New plan introduced for New Lebanon School

Nicole O’Connor presented a petition signed by 553 Byram residents urging the Board of Education to have both a new school and a town green. She was one of many speakers at Monday’s public forum. –Ken Borsuk

Nicole O’Connor presented a petition signed by 553 Byram residents urging the Board of Education to have both a new school and a town green. She was one of many speakers at Monday’s public forum. –Ken Borsuk

The split in the community about what to do about New Lebanon School appears to have been eased after introduction of a new plan.

The school has had to deal with overcrowding for years, and the district’s hope is to have architecture and engineering money in this year’s budget to develop a new building for New Lebanon School. However, that plan has met with resistance in recent weeks as community members have spoken out against the idea of building the new school on the site of the current athletic field next to it, citing the loss of the field and nearby green space. With that in mind, project architects Peter Gisolfi Associates unveiled a new idea at a community forum on Monday night.

Under this new proposal, a new building would be constructed but the current field would remain in place, as the construction would instead take place east of the existing building in some woodlands. The current building would remain up while the construction took place and then would be demolished once the new building was ready for student use. This plan would also allow most of the woodlands to be preserved, which was one of the many facets that earned community praise at the forum.

This proposal would allow students to remain inside the current building during the construction, which has been stated as a key community priority because it means neither modular facilities being built nor students being dispersed to other schools in the district.

Mr. Gisolfi said the changes in the new proposal were incorporated after the feedback received from the public at the board’s Oct. 23 meeting. A vote had been scheduled on funding for the design work at that meeting, but it did not take place after members of the public spoke out against the use of the athletic field as the site of the new building. Mr. Gisolfi did stress that this was not the “ultimate site plan” but just an idea that was being put forward.

Several options are currently on the table, and Superintendent of Schools William McKersie said he wanted people to realize that no decision had been made yet about what form the plan would take. He said he was happy to hear from the broad spectrum of the entire Byram community and called this “the very normal, healthy process of debating and discussing the concept.”

“No final decision is being made at this point by the Board of Education other than at the conceptual level,” Dr. McKersie said. “We then will dig into, through the processes here in the town of Greenwich, what are those final details. Let me stress again, there will be lots of public comment and lots of public input.”

Board of Education Chairman Barbara O’Neill said there would be an opportunity for additional public comment at the board’s upcoming Nov. 20 meeting at the International School at Dundee as well as the Dec. 18 meeting at Greenwich High School, where a vote is expected to be taken on the proposed funding for the architecture and engineering money. Ms. O’Neill praised Mr. Gisolfi and his team for taking the feelings of the community into account while drafting the new plan.

After the presentation, parents and members of the community were invited to speak, and several expressed optimism that this new plan would work. There was a lot of relief from speakers that the plan moved away from building on the field and would seemingly avoid cutting down trees, as they felt that this would have hurt the overall character of the neighborhood.

Nicole O’Connor, a New Lebanon School parent, presented a petition signed by 553 Byram residents who said they didn’t want to have to choose between a new school building and having a village green.

“The children of Byram deserve a new school enabling them to reach their highest potential,” Ms. O’Connor said, reading from the petition. “The residents of Byram and all of Greenwich deserve natural, open space where people gather, play, celebrate and connect. The Byram Village Green located on William Street, in the heart of Byram, is a natural space where at any time of day you might see Little Leagues fielding a hit, parents and children playing a pickup game of soccer, dog owners getting Fluffy some fresh air, or a simple picnic in the grass. We must not settle for having to decide between the village green or a new school.”

Bob Tuthill, a member of the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) as well as a member of the group that worked last summer on the feasibility study for a new school, said he was “crazy” about the changes in the new proposal and commended the board and the architects for coming up with it. Mary Ann Zalman said she had hated to see the community divided over the issue and was happy to see new ideas being introduced to address concerns. Those comments were echoed by others who had objected to the earlier proposals, and the speakers urged the board to move on the project.

“We all want the same thing for our kids, a new school and the best education,” Diego Sanchez, co-president of the New Lebanon School PTA, said. “I want us to continue this forward so our kids can have the best that Byram can offer. We are a very tight community. I hear everybody. I know we are a safe community and people watch over our kids here. We need to keep moving forward.”

Several members of the RTM were in attendance for the meeting, as were key figures on the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET), such as chairman Michael Mason and Budget Committee head Marc Johnson. Once the Board of Education approved the money for the design work in its 2015-16 budget, the BET and RTM would have to give their votes in favor as well.

New Lebanon parent Clare Kilgallen, who worked on the feasibility study, urged everyone to keep their focus on where it most belonged, the students. She cited the overcrowded conditions at the school, such as instruction having to take place in closets and not having a full-size gym or cafeteria and insufficient space for the computer lab and media center.

“Together as a community in town, we will reach the goal of giving our students what they rightfully deserve,” Ms. Kilgallen said. “We need a long-term solution as quickly as possible. Our children and this community have waited long enough.”

The forum was recorded for broadcast on Channel 78 and GCTV Channel 79. More information is available online at Greenwichschools.org/NLSBuildingProject.

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