Former students' parents "outraged" after Fairfield buys Giant Steps property

Permanently closed during the pandemic, the former Giant Steps School for individuals with disabilities at 309 Barberry Road in Fairfield on Tuesday, September 29.

Permanently closed during the pandemic, the former Giant Steps School for individuals with disabilities at 309 Barberry Road in Fairfield on Tuesday, September 29.

Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Connecticut Media

FAIRFIELD — Kathy Roberts made one of her toughest decisions this spring when she and the board of directors decided to close Giant Steps, a school that served students with disabilities for nearly 30 years.

At the time, Roberts, who founded the school, said the board never found a strategy that would keep students safe amidst the coronavirus pandemic while providing them the education they deserve.

It looks like the site might once again educate students though.

In meetings on Monday, the Representative Town Meeting, Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance each voted unanimously to buy the property on Barberry Road for about $5.1 million with plans to use the former school to house the Walter Fitzgerald Campus — Fairfield’s alternative high school.

“I think that’s consistent with our mission, so we’re happy about that,” Roberts said. “That was one of the criteria we were looking at as a board.”

But former Giant Steps parents were upset by the sale because it meant the site would not be used to continue to educate their children, something they say they have been trying to preserve since the announcement was made the school was closing.

They said they had been trying to find potential buyers so these vital services for their children could continue. In addition to educational services, the school provided programs such as speech, physical and occupation therapy.

“We had brought her potential buyers,” said Jennifer Iannuzzi, a parent.

She said Jonathan Trichter was very serious and reached out to Roberts on several occasions to purchase the school, take it and relieve her of all of her liability.

“He was working very hard,” Iannuzzi said. “He ran a successful special needs school in New York City. He was qualified to take over.”

Trichter, ultimately opened up Hubbard Day, a for-profit school serving the same demographic, in Greenwich.

Attempts to buy the school

Trichter said he tried many ways to keep the school open for the students and staff learning and working there.

“I tried to purchase it, lease it, sign an operating contract with (Roberts),” he said. “I tried everything I can do at the moment when they decided to close to try to rescue the program in order to make sure that 40 some-odd relatively impaired children could have a place to go and receive necessary therapies and educations services that they have every legal right to.”

He said he asked to be informed when the school started collecting proposals, but wasn’t notified.

Roberts said there were many people interested in the property, including several that wanted to open schools there. She said any allegation that she and the board did not agree to talk to people is untrue.

“Anyone who wanted to submit a proposal did and all of the proposals were considered,” she said.

Roberts, who would not say whether Trichter was sent a request for proposal, said anyone who was qualified to run a school received one. She noted that several applicants withdrew when they found out the property was zoned for non-profit schools.

She said she does not understand the anger some in the Giant Steps community still have toward her and the board.

“They seem happy with their new school. They need to focus on it and move on,” she said. “I don’t understand this. Other than they want to drag people through the mud.”

Trichter said 15 former Giant Steps students attend Hubbard Day, adding 16 former staff were hired to work there.

“They are getting the education they need to thrive,” Trichter said. “They are happy. They are loved and they are advancing. It’s really wonderful.”

Iannuzzi, who ended up sending her daughter, Sydney Iannuzzi, to the school, said there are still former Giant Steps students who have not found a school. She said she and some other parents are outraged at Fairfield and about the situation.

“You’ve got kids with no place to go and other kids are just going to show up in their seats in a couple of months and just have a school,” she said.

The town buys the school

Town and school officials were thinking about purchasing the property to house the alternative high school since the summer, but seriously began considering it earlier this month.

“I thought it was a perfect fit,” Fist Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick said. “The price back then was much higher than what we’re doing now. I was a little put off by that price and, then, things quieted down for a while. Then, we came back and the price was adjusted and we started to make the negotiation.”

She, Town Attorney Jim Baldwin and Superintendent of Schools Mike Cummings presented the proposal to the selectmen to purchase the 11.75 acres for nearly $5.12 million.

“It was a big piece of property,” Kupchick said in a Dec. 7 meeting. “Most notably, touring the building, it showed me that it was basically a turnkey operation. The building was currently being used as a school. It had a lot of the amenities that we need to provide a school experience for our students in the alternative high school.”

Kupchick said she also had interest in using the land for town purposes, adding that could be decided by the town’s governing bodies later. The rest of the property isn’t set aside for the alternative high school.

“What we are primarily looking at is two things,” she said. “We needed a space for our alternative program. The second priority is, this is almost 12 acres in the middle of Southport. I don’t think anybody in this town isn’t aware that we are under siege with 8-30g developments.”

State statue 8-30g allows developers to bypass local zoning regulations as a way to increase affordable housing in certain communities.

Cummings said the district has been in search of a permanent building for the alternative high school. The current site, a former parochial school building on Biro Street, has done its job, but presents a number of difficulties moving forward.

This included working with the diocese, some of the renovations and other expenses. The school currently costs $110,250 per year in rent.

School officials said the alternative high school is slated to have a capacity of 50 students, but the district is interested in expanded that number.

Board of Finance Vice Chair Chris DeWitt said it was clear the building was very well maintained, especially compared to the current campus.

“It was utilized in the right way,” he said. “There are a lot of things that are staying there that I think are advantages to the town.”

He added it’s encouraging to know more students might actually want to go there and Fairfield could expand the program.

Board of Education Chair Christine Vitale said the board is open to the town discussing other uses for the other land and building on the property. She said lease for the Biro Street building ends in June.

“We need this building for these students,” she said. “We spent a lot of time looking for another location without much luck. Acquiring this property would be excellent for our most diverse students in the short term and I think, moving forward, presents real possibilities for the town in the future.”

joshua.labella@hearstmediact.com