Lyme-Old Lyme Selects Committee to Oversee School Construction, Excludes Chief Critic

Center School, Old Lyme (Credit: CT Examiner)


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LYME/OLD LYME — Board of Education members were split over who should be elected as the ninth member of the building committee that will oversee the renovation of four of the district’s schools, with some members arguing that the committee needed a greater diversity and, in particular, more women. 

A project cost of as much as $57.5 million was approved by voters in a November referendum, and will include replacing boilers, installing HVAC systems, and code upgrades at Mile Creek, Lyme Consolidated, Center School and Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School. It also includes the addition of classrooms at Mile Creek Elementary School.

The only requirements for the committee, which consists of nine members and three alternates, is that at least one person has experience in construction. The committee will be responsible for recommending an architect, construction manager and possibly an owner’s representative. They will then oversee the entirety of the project as it progresses. 

The Board of Education received 23 applications for the committee. Each member of the board was asked to review the applications and rank their top nine choices. 

Many of the initial applicants had worked as project managers or had backgrounds in engineering and construction. Others worked in fields like real estate, communications, interior design, architecture, and education. Several said they had children in the school, or worked for the school district themselves. 

During the meeting, board member Mary Powell-St. Louis said she’d noticed that only four of the 23 applicants were women. She also noted the large number of applicants who had backgrounds in engineering, saying she wished there was a greater diversity in the experiences of those who applied. She suggested that the board re-open the application process and do more to encourage people from different backgrounds to apply. 

Board member Laura Dean-Frazier said that she would also like to see more women applying, but she felt that reopening the process wouldn’t necessarily result in more female applicants. 

Based on a ranked-choice voting — the initial procedure — the top nine applicants would include David Kelsey, a member of the town’s Board of Finance, a real estate developer, and a frequent critic of the planning process so far. But based on total votes, there was a four-way tie for the ninth seat.

Board member Anna James suggested that the committee give the position to Cara Zimmermann, a Democrat, and one of the people who tied for ninth place, as a way to have more female representation on the committee and a greater diversity of experience. 

But other board members argued that, based on the ranked voting, David Kelsey actually ranked the highest and should be given the open seat. 

“We did this weighting, the chips fell as they lie,” said Board member Chris Staab. “In my opinion, I think Dave should have the 9th spot because he is weighed at the ninth.”

Board member Jason Kemp said he agreed with James that Zimmermann should be given the position. He said that the board already had a member of the Board of Finance — Andy Russell — who had been chosen for the building committee. He also said that he felt Kelsey wasn’t supportive of the project. 

“Dave Kelsey was very strongly against this project in any way, shape or form,” said Kemp. 

Board member Steve Wilson disagreed, saying he felt that Kelsey would be a good member to have on the committee. 

“He was on the top of my list,” said Wilson. “He really seems to do his homework and brings out issues that other people have overlooked.”   

In a phone call with CT Examiner, Kelsey said he was “disappointed” by Kemp’s words. He said that although he disagreed with the process the board had used, he was not against the project itself. 

“That’s just patently false. I absolutely support these extensive renovations as required commensurate with the high quality of education that we give our kids,” Kelsey told CT Examiner. 

Wilson said he felt that the committee should have diversity, he said he didn’t want “token people” taking the place of people who were qualified. James pushed back that Zimmermann was qualified as a professional. 

Zimmermann’s resume shows that she has experience as an interior designer and project manager, including managing budgets for furniture, fixtures and equipment, and managing contractors. She also has three children in the school system.

“My experience as an interior designer has prepared me to be familiar with the bidding process, project management, as well as current codes related to IBC, NFPA, ASHRAE, OSHA and ADA,” she wrote in her application letter.  

Zimmerman told CT Examiner that she looked forward to being on the committee and adding her perspective. 

“I appreciate the members of the board that saw the value in including my voice on the committee, and I look forward to adding to the conversation as we improve the buildings and enrich the educational environment for our town’s students.”

The board eventually voted 6-2 in favor of Zimmermann, with Jenn Miller and Chris Staab voting against. Wilson did not vote. 

The other members voted to the new committee include Board of Education members Steve Wilson (R) and Mary Powell-St. Louis (R); Old Lyme Board of Finance member Andy Russell (R); Lyme Board of Finance Chair Alan Sheiness (unaffiliated); retired architect John Hartman (D); Kenneth Biega, Part Owner of Noble Construction & Management in Essex, CT, which specializes in education construction (unaffiliated); Richard Conniff, a science writer who has written for multiple outlets (D); and Sara Hrinak, chief engineer for the Cross Sound Ferry (R). 

The three alternates chosen were Kelsey — who said he plans to decline the position — Thomas Kelo and Darren Favello. 

Board member Suzanne Thompson also asked whether teachers and staff members would have the opportunity to weigh in on the project. 

“The last thing you want is you don’t have the chief cook getting to design the kitchen,” said Thompson. 

Superintendent Ian Neviaser said that as part of the design phase, the architect would meet with school staff and talk about what does and doesn’t work. He said it also might be possible to have representatives from the buildings be able to express their opinions to the committee. 

The board appointed Wilson as chair of the Building Committee and Powell-St. Louis as vice chair.

Editor’s note: Kelsey, who was interviewed as part of this story, is the primary financial backer of CT Examiner. He had no editorial input or control over this reporting.

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.