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Lyons still focused on building new schools, ASAP

Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski, left; Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons, right.

Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski, left; Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons, right.

NORWALK, Conn. – City leaders are studying the Norwalk Board of Education’s capital budget request to see how it can be reprioritized, to both fix existing schools and build new ones, BoE Chairman Mike Lyons said Thursday.

Mayor Harry Rilling, who joined in a announcement on Monday that existing schools should be fixed before new ones are built, declined to comment, beyond a morning statement that he plans a meeting on the topic.

This, as Facebook criticisms wore on in the wake of the “Fix it First” news conference.

“This was a test of our political system,” said Isabelle Hargrove. “Within the last 48 hours voters got to see the true character of our elected officials, the ones who toy with the city for their political bargaining games versus the ones who are truly serving us. Michael W Lyons, Norwalk is truly indebted to you. And we realize that you also have a fantastic team of board members who don’t serve their political parties blindly, but our city; Bryan Meek, Mike Barbis, Erik Anderson. You all stuck your necks out to fight for what was right. Thank you.”

Early Thursday morning, Lyons told NancyOnNorwalk that he had swayed Rilling to support new school construction.

It being 1:35 a.m., Rilling was not available for a response but, at a more reasonable hour, left a comment on the story, saying he’d spoken to Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski, State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25), Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon and Lyons.

“I have told all concerned that we need to meet and put together a plan that best meets the needs of the city whatever that may be. I’ve stated in the past I support school construction but recognize the poor conditions in our existing schools. Both issues are serious and need to be addressed. We have scheduled a meeting and hopefully will put together a proposal that addresses and prioritizes the needs of our city without creating a burden for our taxpayers,” Rilling said.

He declined to comment further Thursday evening.

“The Mayor had a change of heart … I had a good talk with him yesterday, as did Dr. Adamowski. Monday’s event was Sen. Duff’s idea,” Lyons said on Facebook. “Right now, I’m moving off any further comments on the alternate plan, which is going nowhere, and getting back to getting our plan adopted, and our capital and operating budgets approved – lots to do. Glad to be back working co-operatively with Harry, as we have been for years. In a much better mood today, as all of us should be!”

“We should thank Mayor Harry Rilling as well. I always can respect a person who knows a mistake was made and will acknowledge it and move on,” Nora King wrote. “We are all human and we all make mistakes. I know I make plenty.  🙂 I am just happy that the respect has been given to the BOE for their two years worth of work.”

“This post sounds more like the City I am proud of…working together to improve and take care of our future,” Lisa Nuzzo wrote.

“While this is good news, it’s also disappointing that we have a mayor that can flip flop so drastically within one week. I have much more respect for those that stand up for their convictions (present company included!) than an elected official that changes their decision based on the popular opinion. As our Mayor he really should have thought this out before he acted and I will remember this come the next election,” a woman wrote.

“I entirely agree. I sat with him in early September and asked him to get involved in the facilities discussion and take a stand then. He waited too long. It’s hard to support someone when you don’t know where you stand,” Barbara Meyer-Mitchell said.

Rilling did not attend any BoE Facilities Committee meetings where the results of the year-long facilities feasibility study were discussed.

As Facilities Chair, I did have a dialogue with the Mayor at different times – we all got together last summer to discuss the legal challenges with the Ely site as well as a range of possible properties that could potentially be suitable for a school (including the old NCC),” BoE member Mike Barbis said in an email to NancyOnNorwalk. “I believe one of the churches had contacted the Mayor directly – offering one of their properties.  And the Mayor had been in dialogue with the State about the Armory (New Canaan Avenue).”

He continued, “As time wore on and our options narrowed, I did do some of my own research.  I did email a range of parties including {Building and Facilities Manager} Alan Lo and the Mayor about a site on Ely Avenue that we would have needed eminent domain to take over … we never got to the acquisition stage as the site wasn’t big enough for everything we were looking for.  The Mayor never did indicate that using eminent domain would be a viable option but I was doing my due diligence (which Duff, Morris and others refuse to give me credit for).”

Lyons, on Facebook, explained to parents that the BoE’s $118 million 2017-18 capital budget request included long range plans to repair problems at schools.

“I suggested to Harry last night that we see if some of those lower priority requests for other schools in our own submission could be reprioritized,” Lyons said.

The BoE requested funds to build new schools at the Nathaniel Ely preschool center in South Norwalk and behind Ponus Ridge Middle School. That would be followed with renovating the current Columbus Magnet School and Jefferson Elementary School.

“We have to stretch construction timelines over more time than originally planned we could look at that,” Lyons said to NoN. “… My intention is to move ahead with Ely and Ponus; we may be able to stretch out new Columbus and Jefferson if the City can’t afford our preferred timing, but they would remain the next projects in the plan.”

