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Who should pay to test, and clean, soil at Greenwich schools?

October 22, 2016 GMT

GREENWICH — The school district’s playing fields were at the forefront of discussion among Board of Education members this week, as they wrestled with the question of who should have to pay for environmental testing and remediation of contaminated soil.

The answer to that question could influence what projects get scheduled and when.

The board approved a transfer of $50,000 from the district’s maintenance account to its engineering account in order to pay environmental consulting firm Langan to delineate the extent of soil contamination at Western Middle School. Final approval for the transfer will rest with the Board of Estimate and Taxation.

But it remains unclear how much clean-up of Western Middle’s fields will cost — and who will shoulder the expense, facts that worried many board members.

“I really don’t like being in this position,” said board member Peter Sherr. “I feel like there is a little bit of a game going on of put the monkey on the other guy’s back and that is not the right thing to do when you are talking about children.”

The board directed Superintendent Sal Corda to meet with First Selectman Peter Tesei as soon as possible to discuss how the town and district will pay for future remediation on school grounds.

Tesei said he was willing to work with the school district.

“The desire to resolve this issue is evidenced by a meeting being scheduled between town officials and the Board of Education administration,” he said.

The board members said they would hold a special meeting to discuss the issue after Corda’s and Tesei’s discussion.

Board member Gaetane Francis said she does not want to “reinvent the wheel” and renegotiate responsibility for clean-up every time a new field remediation project arises.

As the board suggested, the outcome of this discussion could affect the scheduling of maintenance and construction projects for the school district.

A present example: The appropriation of funds for leveling and improving Hamilton Avenue’s playing field, a line item in the district’s 2017-18 Capital Improvement Plan, which waits for the board’s approval, became more complex this week with the possibility of soil testing factored in.

Director of Facilities Ron Matten explained that there is a five-foot change in elevation from one end of the playing field to the other. Leveling the field would require the excavation and movement of soil, which in turn would necessitate testing the soil before any work began.

Board member Jennifer Dayton insisted on interim appropriations to pay for the needed work on the fields at Western and Hamilton Avenue as soon as possible, regardless of what testing might be needed at Hamilton Avenue.

Board Vice Chair Barbara O’Neill countered: “I don’t think it’s the board’s responsibility to do anything more than level the field. ... We know we are going to have to test and the chances of finding something there are pretty good. So we have to consider this, is this really something we want to take on or is this something for DPW and Parks and Rec?”

She gave her own thoughts, “The last thing I ever want to see this board do is go to the RTM and ask for additional monies; this is not the climate to do that.”

The board did not arrive at a consensus on Hamilton Avenue this week but asked Matten to produce quotes for the costs of fixing the field.

“We need a safe, level field,” said Dayton. “You come to us with the price and we’ll tell you if it’s doable, but it has to get done.”

emunson@hearstmediact.com; @emiliemunson