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Simms denounces Rilling’s request, plan for new Ely school

From left, Common Council member Faye Bowman (D-District B), Council member Travis Simms (D-District B) and Mayor Harry Rilling in October at a District B meeting in Calvary Baptist Church.

NORWALK, Conn. — It’s unanimous – both South Norwalk Common Council members are denouncing the plan for a South Norwalk school.

Common Council member Travis Simms (D-District B), echoing concerns expressed last week by Council member Faye Bowman (D-District B), sent a Monday night email urging his fellow Council members to vote against the proposed 2017-18 capital budget.

“I’d like to bring your attention to a conversation I had with Mayor Rilling back in December 2016 at the Board of Education community discussion about the proposed new magnet school,” Simms wrote. “The discussion took place at Springwood/Nathaniel Ely Park.  This was the first that I had heard about the BOE’s intent to build a school at the site. Many residents from District B attended the discussion and a few approached me after the meeting with their concerns. I along with a few other elected officials approached the mayor about the Board of Ed’s intention to acquire Springwood/Nathaniel Ely Park, and mentioned the existing restrictive covenant, or open space dedicated agreement on the property.

“The mayor stated that ‘he was unsure if the BOE had made a final decision to build on the site,’ and after I told him about the residents’ concerns, and the fact that there is a restrictive covenant on the property, he stated that ‘if the residents are against the decision to build the school in their park and open space, then ‘it will not happen.’”

Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons said he thought Simms meant a meeting that was held in October. The idea for a new school at the Nathaniel Ely site first became public knowledge on Jan. 26, 2016, when Silver Petrucelli & Associates Senior Project Manager John Ireland made the recommendation to the BoE Facilities Committee.

Rilling, contacted Monday evening by phone, said that he had been at the meeting described by Simms, and asked how many people wanted a new school.

“Overwhelmingly, the vast majority of people raised their hand,” he said.

“I have not been contacted by significant numbers of residents who are asking that a school not be put there. While it’s still in its preliminary stages… we are looking to enhance that and end up with more open space and open areas for recreation than it has now,” Rilling said.

NancyOnNorwalk attended a District B meeting in October, where Simms said, “To have this now moving so fast from January to now that we are going to put this in Ely I just think that this is absurd and I think it’s a tragedy.”

“I must say that Mr. Simms is showing remarkable tenacity in his effort to deny the children of his own district a better education.  Hopefully more reasonable points of view will prevail at the Council meeting Tuesday night,” Lyons said.

Common Council Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said Monday on Facebook that he was confident the capital budget would pass.

The Planning Committee advanced the budget last week with one no vote, from Council member Faye Bowman (D-District B).

Bowman spoke at length at Thursday’s meeting about a letter Rilling sent to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) in June, seeking to switch land covenants from the open space at Springwood Park and the 50 Washington St. plaza to two other city-owned properties, 127 Fillow St. and at Richards Avenue and West Cedar Street.

Simms sent the Council members a copy of that same letter, saying he was “taken aback” to see Rilling making that arrangement months before the “December” community conversation.

open-space-covenants-letter

“These properties are obviously outside of District B and would not benefit the residents as such.  It is also my understanding that many residents in the proposed areas (District E) are opposed to the conversion too,” Simms said.

“I was recently made aware that Ryan Park is also being consider as part of the proposed conversation as well,” Simms said.

“What really disturbed me the most about the letter, was the mayor’s request to ‘amend the dedication agreement in order to omit the developed area and limit the description of the encumbered land to the recreational area which was developed with the use of the State and Federal funding,’” Simms said. “I can’t speak for any other council member, but I was never made aware of the ‘city’s interest to convert any land, and or requests to amend the open space agreement at Springwood/Nathaniel Ely Park.’”

“As you may or may not be aware, the BOE has not received approval from D.E.E.P to build a school at Springwood/Nathaniel Ely Park. Their budget request is premature, and highly inflated in my opinion.  Appropriating $185 million of taxpayer’s money in this case, is not right,” Simms said.

The city needs to make an appropriation to fund a new school before the state will begin its funding process, Bowman was told at last week’s meeting. It’s expected that it will take a year to design a new school, and this will involve getting the necessary approvals from the Zoning Commission.

The $185 million is the total for the two new schools, renovating Columbus Magnet School and Jefferson Elementary School, and for “the updating of our remaining 17 buildings,” a total of 21 buildings, BoE Vice Chairman Mike Barbis said.

“I would say that is very good value for what you are getting for $185 mm,” Barbis said.

