GREENWICH – “Fund our schools!” chanted a crowd outside town hall before the Board of Estimate and Taxation’s public hearing began Wednesday night.
The group was a mere fraction of more than 100 officials, administrators, parents and students who packed into the building – many calling for the town to adequately fund school projects for the coming year, and others warning of increased costs to taxpayers and rushed construction plans.
On April 4, the Republican-led board is slated to take a final vote on the 2023-24 town budget, which includes a nearly $122 million capital funding request from the Board of Education.
“They (school officials and parents) have come before you for years to ask that our capital needs be met because you alone hold the purse strings,” Laura Kostin, a Democratic Board of Ed member, told the Board of Estimate and Taxation during the forum. “We get lip service, but we don’t get adequate funding.”
Most of the school board’s capital budget request would be dedicated to renovations of Old Greenwich School and Julian Curtiss School, and the replacement of Central Middle School, as the buildings are not compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act standards, lack modern HVAC systems and generate increased maintenance and operation costs for the school district.
In 2018, Greenwich Public Schools developed a 15-year Facilities Master Plan, estimating a total of $713 million to address school deficiencies. Following Board of Estimate and Taxation votes in recent years, however, the school board’s recommended capital budgets were cut by almost 7 percent in 2022 and about 52 percent in 2021.
While many attendees called for the estimate and taxation board to fund the latest Board of Education request in full, several residents defended prior funding for school construction projects.
Joe Montanero, vice chair of the Greenwich Republican Town Committee, said Republicans also wanted to make the necessary repairs, but noted that the town had given $500 million to the district for capital spending since 2006.
“These numbers include tens of millions for maintenance. How do these issues exist?” Montanero asked. “How do we have sewer leaks? How do we have collapsing ceilings? How do we have broken thermostats? How do we have no way to get compliance in certain buildings? How do we have mold issues in other buildings? It makes no sense to me.”
Montanero told CT Examiner on Thursday that Greenwich had a well-funded public school system, and said the “common sense approach” would be to investigate where and how previous funds were spent by the school administration.
“You can’t blame the person who’s giving you hundreds of millions of dollars every year,” Montanero said.
Though Montanero said it was nice to see a large turnout at the Wednesday meeting, he questioned the motives of some attendees.
“There were a lot of parents in there, and I think they got their marching orders from a select few Democrat elected officials to regurgitate the same narrative that it’s the BET’s fault, when they should look within themselves and look within their own buildings,” he said.
But Steph Cowie, a Republican and member of the town’s Advisory Committee for People with Disabilities, said at the hearing that public school infrastructure should be a nonpartisan issue and questioned pushback from fellow party members.
“Do you think we continue to plead with the GOP BET to do the right thing because you overfund our schools?” Cowie asked.
Cowie said the community and administration have been calling for ADA compliance – particularly for the multistory Old Greenwich School, which lacks an elevator – for many years now.
“Kicking this can down the road is not acceptable,” Cowie said. “… ADA compliance just doesn’t happen by putting in an elevator, putting in one bathroom and making one door wider. Your entire school needs to be accessible.”
Greenwich resident Megan Berendowski brought her 9-year-old son, Austin, up to the podium and recalled his experience in a wheelchair while attending Old Greenwich School.
“He knows better than most the urgency of the renovation at Old Greenwich School, given he spent 12 weeks unable to reach his third-floor classrooms due to its 70-some steps to get there,” Berendowski said.
She added that her son spent large portions of his day separate from his classmates.
Another Greenwich parent, Tracy Brown, told Board of Estimate and Taxation members that she was concerned about the “environmental hazards” in Old Greenwich School, claiming both of her children have tested positive for mycotoxins, a toxin produced by fungus.
“I believe the constant flooding and the blockage of sewer into the lower-level classrooms, in addition to the lack of air ventilation is an immediate cause of concern,” Brown said.
Roof replacement work and a major upgrade to the school’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system were two of the many needed repairs listed in the 2018 school board plan.
“The BET can no longer delay these improvements and must approve funding for OGS immediately so we can fix this toxic environment that our kids must endure every day,” Brown added.
Greenwich student Dylan Tobin spoke about the school’s apparent sewage problem. When rain is heavy, he and other meeting attendees said, sewage backs up into classrooms.
“Year-after-year, the BET has not been funding our schools,” Tobin said. “I mean, there was literally sewage in my school.”
During a call with CT Examiner on Thursday, Democratic Board of Estimate and Taxation member Leslie Moriarty stressed the importance of the school district’s funding request and addressed residents’ concerns over potentially higher taxes as a result. She said taxes would moderately increase, but the town would not have to touch its $73 million rainy day fund.
“If the BET continues the historical expectation that we apportion a part of our property taxes to go toward capital and if we continue to moderately increase that amount, each year we can fund the Board of Ed’s capital plan and the town’s capital plan,” Moriarty explained.
Moriarty said she hoped to approve the school funding request, but admitted the 12-member estimate and taxation board typically votes along party lines. Laura Erickson, another Democratic member of the board, said the same.
“The Republican chair has a tie-breaking vote, so if we’re split 6-6 on party lines, he can exercise that tie-breaking vote,” Erickson said Thursday. “And that’s happened repeatedly in the last few budget cycles.”
Erickson said she hoped the public hearing changed some estimate and taxation board members’ opinions, but that she was doubtful about the April 4 vote.
“All those people who came out last night – I was so impressed. I mean, the energy, the vitality, the passion. So thoughtful,” Erickson said. “I think they’re unfortunately going to be disappointed.”