School board keeps full MISA funding, BET votes next

The Board of Education has voted to keep the funding for the music instructional space and auditorium (MISA) project at Greenwich High School in place, and tonight the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) Budget Committee will have its voice heard.

The Budget Committee is set to meet tonight at 7 in the Town Hall Meeting Room to consider the Board of Education’s $8,605,000 request for funding for MISA in the 2013-14 municipal budget. Funding had previously been temporarily removed in order for the board to first decide whether to scale back the scope and price tag of MISA or go forward in full with it despite higher-than-anticipated bids that will push the total cost up. After last Wednesday’s board decision to go forward, the budget committee will now hear the request before it goes to the full BET and then, if it passes, the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) in May.

The higher-than-expected bids seem poised to push the MISA construction price up $5.4 million to $36.4 million, a 23% increase. With the costs of what’s been spent already on architecture and engineering and site work, the final price tag would then be $42.4 million. With that in mind the Board of Education contemplated making reductions to the project at a special meeting on April 10. The board looked at several options for potential savings — eliminating balcony seating, taking out the planned orchestra pit, and renovating the existing auditorium to use as classroom space instead of building new ones.

However, the board ultimately chose to go directly forward with the original plan. No motions were made to offer any of the alternatives for a vote, and the board voted to send the $8-million request to the BET by a five-to-two margin, with board members Peter Sherr and Peter von Braun voting against it. Board Vice Chairman Barbara O’Neill was unable to attend the meeting.

All of the options were discussed with the project’s building committee, architect and project manager, but ultimately the board members said they had to do the project right after previous decisions when the school was first built and then when it was renovated 30 years later to hold off on the auditorium. They said the options didn’t reduce costs enough to justify the impact the changes would have on the programs.

“It doesn’t seem we’re getting much bang for what we’d have to drop,” board member Steven Anderson said about the possible loss of seating.

Board member Adriana Ospina added that when looking at all the possible cuts, “to save, at most, $2.7 million, to me makes no sense. We would be making the same mistakes [past boards had made].” She added that the board would likely have to look at its capital plan in future years for efficiencies, but MISA was not the place to find them.

Board member Jennifer Dayton said the possible removal of the balcony would be a mistake and her colleagues agreed, saying by reducing the seating from the 1,350 level originally called for would remove a major reason for doing the project in the first place.

“I think the most critical thing about the balcony seating is our ability to host regional competitions,” Ms. Dayton said. “If we want the arts of Greenwich to be a center for excellence in our schools, we have to demonstrate that it’s a center for excellence, and the way to do that is to host the competitions. This would limit our ability to host them.”

Superintendent of Schools William McKersie added his own voice to the discussion, saying the plans for the auditorium as they were would be a big benefit to the district and not in the most obvious way. He said statistics from Greenwich Country Day School showed that when students entering high school looked at the options, their top choices were GHS and Brunswick School.

“We’re competing for students, and I’m assuming we have an edge around the arts, theater and music,” Dr. McKersie said. “As you think about this in the competitive market for students, think about what we lose if we don’t do this. I don’t think any of the other facilities can match this if we find a way to have the town say let’s invest in this. Let’s do this and compete for the best students in art, theater and music.”

Jeffrey Spector, the district’s program coordinator for art and music, said he agreed that the music and theater programs at GHS were a draw for students and added a strong preference for the board not to cut the orchestra pit.

“We are, I think, the top program in town, if not in the state,” Mr. Spector said. “But we don’t have a facility to match it and that’s why we’ve gone through all of this. … The other districts that have rebuilt auditoriums like Wilton and Darien haven’t gone with the electronic pit, and every one of them have looked back and said it was the biggest mistake they made. It was not the place to save money.”

Mr. Spector’s words were so eagerly accepted by MISA’s proponents that Ms. Ospina jokingly asked him to repeat them to make sure everyone heard.

“I have a staff that can’t be matched in this state,” Mr. Spector said. “They are so terrific and right now they need the facility to go with it.”

Mr. Sherr expressed worries over the rising price tag and trade-offs that will have to be made at several points during the discussion, but board member Nancy Kail said the town had to see that the board was looking at the bottom line.

“There’s an implication here that this board isn’t being fiscally responsible and I really beg to differ,” Ms. Kail said. “We’ve met BET guidelines every year they’ve been back there, and we’ve gone back when the BET has said we need to cut our capital budget or our operations budget. We’ve done it, and time and time again we’ve shown our fiscal responsibility.”

Despite their votes against the funding, both Mr. Sherr and Mr. von Braun offered their support for continuing MISA in full at the board’s meeting.

“I’ve got a theater kid who is in an incredible program and loving it and thriving at the high school because of this program,” Mr. Sherr said. “I’m a big fan of this. I don’t want to do this thing on the cheap just because.”

Mr. Sherr added that the “number was a problem” but that it would be a mistake to spend all the money and then “start lopping stuff off.”

Mr. von Braun said, “I’ve listened to this whole discussion very carefully, and while I’m not wildly enthusiastic about MISA, I am extraordinarily against cutting out the three areas we’ve talked about. The third time out of the box we ought to be able to do it right, and the definition of idiocy is repeating the same thing and expecting a different outcome.”


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