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Norwalk given state ‘preapproval’ on new school funding

Jim Giuliano of Construction Solutions Group explains progress on new school construction Wednesday to the Norwalk Facilities Construction Commission in City Hall.

Updated, Dec. 9: City share of expense. Updated, 12:15 a.m. Dec. 8: More context about Ed Specs. Updated, 12:30 p.m.: Clarification regarding Ed Specs and the Fix It First influence. Correction, 12 p.m.: The term “evict” had been used inaccurately. Quote from Mike Barbis added to the story.

NORWALK, Conn. – The process for building two new Norwalk schools is moving ahead, with a “preapproval” for state funding in hand.

The Department of Administrative Services (DAS) has promised that Norwalk will listed on Dec. 15 as a priority project, Board of Education Chairman Mike Barbis said Tuesday, calling that a “big step,” an agreement for state funding. Meanwhile, school designs are being developed and progress is being made on $6 million of “Fix it First”-ish expenditures this year.

Assistant to the Mayor Laoise King and Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton went to Hartford last week to speak to DAS, Jim Giuliano of Construction Solutions Group, the city’s project manager, told the Norwalk Facilities Construction Commission (NFCC) on Wednesday.

Getting on the DAS priority list is a form of preapproval, Barbis said Tuesday.

Although dollar figures are not set, NPS Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams said it’s anticipated that the state will fund $13 million for the Ponus Ridge Middle School expansion into a K-8 school, and $8 million for the Nathaniel Ely site K-8 magnet school.

The 2017-18 capital budget authorizes $43.3 million for Ponus and $41.9 million for Ely. The city expects to bond $29.8 million for Ponus and $33.1 million for Ely, Finance Director Bob Barron said.

“For the Ponus Ridge project, the state goes through a detailed review of what is eligible for reimbursement, so 13 million is the maximum we would anticipate.  It’s early in the process, so until we have an actual design the figures are in flux,” Wilcox Williams said in an email.

Designs are expected in mid-January, Giuliano said Wednesday.

Regarding Ponus, “We have completed the programming phase, which is verification of the Educational Specifics, that we are done. We know what rooms we are going to have, what size they are. Now we are going through what they call massing and preliminary design.”

A committee has been meeting at least once a week and looked at five or six iterations of design, with the basic ideas worked out – the playgrounds will be behind the building, the elementary school classes will be grouped together near the cafeteria and the middle school houses will be together, he said. Science classes will be on two floors.

Instead of it being one big building, it will loop back into itself, he said.

Barbis on Thursday explained in an email that “a lot of work was done at Ponus and I think that is wrapped up; the bulk of the work has been done for Columbus {the Ely site} but the site is more complicated so not everything has been finalized as much as Ponus.”

“The traffic studies for both projects will be done in due course – there is no calling for them to be done this round,” he wrote.

He said he thought Giuliano “distorted the context” when he said the Ed Specs had been verified.

The Ed Specs were approved by the Board of Education in June, and included in the grant applications to the state.

“The latest process was programming– where the Ed Specs are reviewed and any discrepancies are clarified and the square footage requirements of the State are analyzed,” Barbis wrote. “Now, the team is looking at building layout, bus and parent drop-offs, etc. – and there is new standards with this, such that it is quite different from existing campuses.”

“The Ed Specs are done,” he said. “It’s really the programming of those ed specs that is being worked on now – that work is wrapped up at Ponus and getting finalized at Columbus.”

The discussion with the state about the South Norwalk school was difficult, Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo said Wednesday.

Guiliano explained that the state is trying to limit construction costs and the planned building is a little smaller than the state would like, as you don’t get the economies of scale. Also, the site is difficult, with wetlands and bedrock, making it costlier. The state has very specific square footage construction cost allowances,

The design is expected in mid-January but may be delayed due to a complicated land swap arrangement, he said.

Because the Board plans to build the Ely school on Springwood/Nathaniel Ely Park, the city must satisfy the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) requirements by providing an equal amount of open space elsewhere in Norwalk.

That’s approximately 4.5 acres, but until the design is finalized no one is sure, Lo said, explaining that the city is trying to acquire two adjacent properties to provide egress and until that process is complete the state will not move forward.

