GREENWICH – Due to a lack of accessibility at Old Greenwich School, the US Department of Education’s Civil Rights Bureau is investigating Greenwich Public Schools for possible discrimination based on disability.
A representative from the Ministry of Education recently confirmed that the investigation opened on December 15 but was unable to provide additional information.
The complaint concerns failure to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a 1990 civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. Jonathan Supranowitz, communications officer for the education committee, confirmed this in the primary school building this week.
“As a result, a feasibility study has just been completed to address ADA, safety and HVAC air quality issues,” said Supranowitz of the Old Greenwich School, referring to a proposed construction project for the building that is currently under review by the Board of Education .
This feasibility study and related educational specifications for an estimated $ 25 million plan to address ADA and other issues at Old Greenwich School were rejected by the Board of Education at a meeting earlier this month.
The project is not dead – the board will review the specs again in January. However, it is part of a larger debate among board members and other officials in the city about ADA compliance in the school district and how best to carry out school construction projects.
“For me, it’s not just Old Greenwich,” said Alan Gunzburg, chairman of First Selectman’s Advisory Committee on People with Disabilities. “It’s endemic in all school buildings.”
The problems at the Old Greenwich School, built in 1902 and not seen a significant capital project in a quarter of a century, are complex.
The multi-story building lacks an elevator, and its main entrance and gym entrance are inaccessible. Even the student toilets are not ADA compliant at all levels, according to the educational specifications presented to the Education Council at its December 17th meeting.
And while renovations at Old Greenwich are a top construction priority of the Board, it is not planned to start over several years, provided the project gets all the necessary permits. And it’s running at least a year behind a separate $ 27 million project at Julian Curtiss School that has its own ADA accessibility issues.
What would projects cost?
The size and scope of both projects has raised alarms among some members of the school board, who have questioned whether the city’s estimate and tax department will provide the funding needed for both projects and subsequent projects to resolve ADA compliance issues. Some have suggested scaling down the design to just make the mandatory ADA improvements.
At the last board meeting that approved the school district’s application for a $ 33.6 million capital budget, board members Karen Kowalski and Peter Sherr proposed a $ 3.8 million increase in the budget for a district-wide solution ADA compliance issues.
Kowalski and Sherr said they based their request on the 2018 Facilities Master Plan, which inventoried the district’s buildings and ranked their needs from highest to lowest priority based on a number of criteria, including compliance with ADA.
But the board members ultimately denied their request, saying it was too short term and the board would need a new feasibility study to better determine the real cost of such a project. District chief Dan Watson said such a project would well exceed $ 3.8 million.
“There is no question that there is support on the board to make progress and solve the accessibility problems in a meaningful way,” said board chairman Peter Bernstein. “However, the ADA problems are not as straightforward as adding an elevator or an elevator. Doing this this way could incur additional costs for additional necessary changes to our buildings, many of which are quite old.”
Gunzburg and Stephanie Cowie, vice chairmen of the Advisory Committee on People with Disabilities, agreed at least in part. Accessibility to ADA should no doubt be a priority, they said. And a feasibility study could be the best way to drive such a comprehensive, district-wide solution. However, $ 3.8 million is not enough to adequately address such a complex problem.
“You have to do a study,” said Gunzburg. “It’s imperative.”
“There were board members who said it would cost $ 3.8 million to get up on snuff,” Cowie said. “There’s absolutely no way that this is the number.”
Other schools need to be repaired
In addition to her role on the Advisory Board, Cowie is co-president of the Greenwich High School Parent Teacher Association and was involved in planning the GHS Cardinal Stadium project. In 2018, Cowie suffered a stroke and became paralyzed, an experience that gave her a different take on the schools she had attended for years.
In addition to Old Greenwich and Julian Curtiss, the Riverside School, the Western Middle School and the Havemeyer Building, which houses the office of the schools’ superintendent Toni Jones, there is also no ADA conformity. In fact, at the recent Board of Education meeting, Watson estimated that 80 percent of Greenwich Public Schools buildings do not meet ADA standards. Jones did not respond to a request for clarification on Watson’s estimate.
“ADA issues were identified as one of the three main categories we used as part of our Master Facilities Plan for prioritizing buildings in 2018 along with health / safety and air quality,” said Bernstein. “This work made it clear that at least three of our school buildings, Julian Curtis, Old Greenwich and Riverside, faced similar challenges for all three categories. So we tried to take a holistic view of these buildings using feasibility studies and now define the educational specifications that highlight the ADA needs and solutions. “
The school board and headquarters are also trying to fix issues at Western Middle School, Bernstein added.
“It’s of paramount importance,” said Cowie. “It has been 30 years since the ADA. These are not nice things. These are absolute necessities. And the state of our public schools is despicable. “
Since Jones took over the helm of the district in 2019, she’s been open to input from Gunzburg and his committee, Cowie said, and seems determined to make buildings more accessible. The reality, however, is that many of these buildings will still take years or even decades to complete, she said.
In the meantime, accessibility issues persist, which are at risk for both the staff, students and visitors who need to use the building, and taxpayers who may have to pay the bill for potential litigation.
And with a federal investigation ongoing, the district may soon have no choice but to fix the existing problems or risk losing federal funds.
“We’re hitting a dead horse here,” said Gunzberg. “It’s so long overdue. … It’s time to create a system that works for everyone. “
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