Feds investigate accessibility at Old Greenwich School

Photo of Justin Papp
The Old Greenwich School at 285 Sound Beach Ave., Thursday, July 18, 2013.

The Old Greenwich School at 285 Sound Beach Ave., Thursday, July 18, 2013.

File / Bob Luckey / Hearst Connecticut Media

GREENWICH — Due to issues with lack of accessibility at Old Greenwich School, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating Greenwich Public Schools for possible discrimination on the basis of disability.

A representative with the Department of Education recently confirmed the investigation was opened Dec. 15 but could not provide additional information.

The complaint is related to noncompliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a 1990 civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability, at the elementary school building, Board of Education communications liaison Jonathan Supranowitz confirmed this week.

“This is why a feasibility study was just completed to fix ADA, safety and HVAC air quality issues” at Old Greenwich School, Supranowitz said, referring to a proposed construction project for the building that is now under review by the Board of Education.

But that feasibility study, and corresponding education specifications for an estimated $25 million plan to remedy ADA and other problems at Old Greenwich School, was voted down by the Board of Education at a meeting earlier this month.

The project is not dead — the board will review the specifications again in January. But it is part of a larger debate among board members, and other officials in town, over ADA compliance in the school district and how best to proceed with school building projects.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s not just Old Greenwich,” said Alan Gunzburg, chair of the First Selectman’s Advisory Committee for People with Disabilities. “It’s kind of endemic throughout the school buildings.”

The issues at Old Greenwich School, which was built in 1902 and which has not seen a significant capital project in a quarter century, are complex.

The multistory building lacks an elevator, and its main entrance and and the entrance to the gymnasium are not accessible. Even the student toilets are not fully ADA compliant on all levels, according to the education specifications presented to the Board of Education at its Dec. 17 meeting.

And while renovations at Old Greenwich are among the board’s top building priorities, it’s not slated to start for several years, assuming the project receives all necessary approvals. And it trails by at least a year a separate $27 million project at Julian Curtiss School, which has its own ADA accessibility problems.

What would projects cost?

Story time reading session led by Old Greenwich School Principal Jennifer Bencivengo in front of the school for incoming students at the Old Greenwich School, Greenwich, Conn., Thursday, August 23, 2018.

Story time reading session led by Old Greenwich School Principal Jennifer Bencivengo in front of the school for incoming students at the Old Greenwich School, Greenwich, Conn., Thursday, August 23, 2018.

File / Bob Luckey Jr. / Hearst Connecticut Media

The size and scope of both projects has raised alarms among some school board members, who have questioned whether the town’s Board of Estimate and Taxation will allocate the funds needed for both projects, as well as subsequent projects to address issues of ADA compliance. Some have proposed paring down the construction to only make the mandatory ADA improvements.

At the board’s last meeting, at which the school district’s $33.6 million capital budget request was approved, board members Karen Kowalski and Peter Sherr suggested a $3.8 million addition to the budget for a districtwide remedy of ADA compliance issues.

Kowalski and Sherr said they based their request on the 2018 Facilities Master Plan, which took inventory of the district’s buildings and ranked their needs from highest to lowest priority based on a number of criteria, including ADA compliance.

But board members ultimately struck down their motion, saying it was too last minute and that the board would need a new feasibility study to better determine the actual cost of such a project. The district’s Head of Facilities Dan Watson said that such a project would far exceed $3.8 million.

“There is no question that there is support on the board to make progress and resolve the accessibility issues in a meaningful way,” board chair Peter Bernstein said. “However, the ADA issues are not as simple as adding a lift or elevator and proceeding in that manner could result in additional expenses in terms of making additional necessary changes to our buildings, many of which are quite old.”

At least partly, Gunzburg and Stephanie Cowie, vice chair on the Advisory Committee for People With Disabilities, agreed. ADA accessibility should, without a doubt, take priority, they said. And a feasibility study might be the best way to advance such a wholesale, district-wide fix. But $3.8 million is not enough to sufficiently address an issue of such complexity, they said.

“They need to do a study,” Gunzburg said. “It’s imperative.”

“There were members of the board saying it would take $3.8 million to get up to snuff,” Cowie said. “There’s absolutely no way that that’s the number.”

Other schools need repairs

In addition to her role on the advisory committee, Cowie is co-president of the Greenwich High School Parent Teacher Association and has been involved in the planning for the GHS Cardinal Stadium project. In 2018, Cowie suffered a stroke and became paralyzed, an experience that has given her a different view of the schools she had frequented for years.

In addition to Old Greenwich and Julian Curtiss, Riverside School, Western Middle School and the Havemeyer Building, where the office of Superintendent of Schools Toni Jones is located, all lack ADA compliance as well. In fact, Watson, at the recent Board of Education meeting, estimated that 80 percent of Greenwich Public Schools buildings were out of compliance with ADA standards. Jones did not respond to a request for clarification on Watson’s estimate.

“ADA issues were identified as one of the three major categories that we used as part of our Master Facilities Plan building prioritization in 2018 along with health/safety and air quality,” Bernstein said. “That work made clear that at least three of our school buildings, Julian Curtis, Old Greenwich and Riverside, had similar challenges for all three of the categories. Thus, we have attempted to move forward with holistic looks at those buildings via feasibility studies and now moving on to defining the educational specifications that highlight the ADA needs and the solutions.”

The school board and central office are also looking to rectify problems at Western Middle School, Bernstein added.

“It’s paramount,” Cowie said. “It’s been 30 years since the ADA. These aren’t nice-to-haves. These are absolute necessities. And the state of our public schools is despicable.”

Since Jones took the helm of the district in 2019, she has been open to input from Gunzburg and their committee, Cowie said, and appears dedicated to making buildings more accessible. But the reality is that the work on many of these buildings remains years, or even decades, down the road, she said.

Meanwhile, longstanding accessibility issues persist, at risk to both the staff, students and visitors who need to use the building, as well as to taxpayers, who may have to foot the bill for any potential lawsuits.

And with a federal investigation in progress, the district may soon have no choice but to remedy the existing issues, or else risk the loss of federal funds.

“We’re kind of beating a dead horse here,” Gunzberg said. “It’s so long overdue. ... It’s time to create a system that works for everybody.”

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1; 203-842-2586