GREENWICH – Funding for school building projects and opposition to redistricting in the name of racial balance were top of mind during a recent Board of Education candidate debate.
Republican incumbent Karen Kowalski, Democratic incumbent Karen Hirsh and Democratic newcomer Sophie Koven gathered to discuss a range of educational issues at the Oct. 12 event, hosted by the League of Women Voters of Connecticut at Greenwich Town Hall.
Noticeably absent, however, was Republican newcomer Wendy Vizzo Walsh. In a statement read by league member Becky Gillan at the debate, the uncontested Vizzo Walsh said the debate was the wrong way to start her tenure on the board.
“I have come to view that, for me, a debate in an uncontested election is not the way to kick off a collaborative relationship with my future colleagues,” Vizzo Walsh wrote. “I have notified the other candidates and expressed that I’m looking forward to meeting with them, where we can find common ground to improve our schools.”
All school board candidates are running uncontested this year.
While the three candidates largely found common ground on the board’s role in vetting educational materials, support for LGBTQ students and the importance of art and history classes, they clashed over funding for school building projects, including a new Central Middle School and renovations to Old Greenwich School.
CMS – too large, or just right?
With no centralized HVAC system and growing maintenance costs, the current school board outlined plans for a new Central Middle School in 2022. But after town Republicans learned the estimated costs reached about $112 million, many demanded that the board revisit its plans and design a smaller school to accommodate projected enrollment.
Since approving the rebuild, the school board has requested funding from the finance board numerous times. In April, the Republican-led Board of Estimate and Taxation approved $67.5 million of the $77.5 million school board request. But this week, the finance board rejected another $42 million request, as design plans have not yet been approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission.
At the debate, Kowalski backed the Greenwich Republican Town Committee’s stance on the middle school. The current scope of the project, she argued, spans far beyond the needs of the community.
“I think I’ve been quite clear on how I feel about CMS and the size of the project – I have voted it down every vote for the last two years,” she said.
For months, town Republicans have argued the 125,000-square-foot school is too large given recent enrollment projections. According to state data, Greenwich middle school enrollment is expected to drop from the current 1,917 students to 1,770 by 2032.
Kowalski said she supports a new CMS, but that it should be designed to accommodate the amount of students the district will have. Narrowing plans, she added, could save the district millions of dollars.
“Saving $10 million just on that building alone could fund 10 teachers for 10 years,” Kowalski said. “And I think that we need to focus on how we spend our money and spend it right.”
But Koven argued that current plans for a larger CMS could improve student performance. As a parent of students in the district, Koven said she has personally seen the impact smaller school buildings can have on the student experience.
Koven said her children attended the “massively overcrowded” Riverside School, where staff grouped students into various lunch blocks beginning at 11 a.m. and ending at 2 p.m.
“Anyone with kids knows that when your kid is hungry, they’re not really paying attention. They’re not learning,” she said.
Koven acknowledged the projected enrollment drop, but said the town should stick with the current plans. No matter the size, she said, a new CMS would likely bring new families into Greenwich. Hirsh agreed.
“If you build it, they will come,” Hirsh said.
Hirsh backed the school board’s scope for the rebuild and urged other town bodies to do so as well. She pointed out that the finance board asked the school board to create a long-term plan for school building projects. The Board of Education did so in 2018 with its 15-year Facilities Master Plan — but five years later, she said, not a single project in the plan has begun.
“The Republican members of the BET repeatedly said they’re pro education and that they support our schools,” Hirsh said. “So I say, please put your money where your mouth is.”
Outstanding issues at Old Greenwich School
In the case of Old Greenwich School, the 121-year-old building is out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act — the six-floor school has no elevator, and has a flooding problem in which sewage backs up into classrooms. To fix the issues, the school board outlined a $42 million plan to construct a 7,300-square-foot classroom addition, a new ADA-accessible main entrance and other structural renovations.
While Democrats on the finance board fought for $34.9 million to fund the renovations earlier this year, Republicans approved just $1 million to reach ADA compliance and $500,000 for sewer maintenance. And this week, the finance board rejected another $39 million request for the project, with members saying they’d only offer more funding to Old Greenwich School once other town projects were completed.
Hirsh argued that the longer the town pushes off major projects, the more expensive they’ll become.
“Never in the history of time has something cost less by waiting,” she said.
Hirsh said the Old Greenwich School Building Committee has done an exceptional job laying out the costs and looking for ways to lower them. While improvements to schools are costly, she said, they are worth it, as great public schools are economic drivers.
Kowalski also backed the renovations, saying the additions are the “right size” for the Old Greenwich School community. But with respect to funding, she said, the finance board will continue to move the project forward.
“I do believe Old Greenwich will get done,” Kowalski said. “I believe it will get done right, and I [believe] it’ll get done on a proper timeline as it runs through the town’s process.”
No plans for racial balance
While the candidates were split along party lines on the school building projects, they all shared an opposition to redistricting plans to address racial imbalance at Greenwich elementary schools.
Under a 1969 state law, a school’s minority student population cannot exceed 25 percent of the district’s average minority population. The state first identified Hamilton Avenue School as racially imbalanced in 1999, and New Lebanon School in 2006. As of October 2021, minority students made up about 77 percent of New Lebanon’s student body and about 68 percent of Hamilton Avenue’s, compared to the 40 percent district average.
The district has yet to fix the imbalance, and all three candidates at the debate said they have no plans to.
Koven said she attended numerous meetings about racial imbalance when the school board considered a plan to address it in 2012, and parents made it clear they wanted students to attend their neighborhood schools.
“Everyone that spoke, regardless of what elementary school their children were enrolled in, they wanted their children to stay in that local school. And that is why people move to Greenwich. It’s how Greenwich works. It’s how people can get to work on time, because they can drop their kids off or they can walk,” Koven said. “It’s fundamental to the fabric of our town.”
Koven added that busing students across town to other elementary schools would diminish their social and academic experience. She also noted previous school boards found no practical way to balance the district, and she wouldn’t want to search for one again.
Kowalski agreed, stressing the importance of neighborhood schools. She pointed out that Greenwich elementary schools provide different programs and activities based on the nearby community needs. Some schools, for example, offer classes for students learning English as a second language.
“I agree with Sophie in the sense that [there[ would be strong pushback in order to redistrict,” Kowalski said. “I have no desire to redistrict.”
Hirsh suggested other ways the district could address the racial imbalance without impacting all elementary students, such as allowing families to opt into attending Western Middle School.
“They’ve had to close their doors to new students transferring in from other parts of town,” Hirsh said. “So there are options that parents have.”
However, Hirsh said the board has heard parents that enjoy their neighborhood schools and the diversity within them “loud and clear.” She said changing the balance of the schools is not in the best interest of the students.
On Wednesday, current school board Chair Joe Kelly, a Republican not seeking reelection this fall, told CT Examiner that the two newcomers will be a great addition to the board.
Asked for his thoughts on Vizzo Walsh skipping the debate, Kelly said he understands not wanting a debate to be the voters’ first impression of a candidate.
“That’s her opinion, and I respect that. I’m sure she thought it through,” Kelly said. “I wouldn’t do that because I like getting in front of people and trying to express what I think is the right thing, but I don’t think she’s wrong for not doing it.”
Moving forward, Kelly said the next board should prioritize school building projects and work to find common ground despite political divisions throughout the town.
“So many of these boards are fighting with each other and don’t understand how to compromise. Compromise is not always concession,” he said. “So hopefully the new board, going forward with new leadership, will also be able to find middle ground and then be able to compromise on things.”