Miller-Driscoll Building Project forum brings out differing views

A number of concerns and views were expressed during the public information session on the proposed $50-million Miller-Driscoll building project on Thursday, Sept. 4.

About 40 people attended the 7 p.m. meeting in the Wilton Library Brubeck Room, where they were given a presentation and overview of the school renovation project.

The town will vote on the building project on Tuesday, Sept. 23, at 7:30 p.m., in the Clune Center. There will also be an opportunity to vote on Saturday, Sept. 27, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The fate of the project will be determined by a simple majority of those who vote. If approved, construction is scheduled to begin January 2016 and the renovations completed in December 2017.

With a total project cost estimated at $50 million and an anticipated state reimbursement of $6.1 million, the anticipated net cost to Wilton is projected to be $43.9 million.

Miller-Driscoll Building Committee co-chairs Bruce Hampson and Karen Birck, Randall Luther from architecture firm Tai Soo Kim, Ty Tregalis of Turner Construction, First Selectman Bill Brennan and Miller-Driscoll Principal Cheryl Jensen-Gerner were present to answer citizens’ questions.

Nine Wilton residents and one Miller-Driscoll teacher commented on the Miller-Driscoll project.

Citizens’ comments included, but were not limited to, concerns about energy costs, cafeteria size, fiscal responsibility, construction conditions, previous use of the building and overall approach.

Energy costs

Wilton resident Deborah McFadden, of Westport Road, asked the building committee if it had incorporated “all the latest and greatest best practices to keep energy costs down.”

“Yes,” Mr. Hampson reassured Ms. McFadden, “and the proof will be in the pudding.”

Mr. Hampson said design development plans and specifications call for the building of an energy model of the Miller-Driscoll building that is put through “12 months of weather and calculate what real energy is.”

“That’s something that we want to do [and] we have to do it in order to get reimbursed,” he said.

A requirement of the state, explained Mr. Hampson, is that the base minimum energy performance for all building projects must be 21% better than the Connecticut State Building Code.

Ms. McFadden told the committee she fully endorses the renovation project and said she will encourage everyone she comes across in Wilton, “whether it’s at Stop & Shop or the gas station,” to vote in favor of the project.

Cafeteria size

Keelers Ridge Road resident Curt Noel inquired about the capacity of Miller-Driscoll’s two existing cafeterias.

“My understanding is it’s not a surplus capacity situation at all, and that a number of kids wind up taking their lunches back to their rooms because of the crowded cafeteria,” Mr. Noel said.

“I think there is some legitimate concern as to whether the new cafeteria will in fact have adequate space.”

The Miller-Driscoll renovation design includes one smaller, centralized cafeteria.

“Currently, the existing cafeterias are about 3,300 square feet and they are not at capacity,” said Mr. Luther.

Miller-Driscoll currently operates on a six-wave lunch schedule.

“If we were to take the student design population, which is about 880 students, and divide that into six waves, that’s 146 students per wave,” said Mr. Luther.

“The proposed capacity is to have a cafeteria that is about 2,700 square feet, and that will allow 180 students per lunch wave.”

Mr. Luther said although the design is for roughly 150 students per wave, there would be capacity for 180.

With regard to Mr. Noel’s comment about overcrowding in Miller-Driscoll’s current cafeterias, Ms. Jensen-Gerner said, “We don’t have any students that ever leave the cafeteria with their lunches because there’s no room.”

“If they leave the cafeteria with their lunches, there are individual issues that students have related to that, but they do not leave because of overcrowding,” said Ms. Jensen-Gerner.

“If you came in the cafeteria, not even every seat is used. The children aren’t cramped together. It does work.”

Fiscal responsibility

Mr. Noel, as well as Walnut Place resident Ed Papp, voiced concern regarding the cost of the building project.

“I think pretty much everybody in town was surprised by the $50-million number,” said Mr. Noel, who is part of a small group of residents encouraging others to “think carefully” and “be sensible.”

Mr. Noel distributed bright yellow cards that asks questions like:

  • Why pay $50M for a $25M project?
  • Why pay more than twice the cost and not get a new building?
  • Who gets the “extra” $25M?

“There are some of us who believe that $50 million is too much and folks should learn to live within their means,” said Mr. Noel.

Mr. Papp, a Wilton resident of more than 30 years, said he wasn’t going to get involved in the Miller-Driscoll project when he first heard about it a few years ago.

“Simply because, as I recall, the capital budget for Miller-Driscoll was somewhere between 3.2 to $3.5 million, and that called for the replacement of the roof and some air conditioning,” he said.

“Now I see it go from $3.2 million, then it went to $20 million, and now it’s at $50 million. Life goes on pretty quickly here in Wilton in three, four years.”

Mr. Papp said he doesn’t understand why the town would want to spend that kind of money.