Barbis, BoE Facilities Committee Chairman, described the approval process for a new school:

“Proceeding with the construction of any project of any scale is a multi-phase endeavor.  I think the best way to think of this is the chicken versus egg situation … which came first?  For example, when you are proceeding with a major construction project:

  • “You have to design a project which you can then modify, change, edit as you get input from a range of stakeholders
  • “As such, the project evolves from where it started
  • “As this occurs, the engineers and architects look at the State standards/requirements for classroom space, recreation space, parking, bus circulation – this gets worked into the plan
  • “At this point, there is the rough framework of a project – this is effectively where we are right now
  • “Once we have the approvals from the BOE and the City, we can then hire an architect and engineer to develop final plans – it would be fiscally irresponsible to do so until we have been given the green light to proceed by the elected officials.  As part of this, we will finalize the site plan, analyze environmental issues, analyze traffic/circulation issues.  These will be the next steps – just like any project including the SoNo Mall!”

 

Barbis also described multiple attempts to inform Simms, starting in July and culminating with an hour long discussion in September.

Lyons called Simms claim of not knowing about the school before December “astonishing.”

“Mr. Simms seems to be operating under the same confusion over procedure as Ms. Bowman when he writes that because we don’t have DEEP approval for the parkland swap that this means the City shouldn’t appropriate the funds for the new schools.  We don’t have ANY approvals for the new schools yet.  We can’t even apply for them until we have architectural plans, and we can’t start those until the City has approved the funding for the schools (which permits us to file with the State for approval).  As I told Ms. Bowman, we didn’t write that procedure, the State did, and we have to follow it,” Lyons said.

“The Mayor’s letter in June makes sense, since we had been publicly discussing a new school at Ely for five months before then, and Mike Barbis had been working with the law department on all restrictive covenants at the site for some time.  The proposal in the letter for the swap is reasonable and a very common practice in the State.  As noted in the article you wrote on the Planning Committee hearing … we will be substantially increasing the USABLE recreational area AT Ely, which I’m sure the State will find fully supportive of the swap,” Lyons said.

The new school would offer increased recreational space for the community, Rilling said.

While there’s an old, neglected softball field there now, there will be additional tennis courts and a multipurpose field that includes the ability to play softball.

“It would be open to the residents. The people who live in the area would use that just like they would any other open space, recreational space,” Rilling said.

Yes, a deal was made to use the Ely School as swing space for Columbus students, housing them there while their school was renovated and then moving them back to Concord Street, Rilling said.

“It was later determined that the state Department of Administrative Services requires more detailed set of Ed Specs,” Rilling said. “We have to work with what they want. So, while we did have an agreement it seems that that agreement is not as solid as we would like it to be because we have to be a little bit more specific with the type of school they would like to use. That still offers us the opportunity to be flexible. It depends on how we are going to move forward.”

All children who live within .25 mile of the Ely school or the Concord Street school will have preference for admission, he said.

“In essence, the plan is to have pretty much two neighborhood schools,” Rilling said, describing the benefits of the planned International Baccalaureate program at Concord Street and the science, technology and engineering program at Ely as likely to help close the achievement gap.

“The city is making significant investment in our schools and the infrastructures, through the operating budget and through the capital budget,” Rilling said. “The main focus here is the children and making sure we give them the best possible education we can and give them facilities which will be conducive to a good learning environment.”

21 comments

Casey Smith April 11, 2017 at 8:25 am

Mr. Simms and Ms. Bowman have been very consistent in their objections to doing anything at the Nathaniel Ely site. At this point, I’d say, “Okay. As you wish. No new school for South Norwalk.” and just walk away. Why bother to argue? What’s the point?

Bruce Kimmel April 11, 2017 at 8:33 am

Swapping restrictive covenants is common and generally has no real impact on the actual classification of the land, whether we are talking about passive open space and/or recreational space. These swaps often provide municipalities more flexibility and increased ability to meet the needs of neighborhoods.

In the Ely case, the plan calls for an increase in both open space and recreational space. This has been public knowledge for quite some time.

Thus, the question: Why are a few elected officials in South Norwalk adamantly opposed to the construction of a new school in their district?

Faye Bowman April 11, 2017 at 8:35 am

I keep hearing that the Nathaniel Ely field was underutilized but
1) Was money put into the field first to see if individuals would use it more if it was actually kept up and improved?

2) Members of the Community were told by Parks and Rec staff that they could not use the field. They obviously could use the park but if they are being told that they can’t then they wont. Therefore seeing these claims by several individuals makes me suspect that the instruction to turn away residents trying to use the park came from higher up offices in the City…maybe as high up as the Mayor’s office.

Also South Norwalk youth were once promised access to the SONO Field House however, many can’t afford the prices and free access is not consistently offered to low-income youth if at all.

