NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk voted Tuesday to fund a new school for South Norwalk, against the wishes of its South Norwalk representatives.
Faye Bowman (D-District B) and Travis Simms (D-District B) were the only Council members voting against the $120.7 million 2017-18 capital budget, which includes appropriations to build schools at the Nathaniel Ely site and an addition onto Ponus Ridge Middle School.
“I have seen no emails from anyone begging me to build a school. And people know how to email,” Bowman said, starting the discussion, explaining that she’s gotten emails about the need for sidewalk repair and one, Tuesday afternoon, about The SoNo Collection.
“Nobody knows what is going on… We get emails if people feel strongly about something,” Bowman said.
Norwalk has been shortchanged by the state for school improvements in the same way it’s shortchanged in funding for the schools’ operating budget, Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said, lauding the Board of Education’s comprehensive capital budget plan.
“Originally, I didn’t think there was a chance in the world that we could afford it, the original numbers,” Kimmel said, recounting discussions Mayor Harry Rilling had with the Finance Department and the BoE to get the numbers down.
“I had my fingers crossed,” Kimmel said. “I was wondering where Mayor Rilling was going to go with this because there is a lot of voices in this discussion and it was a whole lot of money. It may take debt service above where we are comfortable being, but I applaud his recommendation.”
It will get up to 11 percent of the operating budget in 2019-20 but then drop to 10 percent, he said.
Simms made a motion to remove the $42 million slotted for a school at Ely and replace it with a $15 million appropriation to buy property in South Norwalk, to build a school.
Using the Ely site is not without cost, as the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) has said that swapping the open space land restrictions is a costly, time consuming process, Bowman had said, suggesting that she’d love a school in South Norwalk, just somewhere else, and the Council should acquire property for the purpose.
DEEP may not approve using Springwood Park, Simms said, questioning, as he has, why this was moving forward without that approval.
“I don’t spend money on a project that isn’t approved by the Council,” Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo said, explaining why that process hasn’t started yet.
Simms repeated his objection to taking a park away from South Norwalk residents.
“The whole area will look like a prison,” he said. “… That is the last thing we want to do to the citizens in our district.”
“The people from Cranbury came out in droves, by the 100s, in opposition of just putting a zipline at Cranbury Park. Can you imagine if we were talking about letting the Board of Ed to put a school in Cranbury Park?” Simms said.
“We did look into a school at Cranbury Park,” Board of Education Vice Chairman Mike Barbis said.
There’s no sewer there and the students who need a school don’t live near there, making the cost prohibitive, he said.
The recreational space is going to increase 24 percent, Barbis said; Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski lauded expected the involvement of Grassroots Tennis in providing opportunities for the school’s students.
It’s not going to be a neighborhood school, Steve Serasis (D-District A) said.
“I don’t want to hear this moving around in a circle around bushes and hiding behind trees,” he said, to Barbis.
The recreation areas will be enclosed, not open space, Serasis said.
Barbis tried to say something.
“I am talking now and you are not,” Serasis snapped. “You have been talking way too much and have been saying things that have annoyed people, have upset people.”
Mayor Harry Rilling banged the gavel and demanded civility.
Serasis asked why the district lines could not be moved to require enough Rowayton children to go to the Ely school so that it could meet racial balancing mandates while being a neighborhood school, not a magnet school.
Adamowski eventually said that had been looked at in the demographics study, and there would be a resulting challenge of filling the slots in Rowayton.
“Taxpayers do not want their park taken from them,” Simms said, mentioning, “an annual event there every year.”
No Norwalk citizens came to the Council meeting to speak in favor or against the capital budget.
“Why are we taking a park from our residents? That should be the discussion,” he said.
Adamowski mentioned the state’s process.
“An open space swap is very common in building schools,” Adamowski said.
The BoE’s process involved a lot of community outreach and a survey, with 750 responses, he said.
“The majority wanted a school in South Norwalk,” Adamowski said. “…Our perception is there is a small group of people who do not want a school, and not primarily parents at all… There are no other 15 acre sites in South Norwalk.”
Simms and Bowman were the only votes in favor of removing Ely from the capital budget.
Years ago, the city fought making Fodor Farm a park, with a proposal to build a new Brookside Elementary School there instead, Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said.
“Sometimes the city gets ahead of itself,” Hempstead said. “You have to go through that stage of just appropriating money so they can get started in the process.”
“I totally sympathize with some of your points,” Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) said to Simms and Bowman.
As a former District A Council member, he knows what it’s like he said, as District A is in the middle of the city and everyone thinks it’s theirs.
When the old Norwalk Police headquarters was demolished the open space disappeared, as the Stepping Stones Museum for Children claimed it rather it being recreation space, he said.
“There went our very little parkland in District A,” Bonenfant said. “Believe me, when the rest of the city is steamrolling over you it’s very difficult to hold back.”
Briggs High School was used as part of the last appeal for state funding for school renovations, and is still dilapidated, Bowman said, concluding, “I don’t want to see this school used as just of an elaborate plan to make this application more effective to the state.”