20 comments

Paul Persius February 17, 2017 at 5:52 am

You know what is truly sad, every other department is forgotton about in this City. No one cares budgets are being slashed everywhere else to pander to the BOE, and they still want more, and more, and more. Watch the conversation a few months from now when roads arent paved, grass isnt mowed and litter isnt picked up., Maybe the BOE should just be given the entire city budget and just do everything.

Sue Haynie February 17, 2017 at 6:28 am

The Capital Budget is infrastructure improvement. It’s based on a plan aligned with the district vision, adds school choice and dynamic curriculum like the IB. I get that and I support it.

My support for the Operating Budget is less clear. The program improvements are targeted and modest, 2.3% of the budget. I support them. The problem is that the bulk of the increase, 6.5%, will go to increased costs for insurance and raises. What will get cut first and deepest? The program improvements. It’s unsustainable. It’s more than the city’s taxpayers can absorb.

Education101 February 17, 2017 at 9:11 am

The propagandists at the BOE along with their agenda proponents are putting a major spin on this claiming victory. Respectfully, I have to disagree. It is Mayor Rilling and Finance Chair Barron who have given pause to the board operating in a bubble by alerting them that, yes, there are major taxpayer concerns and Norwalk does not have endless resources to fund the year after year over budgeting that is put forth. It is also quite perplexing that the BOE does not have a grasp in predicting expenses when planning for budgetary needs for just a year out. So why any credibility would be given to major capital plans needs is confounding. This type of management would never be tolerated in the private sector and a full housecleaning would be in order. Throwing more dollars at a year after year budget crisis should not somehow be rewarded and I would urge the Mayor and Finance Chair to press on with the austerity measures and keep this board in check.

Skyler R February 17, 2017 at 9:12 am

Paul … your comments are out of line. The City’s debt has doubled while the BOE’s has halved … as there have been no BOE capital projects and the CIty has been on a spending spree. This is true in the operating budget as well … the City’s operating budget has been rising consistently. There are a number of new City positions including the new Assistant to the Mayor and some lovely capital projects including the $10 mm intersection at Day Street and the beautiful new firehouse … so, please, get your facts correct!

Paul Persius February 17, 2017 at 10:52 am

No BOE capital projects….really?? A quick search shows over 15 million in capital funds appropriated to the BOE over the last 3 years, more than SEVERAL city departments combined. I could have sworn I have seen a new building over at Rowayton Elementary, or maybe I was seeing things. Who is paying for West Rocks windows, remember the project whose costs doubled and is now over 3 million?>? If that project isnt capital funds, what is it?? Bake sale proceeds??

If you want to lead the discussions to employee positions, lets look at the top 20 city salary list to see where the money is really going. Who is number 1 on the list?

Non partisan February 17, 2017 at 6:57 pm

I fully support building a new school

I can not support 4mm to relocate a non profit tennis center. This money is buried in the Ely school project request. Not one person has spoken out about this.

Jefferson school- again- I support getting rid of trailers, and renovating the school- but the cost per seat is absurdly ridiculous and need to be rethought.

I also understand the nuance of not budgeting for annual repairs due to state stupid requirements. But to only have 200k to maintain a dozen facilities is also creating the need for several other large projects.

And when will the city get on board to change its policies that created the problem?

Editor’s note: NancyOnNorwalk can find nothing in the capital budget request about $4 million for tennis courts. A month ago, the Common Council approved the use of $250,000 from last year’s capital budget for the tennis courts, to be used with $400,000 raised by Grassroots Tennis and, in addition, a $300,000 grant. http://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2017/01/council-gives-norwalk-grassroots-tennis-go-ahead-for-two-new-courts/
Tennis is planned to be part of the program at Ely, should it get built.
BoE Chairman Mike Lyons said:
“The city approved money a couple of months back to add tennis courts at Ely. In the process of redesigning the Ely plan, we agreed to design the gym to accommodate indoor tennis in the winter (but the cost would be small, nothing like $4 million). This was a big deal to Travis Simms. It was many of the changes we made to the plans to accommodate community concerns – only to be falsely accused of ‘not listening to the community.'”

MarjorieM February 18, 2017 at 1:02 am

Norwalk is beginning to resemble Washington D.C.
We have a special media page on FaceBook that supports the Board.
We have a chair of the Board spending a fortune on a wall….ooops, schools.
We have a possible alternate proposal that was used to turn people against the mayor.
We have supporters of the chairman of the Board who think the chair can do no wrong.
We have taxpayers worried that the wall…oops, schools will raise taxes too much.
We have some inept people in the central office.
Is someone running for president…I mean mayor, Mike?

