Perhaps then our community could avoid some past mistakes regarding school capital projects.

At the February 9th BET Budget Committee hearing, there was much discussion about declining enrollment. Did the Town not close schools because of declining enrollment in the 80s, only to have to reopen those schools in short order? Has anyone done an analysis of the cost savings? Did the Town save any money? And if it did, was it worth the division it sowed?

A suggestion was raised that the new Central Middle School (CMS) auditorium could be downsized, because the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) could use the high school Performing Arts Center (PAC). That’s an interesting idea, and if it significantly reduces the square footage of the design, great. But then let’s also acknowledge that the MISA project (the project replacing the original auditorium with the PAC) should never have happened. The PAC should have been part of the original high school design, and our Town would have benefitted from a proper auditorium. Not to mention the Town would not have had to pay to remediate the high school playing fields (because soil testing related to the MISA project revealed contamination). Again, let’s learn from history and get things right from the beginning.

Further on that thought, when designing CMS as a net zero facility was raised, the response was that the most energy efficient building is a smaller building. That isn’t true. Construction is a much bigger contributor than heating and cooling. Therefore, a building with the smallest carbon footprint is one that goes the longest without a need for renovation. We need to build a facility that allows for greatest flexibility in class sizes, and that is the one approved by the Board of Education (BoE) in its educational specifications. CMS is seventy years old, and we want to build the new facility for at least another seventy years.

It not factual that the Town can only spend $100 million on capital projects this year. Nothing in the Town charter limits the capital spending to this level. There is no opportunity cost from investing in our schools, because there is no higher priority. Nor is it factual that this Town only pursues one project at a time. The historical record does not support this statement. And if it were an official policy, then why are the repurposing of the Havemeyer building, the redevelopment of Roger Sherman Baldwin Park and the renovation of the Town skating rink being put forward as possible projects? In particular the rink, since the remediation of Western Middle School’s playing fields has not even begun and until their remediation is complete Western students need the use of the fields adjacent to the rink.

And how does deferring capital projects demonstrate care for the almost 30% of Town residents whose income is at ALICE or below? (ALICE standing for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, or those households living paycheck to paycheck.) Every million dollars that is added to the budget represents $50 on the tax assessment of the average Greenwich household. So the Old Greenwich School renovation spread over a five year bonding period would cost the AVERAGE household $250. Even if ALICE residents rent and one assumes the landlord passes on this cost, their tax burden would be well below that. Compare that to the costs of sending a child to a school regularly flooded with raw sewage and non-ADA compliant.

The BoE and school building committees deserve our deep appreciation. Their unpaid service is incredibly demanding. To show our gratitude, please let the BET know you support fully funding the BOE capital budget. Send your comments to BET@GreenwichCT.org before March 7. Our children are our future and we owe it to them to get this right.

Janet Stone McGuigan, Greenwich Selectperson

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