Last week, GOOD Morning Wilton sat down with first selectman Bill Brennan as well as Karen Birck and Bruce Hampson, the chairs of the Miller-Driscoll Building Committee, to find out why they say this school renovation project is “the most critical project in the town for the last 25 years.”
There’s been some recent criticism–an ad-hoc group calling itself “Sensible Wilton” has been speaking out, posting yellow flyers around town. They claim the project’s $50 million price tag is twice what it should be, saying for that cost the town should be getting an entirely new school. They also alleged that the upcoming town meeting and vote on Sept. 23 (continued on Sept. 27) is a “surprise”–stating (incorrectly) that there has been only one meeting for residents to learn about the project.
We talked to Brennan and the project leads for their perspective on why the M-D renovation is an important project and what they want residents to know.
Bill Brennan: It’s critical, not just to improve and renovate the school, which definitely needs to be done, but for the town–this is an investment in Wilton. This is a gateway school, where parents who are thinking of moving to the town come to look. They compare it to Westport, Ridgefield, Redding schools. This is a key first stop for them, and realtors will say it’s important for this project to be approved, for the property values of the community.
We want people to vote on the facts and not mis-information that gets passed around, without any valid credentials to it.
GOOD Morning Wilton: I have heard your presentation and sat in meetings where you’ve explained the benefits of this project, the thought that’s gone into it, the expertise behind the people on the committee and the builders. I’ve still heard people say you haven’t done a good job telling Wilton residents why we need this major renovation project to pass. Why not just get a new roof on now? Do the repairs one at a time? Let’s start with what you say are the merits of this plan.
Karen Birck: When you enter Miller-Driscoll, you don’t see the extent of the problems because it’s been very well maintained. The fact is you have a more than 25-year-old HVAC system, operating to the standards of the 1960s, and currently not the code. The building has been retrofitted for air conditioning that’s noisy–the teachers turn the AC on when the kids are at specials and off to teach when the kids come back into the room. In almost every classroom, there are electrical cords running across the floor because there are insufficient electrical outlets. We all know the future of education is going to be tablets; there is insufficient technology infrastructure in that building. As it is now, it could not support a robust, wireless network. There is evidence all over that building that the roof leaks, but they do a good job when there is a leak–they take the tile down, they clean it up, they put a new ceiling tile up. The roof needs to be done.
You hear, ‘Let’s do this in pieces; start with the worst part–the roof.’ If you look at this building, you have a roof surround by a corten steel skirt that is connected to the walls. Beneath that roof you have HVAC piping, electrical runs, technology wiring. They are all interconnected. It doesn’t make any sense to put on a new roof now and then several years later put in a new HVAC, then cut holes in that new roof put equipment on that new roof. If you do it piecemeal, you’re going to [keep taking down and putting up a ceiling] to put in HVAC and wiring. It’s much more costly and it doesn’t make sense.
Bruce Hampson: The fundamental reason we don’t just put a new roof on, what we’re doing is an integrated system; everything fits together, one piece can’t stand alone. You can’t put new air conditioning in each room and then come back sometime later, take everything down and put sprinklers in.
Brennan: The only way you can renovate a 55-year-old building, it needs comprehensive work. I’ve had children go through this school, I’ve had grandchildren go through this school. I know it well. The school has served the town very well, we have gotten our return on investment.
It was built structurally well. We did a complete forensic evaluation of the building to assess if it can be renovated successfully. Turner Construction came back and said, ‘This building has good bones and can easily be renovated appropriately, and we’ve done many renovations similar to this.’
We don’t have a sprinkler system now, and it’s a critical need in a school. That adds to the safety–you have to do that when you do a complete renovation. To do that piecemeal, you have to rip out ceilings–you can’t do that piecemeal in any way that’s cost-efficient.
There are so many things that need to get corrected and the way to do it cost-efficiently is to do it all at once. This school will be ready technology-wise for the next 25 years when it’s finished. Security is a major issue–it’s been looked at comprehensively and will now comply with all the state requirements. This will look like a completely new school when it’s finished. We will be proud as citizens of this school. The entire campus will take on a new look: the roads will be replaced, traffic patterns will change, it’s going to be a better school in the end.
