Learn to man­age the money be­fore ac­tu­ally spend­ing it

Greenwich Time (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - BOB HOR­TON

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.

pro­gram.

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.

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