Possibilities and truths in school master plan
The town needs to spend $20 million annually for the next 15 years just to get its school buildings up to par. That’s what years of deferred maintenance does to a real estate portfolio.
That is the good news that comes from a proposed 15-year, $750 million master plan recently adopted by the Greenwich Board of Education. The bad news is that Central Middle School is in such bad shape that it is beyond saving. That’s deferred maintenance taken to the extreme.
But Central’s physical demise could be a good thing in the long run. A new middle school comes with a $125 million price tag, according to the long-range plan prepared by KG&D Architects. That kind of money makes taxpayers pay attention and might, just might, give timid school board members political coverage to at least start the conversation about how many middle schools Greenwich needs.
The economics of consolidating to two middle schools are compelling. The three current buildings, all opened between 1954 and 1960, have a total capacity of 2,334 students, though actual enrollment is just 2,017. A shuttered Central Middle School would reduce the master plan total by between $50 million and $70 million, and two slightly larger schools would have lower annual operating costs than three smaller buildings. An added benefit of closing Central would be to give the town badly needed space for more ball fields. The entire existing Central campus could become a showcase public recreation facility.
Greenwich parents are deeply attached to their neighborhood elementary schools, but I have never sensed a similar bond between parents and middle schools. That is not to say there would be universal acclaim for closing a school, but it is at least worth a conversation, not just on the economics, but whether fewer, larger schools could focus resources and expand programs available to all town middle schoolers.
I’m not expecting the school board to step up on the middle school issue anytime soon. In April of this year, the consulting architects asked school board members to prioritize spending the $750 million among the town’s 14 school buildings and the Havemeyer Building, home to GPS administrators. But our elected school leaders wanted no part in that exercise, at least not publicly, and turned the tough choices back to the architects. Now, consultants only push clients so far; when KG&D came back in with a prioritized plan, you can be sure they had vetted it with at least board leadership prior to the public unveiling. So, where do you think Central placed on the priority list? Dead last. No work done on a building that is too far gone to be repaired until 2029, and the bulk done in the last 3 years of the 15-year program. The board put as much distance as possible between it and any talk of consolidating schools.
School enrollment data drove much of the master plan development. And the results lay bare the lie that was the foundation for building the new New Lebanon elementary school to a ridiculous size. Enrollment figures from September put New Lebanon’s population at 229 students, down from the projected enrollment of 235. The town is building a new school that will hold 450 students, based on the school board’s promise that it would create a magnet curriculum so powerful it would attract young kids from all over town.
But in the approved master plan, the school board admits failure. Almost $180 million is earmarked for adding more than 200 seats in elementary schools in the eastern side of town: at Riverside, Old Greenwich, the International School at Dundee and North Mianus. Those are among the communities whose students were to be attracted to the New Lebanon magnet. The school board is allocating money based on reality; its claim that New Lebanon would be a successful magnet school was just a ruse to appease the state.
There is an inherent conflict between politicians elected for four-year terms, and long-term planning that spans more than a decade. Elected officials tend to load up pet projects in the first years and leave the later years’ problems to their successors.
In the end, though, maybe the plan provides a use for all those sure-to-be-empty classrooms in New Lebanon. If the planned magnet fails to pull, the town should sell the Havemeyer Building and put the administration up in offices converted from New Lebanon’s empty rooms.
Bob Horton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.