GREENWICH – Eager to secure state funding, several Republican finance board members crossed the aisle and hesitantly approved another $42 million appropriation to rebuild Central Middle School on Tuesday.
Split along party lines, members of the Republican-led Board of Estimate and Taxation have persistently debated the cost and size of the $112 million project this year. The fundamental disagreement between the two parties has dominated recent election debates, prompted townwide discourse on social media and sparked a squabble between the Republican Town Committee and Greenwich Public Schools officials.
Republicans have questioned the need for a 125,000-square-foot school designed to accommodate 660 students, given projected drops in enrollment over the next 10 years. But Democrats have backed the plan, urging the importance of moving students out of the current building, which has various structural issues and no centralized HVAC system.
The CMS building committee secured the $42 million appropriation on Tuesday to offset inflation-driven increases in material costs and to finance a key change in design plans made by the school board in April — an extra 10,000 square feet to accommodate a two-team model at CMS.
In order to secure a school construction grant commitment from the state, districts are required to submit their applications by June 30 each year. Greenwich missed the 2023 application deadline, but CMS building committee Chair Tony Turner and the project team explained that they plan to ask the state Legislature to hold a special session in early 2024 to consider making an exception.
Turner estimated that the project’s cost would increase by $390,000 for each month it’s delayed. The town aims to begin construction in November 2024.
“The overall sense of urgency is that we need to keep the project on track,” Turner told the board. “We’ve demonstrated tonight, or I hope we have, that there are a lot of dependencies that are both activity-related and time-related. We need the documentation of full funding so that we can go to the state for the grant application.”
Turner said the committee hopes the state will reimburse the town 10 percent of the project.
But Harry Fisher, a Republican Board of Estimate and Taxation member running for reelection, said the chances of Greenwich getting special legislation passed for CMS are “between slim and none.”
“Hartford hates Greenwich, we know that. They don’t want to help us fund anything. If they could move it down to zero, they would,” Fisher said.
On Wednesday, State Rep. Steve Meskers, D-Greenwich, told CT Examiner that Fisher’s comment represents a lack of understanding of the dynamics in the Legislature.
Meskers said there is a “dual approach” to securing state reimbursement for CMS. The first step is meeting with the state Department of Administrative Services to see if a grant application extension is possible. If not, Meskers said he would fully support and lead the town in seeking new legislation in a special session next year.
“I am relentless. You can ask anyone up in the Capitol,” Meskers said. “I will not rest until I have the adequate solution for my children who are in need of a school.”
In an attempt to secure state reimbursement as soon as possible, the 12-member Board of Estimate and Taxation approved the funds, with the two Republicans who are not seeking reelection next month – Chair Dan Ozizmir and Bill Drake – joining six Democrats in support. Three Republicans seeking reelection abstained from voting, and one Republican running again opposed the appropriation.
Facing a large crowd of residents who packed Town Hall for the special meeting, Ozizmir affirmed his support for a new CMS, but reflected on a mistake made by officials that caused a partisan rift.
“I am going to be prepared to approve this. But I just want to say I think – I really, truly think – we just need to do this better,” he said.
Ozizmir said all board members have supported a rebuild of CMS, but noted many regretted skipping a key step in developing the project plans: the feasibility process.
In this process, he said, the Board of Estimate and Taxation, Board of Education and Representative Town Meeting could have come together to set expectations on project scope, size and budget. But because the process typically takes a year to complete, the bodies skipped this step in an attempt to meet state deadlines.
“If I look at just the angst in the community over the last year and a half, it’s deeply troubling to me. If we had done feasibility, that likely wouldn’t happen,” Ozizmir said. “But if we’d done feasibility, we would have lost a year.”
But Karen Fassuliotis, the lone Republican who voted in opposition, held firm in her party’s stance on Tuesday and questioned her fellow board members’ votes.
“Democrats and some Republicans tonight are voting to fund a building that, as planned, will be costing $1,000 a square foot for the taxpayers of this town. I simply can’t vote for this number,” Fassuliotis said. “This project is totally out of control.”
In April, the board approved an initial $67.5 million appropriation for the project, meaning the board has now allocated a total of $109.5 million for a new CMS. However, Fassuliotis claimed that, in 2022, the school board estimated the total cost would be just $70 million. She said she feels “betrayed” by the school board and Superintendent Toni Jones who, she said, turned a school that could have been built for $70 million into “the most expensive school in the state of Connecticut.”
“And that cost … will only go up,” Fassuliotis said. “I feel 1,000 percent betrayed that representation by our superintendent and the Board of Education.”
Laura Erickson, a Democratic board member running for first selectman this fall, backed the project and attributed the changing costs to unusual logistical challenges. For instance, she said, the town is building the new CMS behind the current school so as not to interrupt school operations.
“To look back and state that we were presented with wrong information at a point in February  by individuals – one of which is a volunteer, one of which is our superintendent of schools – I think that’s unfortunate,” Erickson said. “I think we do the best we can with the information.”
The project team – made up of representatives from Turner Construction, SLAM Collaborative and Construction Solutions Group – added that the board’s funding should not be conditioned, otherwise the state may choose not to commit to reimbursement.
Republican board members still attempted to add two conditions to their funding approval on Tuesday. The first condition, suggested by Nisha Arora, would require the building committee to secure a professional engineering report confirming student and staff safety during demolition. The second, proposed by Leslie Tarkington, called for the board to release the funds only after the building committee completed design development drawings, final cost estimates and construction drawings.
Democratic members staunchly opposed both proposed conditions and, after some discussion, Arora and Tarkington separately withdrew their conditions.
With additional funding greenlit by the board, the building committee can now ask the RTM for approval and begin the grant application process.
At the end of the meeting, Turner thanked the members for supporting the project and looked forward to improved communication between the board and building committee.
“I hope this can be the beginning of a coming together of things. We need to start down that road of being in a positive and partnering way, a much stronger working alliance,” Turner said. “We’re ready for that.”