GOOD Morning Wilton: The project has been criticized for a late start date–December of 2015. That’s a long time to wait for a school that needs a new roof and needs all these new HVAC and technology systems. If we agree we need to make this investment, and if the town votes to approve making that investment, why does it have to take so long?
Birck: At this point, we only have schematic drawings. It takes time to draw the detailed construction documents and then to have them approved by the state of CT so that we qualify for reimbursement. We then have to do a public bidding of every trade. We put out the RFPs, get the proposals back, evaluate them and award contracts. The contracts have to be run by [town legal] counsel.
GMW: You’re hampered by regulations?
Hampson: It’s not only the regulations that would require us to start in December 2015. What the town has approved [thus far] is to proceed only with schematic designs, which allow us to come up with estimated costs. The next step is a very significant amount of design work, to pin down everything. To develop construction drawings to go to bid to 15 or so different trades. Actually, when you look at it from Sept. of this year, to December of next year, that’s incredibly aggressive.
The main delay will be getting the state to approve construction drawings we submit. The educational folks [in Hartford] will decide, yes that qualifies for reimbursement, by line item.
Birck: We’re doing it as quickly as we can.
This is the fastest and most cost-efficient way to do this project. If you were to do it piecemeal, the first piece would come before voters in May 2015. You would still have to go through all the architectural and engineering work to design it. You can’t just call a roofer and say, ‘Put a roof on.’
Brennan: To do this piecemeal would be an injustice to the community—it would take longer and cost more.
GMW: Is the decision not to do things piecemeal something that will save taxpayers money?
Birck: That’s correct.
Hampson: Significant money.
GMW: Some of the criticism says that the cost you’ve projected for the major overhaul is so steep, we’re paying for ‘new’ but getting ‘used.’ The Sensible Wilton flyer says “the state average costs for a 100-percent new building is $45 million, … and state average costs for refurbishment is 40-percent less than that.”
Hampson: That premise is wrong. Totally wrong. A renovation can go from A-to-Z. There’s tremendous variation in a renovation. To come up with an ‘average’ cost is like saying, ‘The average temperature in Wilton is 50 degrees, so it’s a waste of money to buy a snow shovel or summer clothes.’ That’s the analogy.
Turner Construction prepared these numbers [below] on projects that they have completed on a renovation in Fairfield County, or nearby. Miller-Driscoll is right smack in the middle. And Miller-Driscoll is not only a renovation of existing, we are making the facility more compact and more unified. What you have a real numbers for a total school. The state report that was cited [by Sensible Wilton] was from a real estate consulting firm, not from the state–the state doesn’t have the capabilities to do it. According to Turner Construction and [M-D project architect] Randall Luther at Tai Soo Kim, in that state report is simply the construction cost, the hard cost–not the soft cost or the site cost. So these numbers [below] are real for a renovation.
Birck: This will be a comprehensive renovation. It will look new.
But you’ve touched on the question of, ‘Why not a new school?’
There are several reasons:
First of all, we have looked at the Miller-Driscoll site, and there is not room to put a new school on the Miller-Driscoll site and keep the current Miller-Driscoll operating [while we build]. It can’t be done.
There is not another place to move the children if we were to tear down the building to build a new school there. The town does not own land on which we can build a new school.
GMW: Someone suggested the Vista Road Property [in North Wilton] as an alternate location. When it was originally purchased in the 1960s, it was purchased as a space to build a school.
Brennan: I want to drive a stake into the word ‘new’ and kill it once and for all. New is not an option; new would cost us $30 million more, if we had the space. That’s just too much money. This school, when finished, is going to be so impressive to everybody. Almost everything is being replaced–the siding, the roof, the windows, the interiors, you have to rip out the ceilings to put in sprinklers, all the door casings, the doors… To the average person who walks in, it will be a new school.
This team has done a great job. It’s a highly-qualified team, with architects, engineers, it isn’t a bunch of people who know nothing about building. I get upset about all the hours that have been put into this project, the dedication that’s taken place, and the board members who have spent hours looking over this. [RTC chair and Bd. of Finance member] Al Alper, who is usually very tough on things, said, ‘I personally support this plan, it’s the most cost-efficient.’
