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Making the Case for Greenwich High Project

Answers about the Greenwich High School Music Instructional Space and Auditorium Project, known as MISA:

The Greenwich High School Music Instructional and Auditorium Project, known as MISA, has garnered support in town from the Board of Education, first selectman, PTA Council, state legislators, arts organizations and more than 4,500 residents who signed a petition in favor of it. Here are answers to questions that have been raised.

The Project: MISA is the product of a four-year planning process designed to yield a design that fixes the serious problems of the existing facility at a reasonable cost. Music classroom space will be expanded by 75 percent, not counting the additional practice rooms. The new auditorium will provide a modern space that addresses the size, sound and sight line deficiencies of the 40-year-old inadequate one and is typical of quality high school performing arts facilities. It will also accommodate half of the Greenwich High student body, putting us at the state guideline level and the average of our peer schools. Some have suggested that we could reduce the cost of MISA by eliminating the 188 balcony seats. However, the need to provide proper acoustics dictates the height of the building; eliminating the balcony would save only about $700,000 and would preclude adding these seats later.

MISA has also undergone extensive review as part of the town's Planning and Zoning process and received final site approval in December. With MISA, the school will have a lower and more attractive profile from Hillside Road. Lighting and landscaping plans, crafted to fit in with the surrounding residential neighborhood, will enhance the site. Parking will be reconfigured for improved traffic flow and safety with no loss of parking spaces.

Questions have been raised about the need for some specific MISA design features. An orchestra pit is standard in a quality performing arts facility and is needed to properly mount any accompanied performance: musical theater, choral or dance. Many neighboring high schools have pits; in fact, even Western Middle School auditorium has a pit. The hydraulic lift for the pit will allow for more frequent floor level adjustments for different groups and accounts for substantially less than 1 percent of MISA's cost. The so-called "green room," a feature that accounts for less than 2 percent of the auditorium square footage, is necessary because there is no contiguous classroom space for student performers to gather under adult supervision before and during performances.

The cost: The projected cost of MISA is $28.8 million, not taking into account an estimated reimbursement from the state of $1.7 million to $3.8 million, depending on determination of eligible expenses and subject to bonding authorization. We believe the project cost is a solid estimate, because of the extensive planning and design process and includes a 10 percent contingency reserve. The project’s construction manager, Turner Construction, brought in the Glenville School construction on time and within budget. Some aspects of the project present special issues that increase costs (the site has rock and water features, specific siting and adjacency issues on the campus, the need for new electrical service from the street). However, Turner compared MISA with seven other high school auditorium projects and found that its costs are otherwise on par.

Can the town afford this project? Last month all three credit rating agencies (Moody's, Standard & Poor and Fitch) affirmed the town's AAA rating, taking into account its capital budget over the next 15 years, and specifically including MISA and the Central Fire Station. We believe that given current low interest rates and slack in the construction industry, now is a favorable time to move forward. If MISA were deferred, it likely would be subject to inflationary pressures in the future.

Some have expressed the concern that the town could better spend its money on other educational needs. However, the town has separate capital and operating budgets; failure to fund MISA would not likely result in any more money going to the school system for other purposes. Superintendent Freund has said the school board's proposed operating budget is sufficient to achieve his planned gains in academic performance. Also, because there are 65 other capital projects in the town's queue that are ranked by the Town's Capital Improvement Projects Committee as lower in priority than MISA, failure to fund MISA would probably not reduce the town's capital expenditures, either. Other lower-priority projects would likely be funded instead.

It has been said the cost of MISA has skyrocketed during the planning process. But estimated costs have risen only $5 million since the feasibility study was done three years ago because the following three factors: greater accuracy as design process progressed (fire pump room, HVAC, code requirements); site penalty (rock, swamp); and increased site requirements (land use, neighbors).

Conclusion: In Greenwich we have always prided ourselves on having outstanding public schools that produce capable, well-rounded citizens who contribute to the well being of the town, our nation and indeed the world. Even town residents who have no children in our schools have a strong interest in maintaining their recognized excellence, which is a significant factor in supporting property values. The deficiencies in the music instruction space and auditorium at Greenwich High School have long been a serious weakness in our facilities. With current interest rates low and contractors looking for work, we believe now is a right time to address these deficiencies by moving ahead with MISA.

For more information, contact Steve Anderson, chair of the Greenwich Board of Education, at 203-992-1281 or by email ; or Leslie Moriarty, vice chair of the Greenwich Board of Education, at 203-661-1646 or by email.

• A message from Superintendent of Schools Sidney A. Freund on the Greenwich High School Music Instructional Space and Auditorium Project, or MISA:

The MISA project will provide necessary classroom space for a large and successful music program and updated auditorium facilities that have multiuse flexibility, appropriate sound, sight lines and support spaces, and seating capacity for our large high school. These facilities are an important part of the educational goals we have for our students.

The Instructional Need: The Greenwich High music instructional space and auditorium are clearly substandard. The amount of classroom space is below par, totaling only 40 percent to 70 percent of national standards. Our larger choral classes must be held in the auditorium, resulting in many instructional challenges and sometimes causing conflicts with school assemblies. The electronic music program turns away 200 students each year because it must share its meager classroom space with the visual arts program. About 1,000 students are enrolled in performing arts classes, double the enrollment when the school opened in 1970. These students, far from being a small special-interest group, represent nearly 40 percent of the student body. These shortcomings have widespread impact.

The auditorium seats just 31 percent of the school's student body (current and projected), versus the state guideline of 50 percent (to qualify for a facility rating of “excellent”) and the state average of 74 percent. (By contrast, Westport's high school auditorium seats 59 percent of its student body and Darien's holds 87 percent). The acoustics are poor, and the stage is too small for many Greenwich High performing groups and is not suited for dance. The lack of an orchestra pit causes blocked sightlines during theater and choral performances. The absence of basic backstage and support facilities makes it harder to mount productions and poses safety issues. Unlike our peer schools, Greenwich High cannot host regional music events because of the poor quality of its facility.

We strive to provide the best education possible for all students. We want nothing less for our students involved in the music and theater programs. In addition, the project will address longstanding concerns with the site, including traffic, safety, lighting and landscaping improvements.

Deferring this project any longer will continue to place a strain on our instructional program and deny access to those wanting to participate. Voting this project off the proposed capital projects budget places a barrier in achieving the goal we are striving for – opportunities for greater student involvement, engagement and connectedness to the high school and the community.

There will be a community forum Wednesday night at 7 p.m. at Greenwich High School Auditorium. Come learn more about the rationale, scope and costs of the Music Instructional Space and Auditorium Project.

What do you think of the MISA project? Do you support it? Why or why not? Add a comment below.

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