Also, we built a field on marshland before…it was called Andrew’s Field, the old Norwalk High field that had to be moved and was unusable in significant rainstorms…

Hawkeye April 11, 2017 at 10:34 am

I hope District B voters remember where their council member stood on this issue.
Obstructing a major improvement to both the neighborhood but also improving the quality of life for future residents.

What other district will see the same level of improvements made over the next 3-5 years? NONE!

I guarantee if they are both still in office, they’ll be smiling for pictures at the school groundbreaking and changing their tune.

They both complain when you do nothing for District B and then they complain when you do something for District B.

I really hope there is new involvement within the democratic party in District B come November.

Faye Bowman April 11, 2017 at 10:42 am

Andrew’s Field was built on a swamp…then the City had to spend millions more to move it. Now we are proposing to spend millions to build yet another field on a swamp…for good reason we oppose this.

Faye Bowman April 11, 2017 at 10:45 am

Also, if the City spent more money to keep the ball field in good shape and did not tell City residents that they were not allowed to the Springwood Ely Park for major events there would be more people using. In 2016 Parks and Rec staff told South Norwalk residents that this was not a park that could be utilized for events. All so that they could claim the park is underutilized.

Diane C2 April 11, 2017 at 10:51 am

Would Councilman Kimmel be singing a different tune if Mayor Rilling wanted to take away open space from Cranbury Park or School to build a school, and replace it with open space in South Norwalk???
I don’t think it is fair to South Norwalk residents that their additional/replacement open space be in a different district, approximately 4 miles away, 10-15 minutes by car.

Faye Bowman April 11, 2017 at 10:54 am

Finally, what is the realistic emergency plan for this proposed school. Picture this 10 to 15 buses lined up, 20 cars lined up to pick up pre-school kids, and then parents trying to pick up K-8 schools and there is an emergency.

If you actually know the area, how are emergency vehicles going to access the school?

Where will kids be evacuated? Down past the swamp, to the field? What if it’s raining, is the field accessible? Where to from the field? Roodner Court, Contractors Yards? Has anyone thought this out?

Naramake location is off the table because it was decided with all the help schools and congestion in the area it isn’t a good idea. It didn’t take millions or a study for this idea to be thrown out.

It seems that money was available to purchase property but this Nathaniel Ely site is being pushed with no consideration to cost. The only way to make this feasible is to widen streets and make new entrances which means property will need to be purchased and acquired.

Why then not spend money to purchase property in an ideal location in South Norwalk where children from Flax Hill, Washington Street, Village Creek, as well as Roodner Court would want to come so that there is racial balance instead of forcing it somewhere where racial balance can’t be achieved and somewhere where undoubtedly the City will have to acquire additional property.

Let’s ask the why’s…before we spend $40,000,000…take $15,000,000 and purchase property in a location that will attract the diversity of South Norwalk.

Donna April 11, 2017 at 11:03 am

When it comes to bringing a school to South Norwalk, Councilpersons Bowman and Simms can’t take YES for an answer.

@Hawkeye, it’s been suggested that as long as Travis Simms wants his CC seat, he’ll keep it in district B. So maybe the voters in South Norwalk don’t want a school? Or maybe they like being the ugly step sister to the other parts of Norwalk that thrive by comparison. I’m starting to question why I invested in this neighborhood. My CC representatives seem to prefer petty sniping to credible action.

anna russo April 11, 2017 at 11:27 am

Ok, so it seems that the supporters of Simms and Bowman have spoken…No new school. Let’s move on and improve worthy schools that have been neglected like Wolfpit, Cranberry and Norwalk High School.
When they (Simms, Bowman, et al) start to moan, groan and complain that they are being shafted (like they ALWAYS do), then lets keep these articles handy as to the reason why they were left behind.
I’m all for it – FORGET SOUTH NORWALK – improve the other schools.

Kenneth Werner April 11, 2017 at 12:04 pm

Perhaps Mr. Simms would like to weigh in. In reading the article and comments, I can’t figure out why Mr. Simms and Ms. Bowman are opposed. Can Mr. Simms — or anybody else — enlighten me?

Srb April 11, 2017 at 2:16 pm

The swap of land seems to largely involve the plaza in front of 50 Washington. This isn’t Yellowstone park. It’s beyond me (a south norwalk( resident to tinderstand Bowman’s and Simm’s thinking on this. It seems even more inane and immature than the republicans intransigence during Obamas term. They come off as the just say no crew. If the school is intended for wetlands it’s extraordinarily likely it’ll never be approved but remember there is already a facility there . Bowman and Simms proved their lack of due diligence on the 17 Quintard property where Bowman didn’t know virtually anything about the project yet agreed to be on the board.

