Greenwich RTM committee releases report on New Leb; takes no stand

September 9, 2016 GMT

GREENWICH — The committee to look into whether a proposed 61,230 square foot replacement for New Lebanon School suits its neighborhood has released its report — restricted to information, not opinion.

The ad hoc committee created to review town resident Matthew Popp’s appeal of the Planning and Zoning Commission’s unanimous June 7 approval of municipal improvement status for the school said its goal was never to judge the site plan. All it wanted to do was look at the MI process.

“We always had the goal of fact finding,” said Peter Berg, chairman of the ad hoc committee. “We never intended to take a position on it. It’s such a complicated issue.”

The committee, made up of Representative Town Meeting members Berg, Philip Dodson, Glen Canner and Matthew Crawford will discuss the report at 8 p.m. Monday before a joint meeting of the land use, education and legislative and rules RTM committees at Town Hall.

The full RTM meeting, where’ Popp’s appeal will be discussed, is scheduled for Sept. 19.

Popp, who was part of an architectural group that unsuccessfully bid on the new facility, has said he is not against a new school in Byram, where he is a resident. He said the current plan is too big for the neighborhood, will disrupt the neighborhood’s environment and exacerbate traffic patterns.

He said it did not fit the town’s own Plan of Conservation and Development. The town P&Z and the school’s building committee disagreed.

Part of the reason the school is being expanded is to accommodate magnet students. New Lebanon is in violation of state racial balance guidelines. The district administrators said they feel a magnet program would bring in more white students to the school, which is in a neighborhood with a large Spanish-speaking population.

Popp questioned using a magnet school at New Lebanon to fix the racial imbalance.

“Based on the lack of success of the Hamilton Avenue School, New Lebanon and Western Middle School magnet programs to attract students from other town areas to reduce racial imbalance, the proposed oversized Byram magnet school will fail to improve the existing racial imbalance,” Popp told the committee.

“My goal is for the town to build a new hilltop neighborhood school that meets the needs of Byram and is in scale with the surrounding landscape,” Popp said. “The new school would focus on increasing students’ academic achievement instead of their race.“

The report was compiled based on questions sent to key figures in the debate: Popp, Interim Superintendent of Schools Sal Corda, Town Attorney Wayne Fox and RTM Moderator Tom Byrne.

An RTM vote to cancel the project could have serious ramifications, supporters said. Construction of the school is expected to receive significant state reimbursement because it’s being built, in part, to respond to the racial balance mandate. Building is slated to begin in June 2017. A delay could jeopardize the reimbursement.

Board of Education Chairman Laura Erickson has spoken out against delays, saying the racial balance plan has been approved through negotiations with the state and requires Greenwich compliance. Corda, in his comments to the committee, said a bigger school is needed because the current school is over-enrolled, with 259 students for 2016-17 and 32 kindergartners being taught off-site at the Byram Archibald Neighborhood Center.

The new school also would house Pre-K.

The current school is about 37,000 square feet.

“We do not believe it is desirable for kindergarten students to be located in a separate location from the rest of the body,” Corda said. “In 2015-16 school year, total enrollment was 266 students, which included 41 kindergarten students at BANC. The new school is expected to accommodate a neighborhood population of 279 students. Pre-K seats a total of 45 students and the magnet program is designed to add 50 seats, increasing the school population to 374 students.”

Corda noted that in the 2015-16 year, 65 students living in the New Lebanon area opted to attend other district schools. He said the new school could change that.

The committee recommended that RTM members visit the site.

The report, which is posted online at www.rtm.greenwich.org , includes a map of the area for anyone looking to take a self-guided tour.