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.
“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.”