Vote on New Lebanon School construction is postponed, more input sought

p1-New-Lebanon-5-30A decision on the future look of New Lebanon School will have to wait a little while longer after the Board of Education delayed a scheduled vote in order to hear additional public comment first.

The board had been scheduled to vote at its Oct. 23 meeting on the proposed educational specifications to build a new New Lebanon School. However, before debate even began, board Chairman Barbara O’Neill announced that the vote would be postponed so that a public hearing completely dedicated to the issue could be held first. Neither a date for the public hearing nor for the rescheduled vote were immediately announced, and the sudden change took at least some of the board by surprise, with board member Peter Sherr telling the Post after the announcement that Ms. O’Neill’s bringing it up during the meeting was the first he had heard about the need for the delay.

Currently the school is facing severe overcrowding, which necessitated moving kindergartners out of the building and to the nearby Byram Archibald Neighborhood Center (BANC). The overcrowding is also seen as a hindrance to the district’s plan to move the school into state-mandated racial balance. New Lebanon currently has too many minority students and as part of an action plan approved by the state must enhance its magnet program there to draw in more white students from outside the school’s neighborhood zone. But with no room in the building for magnet students, this hasn’t been possible. Because of both factors this has become a priority for the district.

With the need for racial balance at the school, the state is expected to pick up 80% of the costs for the project.

The decision to postpone the vote came after a backlash developed over the proposed educational specifications for the project, which are essentially the road map any school capital project must follow. Under the current plan, a new three-story 62,000-square-foot school would be built instead of simply expanding the current building. The new building would be built on the ball field by the current building, allowing school to remain in session without students having to be moved elsewhere while construction is ongoing. Project architect Peter Gisolfi said at the meeting that this option would cause the least disruption for students and that an entirely new building on the site of the current school would disrupt students for years.

However, some parents have begun to reject this plan in order to further explore other options, claiming that a fair hearing has not been given and that the plan isn’t best for Byram.

Even after the decision to postpone the vote was announced, several speakers advocated this view at the Oct. 23 meeting, saying that using the field would eliminate valuable green space in Byram and harm the nearby woods. Glenn Peterson said the site had been considered before the current building had been built and that it had been found to be unsuitable at the time. He suggested using the current school and adding modular classrooms, a solution that has been rejected by project architects as not being suitable.

“I’m glad you’ve chosen to postpone the decision,” Mr. Peterson told the board. “But up to this point, there has been something of a Hong Kong aspect to this process and in a way the candidates have been chosen before the public has had any input.”

Alex Popp, a New Lebanon parent as well as a Greenwich teacher, spoke while accompanied by his daughter. He said everyone was in agreement that something had to be done, but that the selection of the current plan was “flawed” without enough public input or disclosure, adding that there had barely been any consideration or discussion with the Byram Neighborhood Association (BNA) or the New Lebanon School’s PTA about it.

“It’s imperative that the right decision is made,” Mr. Popp said. “We are concerned that this plan does not have the support of the Byram community. Many of the neighbors are either unaware of or opposed to building on the playing field. … I am concerned that the size and the scope of this project is probably 50% to 60% larger than we need. We’ve now become a town school and we lose that neighborhood charm, and to be honest I’m not sure how we’re going to fill those seats because the magnet programs on the western end of town have not been positive and fail to attract students from the eastern side of town.”

Mr. Popp’s brother, Matthew, a landscape architect, and longtime Representative Town Meeting member Robert Tuthill also argued that the plan changed too much of the neighborhood character and that it would present new hazards to children and the community.

However, those views were countered by other speakers at the meeting. Angela Macias, a co-treasurer of the New Lebanon School PTA, said she felt simply renovating the school would not address the need for new technology and a revitalization of the existing building and would “hide this investment in our community in the ravine behind the old school.” She said a new school would provide an incentive for people to bring their students there from all over the district and that the loss of the field would only be temporary, as a new field is expected to be built.

“The time for ad hoc fixes is over and now is the time for a new beginning for New Lebanon,” Ms. Macias said. “New construction is the best direction for New Lebanon, for Byram and for greater Greenwich. New construction will allow us to build a forward-thinking, energy-efficient green building that revitalizes the center of our neighborhood.”

PTA co-president Diego Sanchez said the school hass been in “desperate need of a proper and modern infrastructure for many years.”

“Finally it is the time that our kids receive what is fair to them,” Mr. Sanchez said. “Thanks to BANC we have a little bit more wiggle room, but we know that is a temporary solution and we want all our kids, including kindergarten kids, to be in one single, neighborhood building.”

At the meeting the board did approve $3.2 million in architecture and engineering money for the project. While no educational specifications can be formalized without an idea yet of what form the project will take, this vote allowed the money to be placed in the 2015-16 school budget. It will be used to develop the first steps of the design for whatever plan the board ultimately approves.

Members of the public expressed concern, though, that this delay would end up pushing the project back.

“Every day that delays progress is a day of continued inequity for our students and teachers,” Clare Kilgallen said at the meeting, stressing that the plans were at a preliminary stage and that there would be plenty of opportunities for the community to be involved throughout the process. “Right now Greenwich needs to get the money in the budget and move forward.”

The plan to build the new school at the ball field site does have some major support in town. Michael Bocchino, a former president of the New Lebanon School PTA and the BNA and now the Republican candidate for the 150th District in the state legislature, urged the board to vote in favor of it and said the idea that there hadn’t been BNA and PTA involvement was untrue.

“There are a lot of opinions floating out there and things that aren’t based on fact,” Mr. Bocchino said. “It was discussed in the beginning that trying to do something with the existing school and the existing building on that existing plot of land was not feasible to address all our concerns. … The best-suited solution for what the students need was [building the new school]. The opportunity to have more discussion with the community is fine, but we did discuss this at the neighborhood association. We did not have a vote because there was nothing to vote on until the [Board of Education] voted on what option it was going to take into consideration.”

Carol Sutton, president of the Greenwich Education Association, which serves as the town’s teachers’ union, also spoke out for the plan, praising the “green aspects of the design.”

“Not only does the GEA support moving forward with all deliberate speed but we encourage the board to follow through with its plan to make New Lebanon School a model of sustainability,” Ms. Sutton said. “Every green option in the report should be explored fully moving forward, especially the installation of photovaltaic solar collectors to power the school.”

Board member Adriana Ospina said she was concerned there was a “lot of misinformation” about the project and she said she hoped that Mr. Gisolfi would be on hand to discuss it and “assuage the enormous fears” at the forum. Ms. O’Neill said she was glad a large part of the discussion had taken place at the meeting to “make the forum even more productive.”

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