Like Mr. Noel, Mr. Papp said $50 million is “too much.”

“Why don’t we use Gilbert & Bennett? That’s an empty facility. Why don’t we use that?” he said.

“Why do you want us to spend 10-$15 million on new space and not use what we have already?”

Mr. Papp said he remembers when the plan was to start from scratch and build new, “rather than trying to remove a building that has issues.”

“We have three unexpired warranties from three different subcontractors who did the roof work. Where are they? We have leaks, we have indoor air quality concerns that have resulted in mold and mildew — that’s really been the issue in this whole thing,” said Mr. Papp.

“There are three warranties. Why aren’t we pulling these guys to task and telling them, ‘Fix the roof, fix the leaks. Help us avoid the mold and any IAQ issues’?”

Mr. Papp said he believes the problems at Miller-Driscoll are ones that have “been around for a while and poorly managed by the town.”

In response, Mr. Hampson said the Miller-Driscoll project addresses those problems.

“I don’t think the Board of Finance — they don’t give away money — and it was unanimously approved,” said Mr. Hampson.

“What we are presenting to the town, we believe, has the greatest value that we could possibly present for the end result.”

Construction conditions

Malcolm Whyte, of Richards Lane, has lived in Wilton since 1958 and as an architect, has been involved with numerous town projects.

“I have been involved with town projects for many years, including the building committee that created Driscoll School,” he said.

“Having been in the construction business for over 60 years, every construction project, there was dust and there was noise and interruption — it’s the nature of the project.”

Mr. Whyte has worked with Turner Construction on many projects — “maybe four school projects in Wilton,” he said.

“The ability of Turner to control the noise, control dust, control interruptions is fabulous,” said Mr. Whyte.

“Yes, there will be some of that, but the ability of the contractor to control it is outstanding and there’s basically not much to worry about.”

During construction on the last addition to Miller-Driscoll, said Mr. Whyte, the students were involved in the process.

“We had ‘Builder Bob’ days and Turner provided little yellow hard-hats for kids. They got to touch the machinery — carefully — and we had workers going into the classrooms to talk about the project,” he said.

“It became a positive experience, even with the dust and noise and things going on. They enjoyed the whole process, as difficult as it was.”

Then and now

Mr. Whyte said he has had “great difficulties” with the new Miller-Driscoll project.

He pointed out that Miller-Driscoll started out as two separate buildings — the Miller School and the Driscoll School — “with a very different education process at the time.”

Mr. Whyte said the idea was to build eight rooms around a ninth classroom.

“The whole idea was that [the ninth classroom] was an active classroom and kids from one or two or three classrooms rounded into there to work together with another teacher or speaker or [to do] some activity,” he explained.

“The education process changed, and that’s why it’s now viewed as ‘wasted space.’ It wasn’t when we built it — it was valuable space.”

Mr. Whyte said at one point he thought it was time to “tear the place down and start over and rebuild.”

“The more I’ve watched the process and what I see now — what Tai Soo Kim’s office has done, I think they’ve done an outstanding job in considering all the other possibilities — from a new building [to] doing different kinds of renovations,” he said.

“I think they’ve done the best possible job and yes, $50 million is a humongous amount of money, but it’s what it is today.”

Back when the Miller and Driscoll schools were built, Mr. Whyte said, there were fewer factors to consider or worry about.

“Oil was 20 cents a gallon, which was part of the reason we didn’t worry about heating the building up,” he said.

“We didn’t air condition; we didn’t put in fire sprinkler systems because it wasn’t something that anybody did. We didn’t do all the things which are now needed or viewed as being needed.”

Mr. Whyte said although he has had “misgivings” about the major parts of the infrastructure cost, like sprinkler systems, heating and air conditioning, he fully supports the project.

Telling vs. asking

Indian Hill Road resident Joe Brenner is a retired civil engineer who said he has “had some history watching these projects go.”

“This has been an illuminating session, but now we’ve got less than a month to start the vote.”

Mr. Brenner said he sees a problem with how the building project is being presented to the townspeople.

“The characteristic of a failed organization is they often say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to give you. Take it or leave it,’” he said. “Excellent organizations ask, ‘What do you need? What are the critical factors? What’s driving these requests and what do you want?’”

Mr. Brenner said since no explanation has been given on how the requirements for the building project grew, “the cart is before the horse.”

“I understand requirements have a way of exploding — we all know that. I say that with a great deal of respect to you gentlemen and ladies who have worked on all this,” said Mr. Brenner.

“I know the pain, time and energy that was spent, but basically, those are unanswered questions that are reflected into the minds of the people who will pay for this. This is a tell project — not an ask.”

In other words, Mr. Brenner told The Bulletin, “the process fails to reach those who will pay for the construction, don’t have time to examine it and don’t show up for information sessions or to even vote.”