Non Partisan February 18, 2017 at 8:38 am

The master facilities plan

http://www.norwalkps.org/UserFiles/Servers/Server_71596/File/BOE/MeetingDocs/2016-2017/School%20Facilities%20Master%20Plan%20Phase%20I.pdf

Page 31 Shows athletic fields and 8 tennis courts at the SE side of the property. these are for the community and NOT a part of the education requirements.

Page 48 itemizes the site costs for the whole project. It breaks this down to 35mm for buildings and 9.7mm for site work

The site work costs are driven by rock, wetlands, and the added tennis courts and athletic fields that are above and beyond traditional school construction requirements

Tennis courts are itemized at 350k
The 8 tennis courts sit on Private property that needs to be acquired 1.2m replace open space300k, plus a pro rata share of the remain wetland, road, etc.

If you didn’t build all this and put standard field at the existing court site you would shrink the school construction cost by more than 4mm

Mike McGuire February 18, 2017 at 9:22 am

Has anyone looked at the option of leasing space in one of many underutilized commercial buildings to accommodate our most recent expansion of the student population? Doing so would allow for real flexibility in dealing with student enrollment (remember what goes up must come down sometime). It would also cost considerable less year-over-year, and not by a small amount.

BoE wants to build on one side, finance wants to fix which on the other. Which way to go? As a taxpayer I would hope we explore all options.

Building is the most costly but provides the most bragging rights. Fixing is most prudent but is boring and may not alleviate the overcrowding in the short run (remember what goes up must come down).

What about fixing and leasing? Let’s fix what we have AND make a truly state of the art school, something like an AITE in scope and style, but let’s do it in a fashion the costs a whole lot less in the short run, middle run, and long run. When we don’t need it we simple let it go.

Now that would be creative and exciting.

MarjorieM February 18, 2017 at 7:42 pm

Does everyone know about the closed FaceBook page where two people with the same first names appear very frequently? Strategies for the school,system take place there as well as slurs against people they don’t like. This is a first for Norwalk! Elected officials doing business in secret? Shame, shame!

Dedicated NPS Teacher February 19, 2017 at 8:08 am

MargorieM, interesting that you are trash-talking certain people yourself and then you are accusing others for supposedly doing the same. There is nothing secret about this group. Everything posted is the truth, or their perspective of what they see as the truth, just like you do here. I am assuming you are not in this group, otherwise you would know that. With over 2,000 members, it can’t be that secret of a group. You have your own secret group that slams people too, so please stop starting trouble and let’s all work together to make the education system successful for our students.

Debora Goldstein February 19, 2017 at 1:25 pm

@Michael McGuire,

Actually, I don’t think you’ll find leasing is a possibility. Last summer, when the Methodist Church in East Norwalk closed it’s doors, I had contacted members of the BOE to suggest that this site might work for an elementary school for District 99 kids, particularly South Norwalk. While it wouldn’t be in the neighborhood, it was close enough to be neighborhood-adjacent, cutting down the length of bus trips, and walkable for at least some kids in the area.

The answer I got surprised me:

Unfortunately, we need a minimum of 5 acres for a school site … and the East Avenue Methodist site is only 0.26 acres. You might ask, why do we need so much room … a K-5 school has at least 20,000 square feet of space and this really needs to be on just one level (that alone consumes over ½ acre). In addition, space is needed for parking (for teachers and other staff plus extra parking during events) as well as for buses. In addition, we need at least one playground and other play areas.
There are 975 students in South Norwalk Kindergarten through fifth grade that are being bused to schools throughout the city (not just 99s but students living in privately owned housing throughout South Norwalk).

Having attended an urban elementary school in NYC, which provided little staff parking and no on-site drop-off areas for school buses, and which educated K-6 on six stories, I am struck by the inability to think outside the box. We have need of an urban school solution and are stuck with rural school requirements.

What I am concerned about is the lack of planning over the long-term that got us to this point. Releasing school buildings when enrollment declined, followed by capital spending decisions that did not address the overcrowding and facilities deferred maintenance has put us between a rock and a hard place.

MarjorieM February 19, 2017 at 4:57 pm

Dedicated NPS Teacher, it is a closed group. The administrator has to approve you if you join. I call that a group that only allows certain people in. Why isn’t it public?

El Gee February 19, 2017 at 6:45 pm

This is typical operating tactics of the city. The schools have been neglected and not cared for as they should have been. Windows falling out, HVAC issues, safety issues. All the result of a derilect operating procedure. Fix the problems in the schools that do exist! The city sold several great school properties in the past which could have ben used as temporary alternate use. The board of ed and those responsible for the maintenance; not the custodians, the incompetent people who think they have a clue. And that includes Mike Lyons! Its amazing that more teachers haven’t walked out of the system.