You’ve got to have some vision.
Birck: Geographically it doesn’t make sense to have the school up there. But then you wind up with a 127,000 square foot building in South Wilton that cannot be used, because it still would need to be upgraded to be used.
Brennan: Can you imagine designing a new school, and all the various opinions? Can you imagine clearing that land? We had a big battle when someone wanted to put a telephone tower up there. A new school? It would take longer.
Hampson: It would push everything back five years.
GMW: What does a new school cost to build?
Hampson: The best example, it’s hard data, is that Newtown is building a new school, on the same site as the old school. It’s been widely reported that the cost of that is $42 million, at approximately half the sq. ft. space of Miller-Driscoll. You translate that in dollars-per-sq.-ft., which is $600 per sq. ft., a new Miller-Driscoll school would cost $73 million. Those are real numbers.
Brennan: When we do these numbers, because we have to live by them, that’s why we hire Turner Construction. They are professionals. We’ve used them as long as I can remember, and I’ve been here 40 years now. They’re very credible. The numbers they’ve estimated on projects have always been dead on. These are real costs, not somebody picking a number out of some report they read–‘You can build a new school in New York City for $200 per sq. ft.’–That’s totally fallacious! New schools in New York City are in the $500-600 per sq. ft. range. We’ve checked that.
We’re saying, get the facts. We’ve put out a factual presentation. All the boards unanimously approved this–Selectmen, Finance, Education–and including the building committee, which says a lot. To get everybody on board, it says we’ve got a project that’s been vetted very carefully, and that’s the best we can do.
Nobody likes to bring big projects to the community because it means tax dollars. But we’ve got to do it. We have to do it.
Hampson: What disturbs me more than anything else about this [yellow Sensible Wilton] flyer, is that everyone is entitled to their own view and their own reason why this school should or should not be built. This is probably the largest investment in the town–not just the educational community–the town, in terms of real estate values. This does such a disservice to those who have to make a decision on such a huge investment, because every one of these points is fallacious.
GMW: Are you surprised that there is dissent and opposition to the project?
Brennan: No, not at all. It’s always healthy when people raise questions. I just want people to be sure that if they raise questions, and they cite information, that it be accurate. What we’ve been disturbed with is that it’s been misleading and false. Debate is always good on a project of this size, it’s healthy. It’s important, to our children and our community. We’ve had good turnout and good questions [at prior meetings].
GMW: Sometimes, our town’s low voter turnout is linked to the perception that if less than 10-percent of the voters turn out for a vote it will pass. But that’s not the case for this vote.
Brennan: That’s not the case here.
Brennan: We want people to vote, because it’s so important to the community. Bruce, Karen and me, we don’t have children going through the school anymore, but we support it totally. We think it’s right for the community. Somebody paid for these schools when my children were there. That’s always my philosophy on it. But it’s extremely important for the younger folks to get out and vote. The attitude that, ‘Don’t worry, it will pass, I have a game to go to,’ just is not responsible. You’re a voter, you’re a citizen of this community, we have a right to indicate your feelings.
Come to the meeting, we’ll have a full presentation. I just want to make sure that when people vote, they understand the facts and understand how important it is.
GMW: If people can’t make the meeting on the evening of Tuesday, Sept. 23, is there another opportunity for them to learn about the project?
Birck: We will have someone at the Middlebrook Open House on Monday, Sept. 15 (7 p.m.), but it will not be a full presentation; at the Cider Mill Open House on Tuesday Sept. 16 (7 p.m.), but it’s not a presentation; we are presenting to the realtors at Rolling Hills on Wednesday, Sept. 17 at 10 a.m., to the Wilton Kiwanis at noon, at WEPCO, and at Miller-Driscoll’s first grade Open House at 7 p.m..
Hampson: The building committee has met publicly twice a month since May 2013, at posted, public meetings.
Something particular the first selectman wanted to outline was the town’s capital improvement program and the projected debt service maintained by the town. (see the image)
Brennan: These are estimates–we estimate what the next five years will be. All bonded capital projects must be approved by the town. They are just estimates of spending so we did that all the way out for 10 years. It’s important to point out that these numbers often change. That’s a rough estimate consistent with the dollars we would normally spend during that period. Those are the numbers the Board of Finance looked at and they were comfortable with it.
