Column | The Big Haggle: United in Building CMS

By Joe Kelly

As the Chairman of the Board of Education in Greenwich, I have the unique opportunity to facilitate discussions and decision-making surrounding the future of our schools. One recent debate has centered on the construction of Central Middle School, a project that has garnered support from the entire community. As we move forward, it is crucial to keep our focus on the shared goal: creating a learning environment that benefits our students.

In the spirit of transparency and collaboration, I would like to clarify the current situation and our plans for the future.

Both sides of the debate agree on the necessity of building Central Middle School. The disagreement stems from concerns about the size of the facility. This “big haggle” began after a presentation by the Board of Education which mistakenly referred to the number of expected students as 660 and 720, causing confusion about the intended capacity of the school. In reality, these numbers have little to do with the size of the building.

Here’s why: Middle schools use a team model which is entirely different from an elementary school model. Elementary school Educational Specifications (Ed Specs) are based on the number of students. Middle school Educational Specifications (Ed Specs) are based on the number of teams. If you have 350 students or less in a middle school, then you have one team of teachers. If you have more than that, then you move to a two team model.

Whether we are planning for 450 students or 700 students, we need enough classrooms for a two team model. Therefore the number of students does not substantially change the size of the building.

The Ed Specs for Central Middle School were based on state requirements and recommended classroom sizes for a two team model, ensuring that the facility will meet State standards and the needs of our students.

Pricing this project is a complex process. In an effort to expedite the process and get construction underway faster, the Board of Education and the BET agreed together to skip a feasibility study, which would have provided more concrete pricing information but would also have added a year to the process.

The initial $67.5 million figure was a very basic initial estimate. The subsequent $85 million figure came from averaging the bids of eight architects. This estimate was based on limited information and I thought at the time it was likely a little bit high. Since we had not conducted a feasibility study we didn’t know for sure. Consequently, the budget was reduced to $75 million by the First Selectman and then further to $70 million by the BET.

State law mandates transparency in all aspects of this process, and as a result, the allocated budget is public knowledge. When the BET allocates a specific amount for a project, say $70 million, potential bidders are aware of this figure. Some community members may worry that contractors will artificially inflate their prices to take advantage of the full budget. For example, if a project is estimated to cost $85 million and the BET allocates $100 million, it’s not unreasonable to think that a bidder might increase their pricing to align with the available funds.

I understand these concerns and want to reassure our community that the Board of Education is committed to fiscal responsibility and the efficient use of taxpayer dollars. However, I urge everyone to keep in mind that the figures put forth by the BET are not necessarily indicative of the final cost of a project. These numbers are intended to create a framework for responsible spending.

In addition, it’s essential to recognize that misinformation and misconceptions can lead to divisions within our community. When we, as a community, have a shared understanding of the process and its complexities, we can come together to support public projects that will benefit us all. It is essential that we all understand that the numbers currently being discussed are preliminary estimates.

We are committed to working together and maintaining open lines of communication with all stakeholders, including the Chair of the BET, Dan Ozizmir who is equally passionate about advocating for this project and the Chair of the Central Middle School Building Committee, Tony Turner. As we gather more concrete data, we will work closely with the BET and the building committee to ensure proper allocation of funds.

Currently, a dedicated subcommittee is reviewing recommendations in order to find ways to reduce the square footage and educational space of a proposed new building, in response to those who have requested a more fiscally conscientious option. Our goal is to present the revised recommendations to the building committee within weeks, allowing the architects to design a suitable structure.

As a premium community, Greenwich should have premium features and assets. We should not settle for the minimum standards set by the state for cities like Bridgeport and New London. I find it disheartening when some members of our community focus solely on cutting costs, pushing us towards the lowest minimum standard. In my opinion, we should be aiming for high-quality facilities that match our community’s values and expectations.

As we look towards the future, we should aspire to build a Central Middle School that is not only functional but also beautiful. I envision a school that is a source of pride for the community and a symbol of the town’s commitment to excellence in education. Dan Ozizmir and Tony Turner are dedicated advocates for Central Middle School and share this vision for a beautiful, functional, and lasting educational facility. I hope that, together, we can create a legacy that will benefit generations of students to come.

Joe Kelly is the unanimously elected Chairman of the Board of Education.