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After gift debate, Riverside School debuts ‘café’

September 22, 2017

GREENWICH — Red, orange, yellow, green and blue chairs encircle round tables in Riverside School’s newly renovated cafeteria, matching the tiled backsplash along a far wall. The space is bright, with muted gray details, built-in cabinetry and stained wood trim.

Riverside PTA co-president Jenn Wolfe and her former co-president Dina Murphy point out the location of the new water fountain and “hydration station” and demonstrate the cafeteria’s new sound system. They speak proudly of the clean, modern space; after all, Riverside PTA funded these improvements.

“Everything we did in this room (was about) ‘How do we make the most out of this space?’ said Murphy. “Every solution that we put in place here kind of spoke to that factor — to make lunch a nice environment for the kids, given that we have a lot more kids in this space than an average school.”

The Riverside PTA spent about $93,000 on the renovations and new furniture for the “café,” as the school calls it. Most of the work was completed over the summer before children returned.

“It’s providing the students a very pleasant experience having lunch,” said Christopher Weiss, principal of Riverside School. “They’re able to sit and be comfortable. They’re able to socialize and enjoy their lunch. There are a lot of benefits.”

That the new cafeteria is good for Riverside kids is not in doubt. But it only was allowed to happen after lengthy debate on the school board about whether the renovations would cause inequity across elementary schools in town.

The Greenwich Board of Education ultimately voted 7-1 in June to authorize the PTA to exceed its 2017-18 gift cap of $139,748. The cafeteria gift caused it to go over by $75,000.

“The challenge is, with playgrounds, with facilities, with having a nice space to eat your lunch in a stress-free environment, that doesn’t exist everywhere,” said BOE member Lauren Rabin when Riverside made its initial request for a gift cap exemption in early June. “You create this disparity when (one) school’s PTA can fund it and others can’t. I would like to see a little bit of priority given to just equalize the experience of facilities in other schools.”

Other school board members welcomed the opportunity for a public/private partnership.

Of all Greenwich PTAs, Riverside is one of the top fund-raisers. In fiscal year 2014-15, the Riverside PTA had a total revenue of $186,838, according to IRS tax forms filed by the nonprofit; only the Old Greenwich and Glenville school PTAs raised more that year. Meanwhile in the same year, New Lebanon, Western Middle and Central Middle schools’ PTAs had revenues of less than $35,000 each.

Former Interim Superintendent Sal Corda argued in June that it was the district’s job to be a leveling factor and provide “equity of outcome,” in a town where PTA revenues vary so widely. At the same time, he suggested the school board consider the likelihood that budget conditions would tighten in the future when considering whether or not to allow the Riverside exemption.

“Raising dollars is going to become more and more difficult,” he said.

Republican school board member Peter Bernstein voted to oppose the exemption.

“For a very, very, very long time it has been a basic rule that the PTAs — you can donate but you can’t do construction,” he said. “I’m a little bit troubled by this.”

Weiss, Wolfe and Murphy said the goal of the renovations were to maximum Riverside School’s small cafeteria. Each day, the school has six lunch shifts — one for each grade — in order to feed all of its 469 students in the space. Riverside is the second largest elementary school in Greenwich; North Mianus is the first with 505 students this year.

“We researched options and along the way we learned our café is one of the smallest in the district compared to the number of students we serve,” Murphy told the school board in June. “Our cafeteria does not currently even meet the Board of Ed’s own standards.”

The new round tables facilitate student conversation, Weiss said. The chairs, which replaced low stools attached to long rectangular tables, are much more comfortable.

“The teachers are thrilled because we are going to start using this space more and more,” Weiss said. “Meetings could be held in here throughout the day.”

Noise used to be an issue in the cafeteria, Weiss reported. Riverside student Aedan Browning, then a fourth grader, told the Board of Education in June, “When I’m at lunch, it’s really hard to have a conversation at the tables. It’s so loud that I can’t even hear the kids sitting across from me.”

Now, partial drop ceiling “clouds” absorb noise in the cafeteria. Greenwich Public Schools funded ceiling and lighting replacements this summer. The Riverside PTA timed the two renovation projects to coincide.

With the gift cap exemption, the Riverside PTA will still be able to fund its normal before- and after-school programming and pay for field trips, teacher supplies, arts and science workshops, and five or six musical performances for students throughout the year at lunchtime.

“We won’t be cutting any of our normal programs,” said Wolfe. “I think that was important to parents to know we weren’t going to cut back on anything ... it was a happy outcome that we were able to do a great project and not compromise anything.”

emunson@greenwichtime.com; Twitter: @emiliemunson