Learn to manage the money before actually spending it
The Board of Education and Greenwich Public School administrators want to embark on a 15-year, $750 million journey that makes stops at every school. The itinerary includes a complete rebuild of Central Middle School; significant additions and re-designs for other schools, particularly elementary schools on the east side of town; and enhanced maintenance of existing facilities.
The road map for this trip is loaded into the town’s GPS, drawn by a yearlong, $500,000 consulting engagement with KG&D Architects that included community forums and conversations with school officials about how changing approaches to teaching, driven powerfully by technology and demographics, should shape the town’s educational infrastructure in the coming decades. It is a thorough and thoughtful plan. (Anyone
interested in more details should browse the school board website.)
The next step is funding, and it is a big one. Before Greenwich embarks on the largest construction project in town history, it is fair to ask if the school board and administrators have the governance and management chops to execute such an ambitious plan. Recent history suggests serious problems there.
Take the Julian Curtiss roof fiasco this summer. Without rehashing incredibly boring details, it took emergency meetings of the school board, finance board and RTM to approve additional dollars to finish installing a new roof before school started. Without the emergency funds, the building would not have been inhabitable for opening day, which would have caused unbelievable chaos for everyone involved.
There are other examples, such as putting a new glass skin on Western Middle School. It was a state-of-theart, environmentally sensitive wall and sealed for enhanced energy efficiency. Only after installation did someone’s attention turn to air conditioning. The newly installed and sealed wall was cut to allow room air conditioners. It is like repaving a road only to have a utility company come along a month later to dig trenches for new pipes.
There are other examples of poor job sequencing or changes in project orders that never percolate up to the school board for approval or comment. There is no one culprit here, just evidence that the system as it is designed and staffed now is not equipped to handle a massive, long term construction
Largely as a result of the Julian Curtiss roof drama, there are rumblings within the school board and the Board of Estimate and Taxation about an audit of so-called capital projects within the school system. Such an audit would be expected to reach a conclusion about current processes and capabilities and make recommendations that would prepare the town to move forward with the school construction plan.
That does not mean the school board should scrap the 15-year plan; a long-term plan is particularly valuable when projects last longer than the increasingly brief tenure of Greenwich school superintendents. But it does mean Greenwich needs a thorough evaluation of the processes, skill sets and organization needed to efficiently manage this master plan.
Largely as a result of the Julian Curtiss roof drama, there are rumblings within the school board and the Board of Estimate and Taxation about an audit of socalled capital projects within the school system. Such an audit would be expected to reach a conclusion about current processes and capabilities and make recommendations that would prepare the town to move forward with the school construction plan.
But, as the events in Washington, D.C., showed us this week, an audit or an investigation is only as good as the client who orders it, and the project scope that client dictates. The town has a fine Audit Department, staffed by civil servants who report up through the town comptroller, another civil servant. This Audit Department uncovered serious flaws in the cash handling in both the Town Clerk’s Office and the Parking Services Department. And, it did so despite attempts at obstruction by politicians who wanted to hide the findings.
The school board should ask the town auditors to run an examination and give them a broad scope to do their jobs without any political concerns. That scope should be approved by a board vote, which is the most transparent way to achieve a bipartisan approach. It does not guarantee bipartisanship, but at least the vote will be public, and people will know what to expect if the vote is along party lines. But, my bet is that won’t happen. If an audit is conducted at all, I am assuming some past or present school board members will direct it, and that means they will steer the audit away from any potential political influence and, in all likelihood, lay all the “blame” at the feet of departed school administrators.
And the result will be a 15-year, $750 million school renovation project that becomes a political football in every election over the next 15 years or longer. And at the end, if that day ever arrives, it will fall short of delivering the next generation’s education.