The key thing is we never reach our debt service. We are retiring debt every single year. When we add debt, something else is going down. We have a number that is 10-percent of the expenditures of the total town budget, it’s a reasonable number, a Board of Finance number. We don’t want to be borrowing in excess of 10-percent. It’s a prudent number that says we can afford to do this. We’re not there, we won’t ever reach that level with this whole Miller-Driscoll program even. Yes we’re adding a big nut to it, but a lot of it is dropping off too. So this project is affordable.
GMW: When you talk about numbers that might change, given fluctuations in the economy, or perhaps eliminating certain design options. Someone asked why do we have to hew to the absolute extreme of LEED certification–won’t it save us money if we use that as a ‘roadmap’ rather than the ‘destination’?
Hampson: We are not seeking LEED certification, which is an extra step–it costs money. However, CT High Performance Building requirements–not a code, just a requirement–is equal to a LEED Silver.
Why do we follow that? We have to follow that in order to qualify for reimbursement from the state. That will result in a building, in terms of energy, that is 20 percent more efficient than the standard CT building code would result in. We are following the guidelines in the CT High Performance Building Standard. But we’re not taking the extra step to getting certification.
GMW: Another reader said, ‘My kids got a great education in a basic, simple building. That’s all we need.’
Hampson: When I went to school, I had a charcoal pen and a piece of wood. [laughs]
Brennan: My grandson is in school here, he’s a little kid about this big [holds hand out about 3 feet high] he needs a computer. The world is changing. We must educate our children for the world they will be facing. Having a piece of charcoal on a board isn’t going to do it for the future.
Also, there are educational requirements that the state has for schools. We’re not doing anything excessive. We’re bringing the school up to the best possible condition to meet the state requirements cost effectively. There is a tremendous balancing of needs and cost. It is so complex. Sure you can trim out a few costs but what we’re trying to do is, when we get this thing done, we did it right.
We studied a major project that Trumbull did. They did a major audit of it–we were able to see the things they did throughout that process that took out costs, but that later came back to haunt them–and that the taxpayers were highly critical of. They walked into the building and found they’d left all the old shelving, all the old doors, and it didn’t look like a new building. People were incensed. We made some changes as a result.
Hampson: One of the requirements of the state that may result in a building you’d call sprawling–and Miller-Driscoll is–we are making it more unified and simple. The state requires that a school for pre-K, K, and for 1st grade, has to be on ground level. Only 2nd grade can be elevated. It results in a spread out building. One of the first meetings we had was a parent focus group, and one of the strong likes was the cottage set-up. They said, ‘This is a large school, but it’s intimate because we have cottages.’ Our architect heard that and came up with a design that preserves that as much as we can. It’s a lot less spread out and it’s a lot more simple than it used to be.
GMW: Even though the district tries to do as much enrollment prediction as it can, will this school continue to serve the growing needs of the town?
Birck: It’s built to accommodate 930 from K-2, not including preschool. We are confident the school will accommodate the population. And the birth rate in Wilton is going down.
Brennan: Randall [Luther] addressed that at the meeting at the Library’s Brubeck Room. The long term-projections tends to be trending down.
Hampson: The 8-year student enrollment average from the projections is 765 [students]. We have 45 classrooms, and should the enrollment exceed projections this design would provide for flexibility to accommodate up to 930. That’s from the superintendent. The building committee doesn’t make those decisions; we’re guided by what the superintendent and the director of special education tell us.
GMW: What happens if this doesn’t pass?
Brennan: This has been so carefully planned. So much has been invested in time and effort. When you take all the volunteers who have been involved in this process, these are professionals and citizens who have busy schedules. To resurrect this project and get it going again makes it very difficult to get volunteers again. That would extend the period before this school would eventually be repaired and it would cost more.
If it fails, we go back to square one and I can’t predict how long it would take, but it’s going to be extremely difficult and be longer and cost more, that I’m sure of.
Hampson: If it’s turned down, all of the needs that everyone recognizes will be delayed who knows how long. We would start all over, back at square one.