Non partisan February 19, 2017 at 9:33 pm

There is an old government saying.

Show me your budget and I’ll show you your elected officials priorities.

New police station
New fire house
Old schools.

@ Goldstein. – I’m not sure 5 acres is a requirement- or just prevailing ” Wisdom” by whomever answered your question. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Bridgeport lately/ pretty nice new 2 story elementary schools.

Mike McGuire February 19, 2017 at 11:36 pm

Deb Goldstein

Totally agree with you. Last year we valued to NYC schools recently set up in 6 story building, both where extremely high scoring schools which supports the fact that the facility does not make a great school. The teachers and parent involvement do.

Norwalk really could benefit from some out of the box thinking. I wish the taxpayers would stand up ask ‘ why do we need 5 acres, etc.’ and ‘ who made these requirements’. And what do we need to do to change that.

I think the taxpayers would be pleasantly surprised, particularly if they asked those questions in a positive and pro-active manner. Our elected leaders do not have all the answers, but they are the conduit for good policy ideas and the means to implement good ideas.

Jessica Garnett February 20, 2017 at 7:58 am

@MarjorieM- I am a co-administrator on the Norwalk Parents for Education Facebook page. Your assertion that the Facebook group only allows in certain members is 100% false. “Closed” is a setting on Facebook that allows us to see and yes “approve” members as they are added to the group. Unfortunately, if the group was set to “public” parents in Westport, Wilton, Darien, Stamford, etc. as well as Facebook scammers and trolls, who have nothing to do with Norwalk or our school system, could add themselves to the group. With over 2,500 members I’m perplexed that you believe that we only allow in people we know/”approve” of. It is very simple process to join the group. You request to be a member, we take a quick look at your profile to verify that you live in Norwalk or have a connection to our school system and then you are admitted. In the past couple of years I can count on one hand people who were not admitted to the group or removed because they were using it to spam/sell items/promote a non-education based business. Please do not disparage a group that you know nothing about. Our page is open to all stakeholders in the Norwalk Public School System and ALL voices are welcome.

Jessica Garnett February 20, 2017 at 8:12 am

@Debora and Mike- The requirements for classroom space, separate lanes for buses, car pick-up and drop off, playgrounds, amount of teacher and parent parking etc. come down from the state. The BoE proposal was not just thrown together. Thousands of hours of research went into these proposed schools.

Debora Goldstein February 20, 2017 at 4:32 pm

@ Jessica Garnett,

I have heard that before and am hard pressed to find it in the statutes. It may be in the State BOE regs. I do know that there appear to be several, if not dozens of examples in other towns that do not meet these requirements. I also just saw a notation in another article that Jefferson is also non-conforming. The catch here may be that other than meeting Fed guidelines, the real problem is that we won’t get any construction grant at all from the state if we don’t meet these requirements. That is not quite the same thing as saying these are the requirements.

What I do know is that State Legislators, who would actually have a say in the statutes are petitioning duly elected BOE members not to build a school–even at a measly 32% reimbursement rate.

I also know that part of the reason the BOE has been kicking the repair/build cans down the road for so many years, is because the state has failed to recognize the inequities in the ECS formula, even in the face of a lawsuit. And all along, we’ve seen extravagant, poorly planned changes that did little to contribute to learning or fixing the worst facilities problems cited here. ($1.1mm renovation of the Nathan Hale ballfield comes to mind).

Planning and budgeting by angry mob/press conference are a luxury Norwalk can no longer afford. We need to have a collective conversation about who we want to be as a city and what our priorities are. Budgeting should start from those priorities, not from some arbitrarily selected “affordable” property tax hike.

Michael McGuire February 20, 2017 at 8:01 pm

Jessica

That is all well and good but does it solve a problem, or create a problem? And I don’t say that flippantly. Thinking outside the box starts with questioning what is.

Who knows, maybe one of Norwalk’s under-utilized commercial buildings might fit the bill. But if the option is not even being discussed wouldn’t that be a disservice.

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NancyOnNorwwalk.com was conceived as the place to go for Norwalk residents to get the real, unvarnished story about what is going on in and around their city. NancyOnNorwalk does not intend to be a print newspaper online; rather, it exists to pull the curtain back and shine a spotlight on how Norwalk is run and what is happening regarding issues that have an impact on taxpayers’ pocketbooks and safety. As an independent site, NancyOnNorwalk’s first and only allegiance is to the reader.

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Nancy came to Norwalk in September 2010 and, after reporting on Norwalk for two years for another company, resigned to begin Nancy On Norwalk so she engage in journalism the way it was meant to be done. She is married to career journalist Mark Chapman, has a son, Eric (the artist and web designer who built this website), and two cats – a middle-aged lady and a young hottie who are learning how to peacefully co-exist.