FAIRFIELD — An update to the Board of Finance on the Holland Hill renovation Tuesday turned into a debate on whether the educational specifications provided to the building committee were detailed enough.

The building committee has estimated the cost for current schematic drawings at $21 million, not the $14 million that was expected based on similar work at Riverfield School. After giving a similar presentation in December to the Board of Selectmen, Tom Quinn, chairman of the building committee, said they have been working on reducing that price tag. There has been no funding request submitted at this point for the project.

“It’s quite obvious the scope versus Riverfield is quite higher, and that is the cause of the differential,” Quinn said. He said that, conservatively, he expects the final cost to be at least 10 percent less than the $21 million estimate, if not more.

The building committee, Quinn said, met with the school community, teachers and the principal to flesh out the educational specifications (ed specs) approved by the Board of Education. For example, the ed specs might call for 800 square feet of resource rooms but not specify how that should be delivered.

“We have felt a more generalized ed spec allows the committee to meet the ed specs based on building or site,” Board of Education Chairman Phil Dwyer said.

“It seems to give them a little too much power,” said finance board member James Walsh. “We’re building to a 504 school. We’re building to a population of 90 percent of that number. We know we’re doing an addition. We have to add that space or not add that space. We should know from one school to another, unless you’re telling me something educationally has changed. This should be pretty easy to have more specifics, so the committee doesn’t have to go meet with the Holland Hill community, teachers and principals.”

Walsh said he finds it “odd” that it comes down to the building committee meeting with the school community.

“It shouldn’t be the tail wagging the dog,” he said. “It should come from a higher level.”

Finance Chairman Thomas Flynn said a 504 school — a school built to handle students with disabilities— has to have, for example, 24 classrooms and six resource rooms. “You say, ‘Here’s what that looks like’ and it doesn’t appear that happened,” Flynn said.

It should be, finance member Chris DeWitt said, a cookie-cutter approach.

“It’s only through diligence of the building committee,” DeWitt said. “Your ed spec isn’t even telling you the most basic functions.”

Ed specs list a function, Quinn said, not the size.

“We anticipate that the building committee and their architectural staff will consult with central office and building staff and work out the details to deliver the ed specs,” Dwyer. “We do not anticipate they are off on their own without any guidance. We think it is better to say ‘Here’s what we want in total,’ and let the building committee and our staff work out the details with the architect.”

Quinn said it also had a lot to do with how the particular school is laid out. “It depends on the space available, and that’s what the architects do,” he said. “They also meet with the teachers and principal. ‘How do you want your 800 square feet?’ It depends upon the school.”

Walsh said he is surprised that is mostly through meetings with the principal. “Central office should be laying out what the program is,” he said.

“I think the discussion needs to be put in a broader context,” Flynn said. “This board is committed to seeing Holland Hill renovated, but with sticker shock and changing economics, it’s not an endless supply of money. I think we just need to be cognizant of that. I think there’s a lot of heavy lifting to be done. The $21 million is unaffordable — it just is.”

greilly@ctpost.com; @GreillyPost