Donna April 11, 2017 at 2:55 pm

@Srb, due diligence isn’t worthy of a sound bite or a headline. Opposing the loss of “open space” is attention-grabbing. Bowman and Simms appear to relish the spotlight more than they relish serving their constituents. Maybe district B needs new representation on the CC.

Patrick Cooper April 11, 2017 at 3:41 pm

Folks – pay attention to the question posed by CC lead Mr. Kimmel. It’s really the only question. Ms. Bowman seems well coached on how to create a misdirect – when we’re talking schools – she’s talking parks. If you’ve been paying attention, this all revolves around “alternative facts”, or in this case – alternative plans – by the head of the Dis-B-Dem’s – Mr. “what’s good is what’s good for me” Bruce Morris. Started with Fix it First (should have been called – distort, detract, delay). But then it emerged the whole buritto was Ely – where rumor has it Grace Baptist and Bruce got some plans. Don’t think you’ll get straight answers out of Travis or Faye – they are under the thumb and know damn well their fate is tied to saying YES to Bruce – no matter the cause. The council is being manipulated into a corner that will pit Dems versus Dems – and it’s nothing more than a show. Take a stand – do the right thing – and give the future kid’s of South Norwalk a chance to get the type of education that will allow them to escape their current leadership.

Mitch Palais April 11, 2017 at 6:32 pm

I’m all for new schools. But for the record- 185mm is over 100,000 per seat and is a rediculously large amount of money to spend on schools. Its more money than NYC spends to build in the most expensive construction area in the nation.

Wake up Norwalk- this is not being managed correctly.

The budget estimates are BS square foot pricing and exceed state guidelines.

Better to build magnet schools and reap larger state reimbursement ( that’s how smarter politicians in Stamford and new haven are playing the state ed game)

Or even better yet- our local charter school will be putting on an addition- cost/ seat less than 30k. That’s money well spent.

(Editor’s note: Both the addition onto Ponus Middle School and the new school planned for the Nathaniel Ely site are planned to be magnet schools.)

Claire Schoen April 11, 2017 at 8:36 pm

How about the city hold the next BOE or City Council meeting at Nathaniel Ely so the neighbors can attend and everyone can see what the issues are? Put it all out on the table and don’t end the meeting til everyone as been heard.

Having access to a school playground is not the same as having full time access to a park or open space, it just isn’t. Yet, the prospect of a brand-spanking new school, is nothing to sneeze at. We know that Norwalk has the capability of creating a world class school in South Norwalk if it sets its mind to (my kids got a top notch education at Columbus).

Do you guys (our elected officials) really ever listen to each other? Seems like that’s a huge part of this problem…

Donna April 11, 2017 at 11:58 pm

Why is this the first time Ms. Bowman has cited potential problems at the Nathaniel Ely campus? Does South Norwalk NOT want a neighborhood school? Seems that either our District B leaders aren’t doing their homework OR they do not want a school here. Unlike public school, those who fail in politics don’t get to repeat the grade.

NonPartisan April 12, 2017 at 8:29 am

@Donna

If I have followed the issues correctly these pioliticians are upset because the BOE is Building a magnet school in their neighborhood for all residents of Norwalk- and they want a school dedicated to the neighborhood only.

For this group of politicians it’s all about them and their small constituency. What’s good for the city as a whole is less important to them then what they can get for their constituents.

The only problem is- you can’t build a neighborhood only school in an ethnic minority’s neighborhood without forced integration.

And these same people have fought against gentrification which could eleviate the forced school integration issue.

And these same people have fought hard to increase the number of subsidized housing in the small area of the city- which only makes all of the above harder to accomplish.

Very, very sad.

Donna April 12, 2017 at 9:37 am

@NonPartison, I’m relatively new in town and there’s a pretty steep learning curve with regard to the history. Thank you for shedding some light on this debate. One troubling aspect of this for me as a district B resident, homeowner and property tax payer is I’m ALSO their constituent. Equallly troubling is the underlying theme of separation from the rest of Norwalk. South Norwalk reps are locked in a time warp. South Norwalk hasn’t been independent for more than 100 years. And when Bowman laments that South Norwalk’s open space is being moved to West Norwalk and that South Norwalk residents will have to travel to West Norwalk to enjoy their open space, it’s completely disingenuous, deceptive, and misleading. Most members of the public don’t know the difference between “open space” as the state defines it and public parks, which are abundant and easily accessible to South Norwalk residents.

My district B reps either need to bone up on their homework or admit that their rhetoric is stacked to mislead the public. Ms. Bowman should know that there are emergency access and egress requirements for public schools, and if Ely were re-opened, it would have to comply with alll current regulations, including bus and fire lanes. And if she doesn’t know this, then why not defer to the BOE and others who have studied the options instead of armchair quarterbacking?

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