Greenwich High’s student center slated for $500K makeover using COVID relief funds

GREENWICH — The student center — a gathering spot at Greenwich High that the school’s PTA co-president compared to a penitentiary in appearance — is on its way to a $500,000 renovation.

The Board of Education’s Budget Committee had requested the funds from the Board of Estimate & Taxation earlier this month but was told the full school board had to approve the spending.

School board member Michael-Joseph Mercanti-Anthony was the first to raise an objection at Tuesday’s meeting.

“My concern is one of priorities, particularly when we’re considering the authorization of the one-time ESSER funds” he said. “We hear everyday the significant challenges of learning loss and the social-emotional needs of all our students, and the only data that we have right now at the board level is the state tests that show students at several of our schools reading below grade level .”

With more data is expected in June, he proposed reserving funds until the board learns more. He also suggested removing the position of school climate consultant, a $79,500 cost over three years.

But school board member Karen Hirsh pushed back, arguing that the student center and climate consultant would benefit students’ social-emotional well-being.

“School climate is one of the few things that we’re looking here to do that’s going to serve both teachers and students. There’s really not a lot here to just support our educators,” she said. “The school climate consultant is basically hired to provide professional development in the areas of social and emotional support as well as other indicators that staff are seeing.”

“We’re seeing a lot of increase in student anxiety and stress. It goes with what we’re talking about with the student center and helping give those students a place to decompress,” she said.

Greenwich High School Vice Principal Dana Tulotta, who had the idea to reimagine the student center, said the space could be reconfigured to accommodate groups of students as well as those who want to sit alone.

Board member Joe Kelly said his two children had opposite reactions to the student center.

“One of my children would find it a very traumatic experience entering the student center on a regular basis. Another one of my kids wished it was a 3-acre student center so he could wave toward more friends and more people would cheer as he walked in,” he said.

Parents have been supportive and thoughtful about the project, Greenwich High School PTA co-president Stephanie Cowie said.

Superintendent Toni Jones cautioned the board against delaying the project. “If we know we’re going to do it, we’re just going to get less if wait another six or 12 months because we’re seeing cost escalation,” she said.

Board member Karen Kowalski said she wished she could have asked questions “three months ago” and felt rushed.

“I do wonder if we’re spending it in the right place given the fact that I’ve heard we need a literacy specialist in Parkway,” she said.

The apportionment request also includes money for social workers, a math interventionist, a reading interventionist, a family and community engagement consultant and other additions to the school district.

The school board narrowly approved the request in a vote of 4-2, with two abstaining.

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