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Norwalk Council approves $120M capital plan

Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski speaks to the Common Council on Tuesday in City Hall.

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 a 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.”

15 comments

Bruce Kimmel April 12, 2017 at 8:22 am

First off, thank you Nancy for staying through the entire Council meeting, which ended around 1:00 AM, and then having the intellectual stamina to produce this and two other stories.

Secondly, thanks to all the folks who weighed in on the capital budget process. Without that input, who knows what would have been approved regarding the BOE’s five-year school facilities plan.

And thirdly, after months of discussion, I/we still can’t figure out why a few elected officials so strongly opposed building a new school in the district they are supposed to represent. We are still scratching our heads.

Drewt April 12, 2017 at 8:41 am

Thank You to the CC, BOE and all involved including the parents and residents of our City who came out to support the future of our ever growing city!! This is truly an fantastic investment in our bright future!! It was hard work with tons of meetings (mostly civil) a joke of fixing it first an stories and accusations that just weren’t true. But in the end the right decisions were made and we are truly a city on the move. Now if Malloy the joke we have for a governor and his friends on the left side of the aisle could actually work with together with the right side of the aisle maybe just maybe we could have a budget that might work. But the time as we know is running out! The taxing to death our State and even screwing that up doesn’t work anymore!! Maybe they will see Norwalk lead by example on how to get things accomplished!! We can only hope!

Diane C2 April 12, 2017 at 9:35 am

Mr. Kimmmel comments “I/we still can’t figure out why a few elected officials so strongly opposed building a new school in the district they are supposed to represent. We are still scratching our heads.” To which I respond with paraphrasing “to those who understand, no explanation is necessary. And to those who don’t, no explanation could possibly suffice”.

I think most folks agree that the city should further investigate an additional school in South Norwalk, but I have to agree with Ms. Bowman and Mr. Simms that the park/open space is not the place for it, especially if the replacement swap is land 10 minutes and miles away!

I also agree that other parcels in the area should be considered, for either purchase or taking – I believe a school is a legitimate use of eminent domain powers. Much, much more legitimate than, oh let’s say, a mall.

Donna April 12, 2017 at 10:09 am

@Diane C2, it is misleading to suggest, as Ms. Bowman has, that her constituents will have to drive 10 miles to get to open space if the swap goes through. Agree that the city should consider the use of eminent domain for some abandoned or blighted properties, and Norwalk does not need a shopping mall when there is so much existing, vacant retail space. But as a constituent of Ms. Bowman and Mr. Simms, I cannot account for their “no” vote on this. Mr. Simms claims taxpayers don’t want their park taken away from them. Well I’m a taxpayer, Mr. Simms, and I’m your constituent. Maybe you’re not reaching out to all of us.

Bruce Kimmel April 12, 2017 at 11:27 am

Swapping restrictive covenants do not change the status of land. There will be more useable open and recreational space under the BOE plan.

Donna April 12, 2017 at 12:33 pm

Then why, in your opinion @Bruce Kimmel, are my district B reps opposing a plan that seems like a win for South Norwalk–a school and more usable open and recreational space?

Bruce Kimmel April 12, 2017 at 2:45 pm

Have no idea. Most of the reasons presented have left us puzzled. I’ve heard all kinds of nefarious rumers, but who really knows

Donna April 12, 2017 at 6:11 pm

I’m puzzled as to why, if there is broad opposition in South Norwalk to the open space swap, exactly NO ONE appeared last night to say something against the proposed new school on the Ely site. Bowman’s evidence that her constituents don’t want the school? Because nobody wrote in support of it! Give me a break! That argument doesn’t hold water.

I’m also puzzled by misleading remarks made regarding forcing South Norwalk residents to have to take buses to use their open space in West Norwalk. That’s nothing more than spin, and no one should fall for it. One of the properties in the swap is a paved courtyard. And the intent there is to allow other uses, like outdoor dining.

Also did Bowman and Simms forget about Vet’s Park? It’s 35 acres. And while it may technically be in East Norwalk, the heaviest foot traffic in the park comes from South Norwalk. Trading wetlands for usable open space is good for the city. A new school is what the district B reps have said they wanted. But Simms is going to fall on his sword over a park where some of his constituents have a celebration once a year? And they both happily mischaracterize the net negatives of the open space swap. The suggestion that someone at City Hall wants to make South Norwalk look like a prison? That’s just insulting to your constituents, Mr. Simms. And I am one of them.

Adam Blank April 12, 2017 at 8:49 pm

Many thanks to the CC on their approval. I honestly believe this is a big step forward for Norwalk.

Jim Corrigan April 13, 2017 at 7:52 am

Mrs. Bowman is one of the few quantitatively adept council men we have. When both local long time residents think their district needs something else, maybe we should listen. Mrs. Bowman probably realizes this is unnaffordable and poorly thought out. Norwalk has a 300 million budget and is run by know-nothing incompetents, we have a nineteen year old on the common council. Remove illegals and most of our problems go away. How about cutting city hall staff and taking on the unions. Norwalk has one of the worst school systems in the state, yet the teachers are in the top five of pay.

Jim Corrigan April 13, 2017 at 7:54 am

Also I would love to find out what companies get to rip off the tax payers to build this school, while our politicians toss business to more friends. Friends who probably don’t live in town or have kids in the school system.

Donna April 13, 2017 at 8:54 am

Ms. Bowman needs to talk to all her constituents before she makes assumptions, based on zero emails, about what we want and don’t want in South Norwalk.

anna russo April 13, 2017 at 12:44 pm

@ Jim Corrigan, Just look at Rillings list of donors and you will see those companies that benefit from everything here in Norwalk (at taxpayers expense).

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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.