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Commentary A new school roof — what could go wrong?

August 18, 2018

Today people we are going to dissect a late July, informal conversation hosted by RTM Moderator Tom Byrne. He had invited leaders of Greenwich Public Schools, the Board of Education, and the Board of Estimate and Taxation to attend an evening meeting of the RTM claims committee in the fervent hope of saving his 229 RTM members the hassle and vacation-breaking pain of a special RTM meeting in early August.

At issue was Greenwich Public Schools signing a contract to replace the roof at Julian Curtiss School. A contract, it seems, for which GPS did not have the money. Oops.

There were no minutes kept, no announcements made afterward. But borrowing a story-telling technique from the folks at the History Channel, I am offering a re-creation of this historic event. In the narrative, I identify each speaker by their initials: TB for Byrne, PB for school board head Peter Bernstein, JG for school chief Jill Gildea, JO for BET Chair Jill Oberlander, and MM for immediate past BET Chair Michael Mason.

TB: Thank you all for coming today. I wish none of us had to be here, but here we are trying to find some money. Since this mess comes to us from our friends who run the schools, I’m going to ask Peter to start.

PB: Thank you, Tom. I’m going to let Jill take it from here.

JG: Sure thing Peter. I’ve only got a few days left before I leave town, so I’ll lay out the bad news. It is really very simple. The roofing contractor wants to be paid. Tradesmen are funny that way. We thought we had the money. But Town Hall tells us we don’t. We’re here expecting you to make good on our word.

At this point, a new person enters the room. Buster Phelps is a Town Hall custodian who had been called in to fix a few loose screws in the room. Buster remained silent as he searched for the errant hardware. We pick up the narrative with JO responding to JG’s request.

JO: I’m sorry. I must be missing something here. Can we back up a minute — when did you start work on the roof at Julian Curtiss School?

JG: Oh, we have been at this for some time. In fact, it started before I even arrived in town. The first phase was finished last year. Then in January, we started planning for the last phase. We awarded a contract for $587,000 in March. As soon as school was out, workers started ripping off the roof. Again, we believed we had the money leftover from other school roofing projects.

JO (turning to PB): Peter, when did the school board find out about this?

PB: Well, I’m not sure the whole board knows yet. The town finance department only told us yesterday. But you have to understand our model. We use a chief executive officer model to run the schools. The superintendent is the CEO, and she tells me what she thinks we need to know. when she thinks we need to know it. I don’t always share things with my board right away. But obviously, Jill thought she had the money, so she spent it.

At this point, Buster Phelps thinks he has found the first loose screw and offers his advice.

BP: Hey, sorry folks, but I couldn’t help but overhear. I am the CEO of the Benevolent Protective Order of Red Elks and Odd Men. We have a budget and contracts committee that reviews all significant expenditures before we make them. And really big deals are voted on by the entire membership. Maybe you guys should try that.

PB’s eyes shoot darts at BP. BP goes looking for the next loose screw.

JO: Thank you, Buster. Now, Jill, you said you had been planning this roofing project since January. I assume part of the planning would have been to check with your finance person to confirm you had the funds?

JG: Like I said, we believed we had the money. But I can tell you that the MUNIS system the town uses for accounting is very complicated and out of date. It does not work for much of what we do. I’ve been saying since my first day on the job that the town’s technology infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired. MUNIS does not let us keep the books in a way we can understand.

MM: I don’t think the MUNIS system is all that complicated. Hundreds of towns and cities use it. I went down to the finance department this afternoon and asked for the MUNIS report on this project. It came back on one page. It is a dollar-by-dollar breakdown of spending for five school roofing projects.

JG: Like I said, MUNIS is hard to use. From what we could see, we believed we had the money.

Buster breaks in again.

BP: Did anyone think of calling the town finance department to ask? They seem to know MUNIS quite well.

More eye darts fly toward this impudent custodian. We pick up the narrative with Moderator Byrne.

TB: OK, let me make sure I have this straight. You thought you had money left in a pool of funds approved for five school roof projects two years ago? You get a bid, sign the contract, the work starts. Now, you are told the money is not in the account. Now you are asking the BET and the RTM to meet in special session. But the work started in June. Why can’t you wait until our September meeting? Why do I have to call a special meeting?

JG: The roof is off the building. The contractor has stopped work. School starts in a month or so.

Buster again.

BP: Ho boy. That’s not good. No Julian Curtiss when school opens? What were the school facility people thinking? Buses to other schools?

TB: So, you have no roof on Julian Curtiss. And if we refuse a special meeting, we are the bad guys.

Another outburst from Buster: Do you know how hot the Central Middle School auditorium gets in August? It’s like a sauna. Well, I’m out of here folks. My job is done.

BP pockets his screwdriver and heads for the exit.

Byrne leans forward, holding his forehead in his hands, slowly rocking back and forth.

TB (speaking softly): How am I going to get enough members together for a special meeting on such short notice? How, how, how?

Byrne suddenly stands up.

TB: I’ve got to go see Joe Siciliano about using the Island Beach Ferry. A cruise to nowhere seems like the right venue for this meeting.

With that, the group disbands and our narrative ends.

The BOE got its special meeting Aug. 2, but Byrne did not get his ferry boat. They met in the AC-equipped Town Hall, and they approved the emergency funds.

Gildea has since taken her nationally recognized budget expertise (really, she won an award for her budget management in a prior post) to Park City, Utah. Some school board and RTM members are wondering why the GPS folks cannot track capital expenditures. And Julian Curtiss parents are breathing a sigh of relief that summer vacation will end on schedule.

Bob Horton can be reached at bobhorton@yahoo.com.

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