The city hired a surveyor, and “all of that takes time, that’s part of the process,” he said.

Barbis said Tuesday that one property is easy to acquire, but the other is complicated.

One woman already didn’t renew leases because she was planning to put the property on the market. It’s tenant actually was a church. There has been some rumblings that this church is being evicted, that is not true. The owner, long before we appeared, had decided not to renew that church’s lease,” Barbis said.

The second property is “more problematic” as a group of siblings are not on same page, he said.

There are going to be some discussions, I think, with this building as to how we are going to proceed with that. We are just going to have to wait and see,” Barbis said.

Council member Doug Hempstead (R-District D) said he was caught off guard to hear Lo explain that Norwalk’s school overcrowding won’t be alleviated for five years, even with the construction.

The need for “swing space” – creating space to move children into while their schools are renovated – as been part of the discussion for two years. Hempstead missed a January joint meeting of the Council Planning Committee and the BoE.

The Board plans to build two new schools and then renovate the Concord Street building now occupied by Columbus Magnet School, and Jefferson Elementary. The Jefferson kids will occupy Ponus as their school is renovated. This process, formulated by consultants Milone and McBroom, will result in more seats but not for five years.

“To me it’s like, huh? We’re overcrowded now,” Hempstead said.

He suggested adding a second story to Ponus, as it’s cheaper to build a second story, and Lo said the preferred design includes a second story.

But it’s not how many stories you have, it’s how many square feet and how many classrooms, as you are limited by the state requirements for reimbursement, Lo said.

Plus, “If you build any more than what we have designed for now, what are you going to do with that space once Jefferson is renovated?” he asked. “You’ll have Ponus as a larger school than you actually need.”

Land Use and Building Management Committee Chairman Thomas Livingston (D-District E) suggested that Hempstead talk to Barbis about it.

Hempstead mentioned portable classrooms; Lo said portables may be needed when Jefferson is renovated, as it depends on how many children there are.

Barbis said the Board is paying Milone and McBroom to update its enrollment projections.

Discussions Wednesday also touched upon the $6.3 million planned in the 2017-18 capital budget for facilities master plan capital needs implementation. These projects were listed as priorities in the facilities feasibility study done by Silver Petrucelli, and were part of the request made by the Board of Education, but were not part of preliminary capital budget plans until the Fix it First campaign rocked the boat last spring.

The $6.3 million includes $1.9 million for Phase II of the West Rocks windows project, expected to complete the work this summer; $1.5 million for miscellaneous improvements at Norwalk High School and electrical work at Cranbury and Fox Run elementary schools.

RFPs have gone out to three engineering firms for the work to assess what’s needed at Cranbury and Fox Run, Giuliano said.

The high school work includes improving the freight elevator, an air-cooled refrigerator and freezer, painting the interior paneling, refinishing wood doors, painting the exterior, and “looking at” the stage’s rigging system, the auditorium sound system and improvements to the courtyards, Lo said.

None of that is reimbursable so it can be done quickly, without going through the state process, he said.

The high school’s pool was mentioned.

“The pool actually is running better today than it has in quite some time,” NPS Director of Facilities Bill Hodel said.

Major repairs took place over the summer but parts were needed to complete the work, and that was done last week, he said, commenting, “The conditions in the natatorium right now are equal to when first designed.”

4 comments

Susan Wallerstein December 7, 2017 at 7:05 am

Thanks for informative article NoN. Any discussion of ed specs for Ely or are these already in place?

Faye Bowman December 7, 2017 at 8:18 am

The South Norwalk design has not been funded and is pending a traffic study and basically what equates to a new feasibility study…

Also, the statement that the owner had decided to evict the church is odd considering that the church is still there and he currently has not one but two church tenants which does not indicate that he is in the process of evicting anyone…

Susan Wallerstein December 7, 2017 at 9:23 pm

Nancy, thanks for additional info re: ed specs for Ponus but still not clear whether they are in the works for Ely – a bigger issue as it’s a brand new school. Especially important as well given discussions about learning commons space to support an information literacy program led by certified library media specialists.

Nancy Chapman December 8, 2017 at 12:17 am

Susan,

The Ed Specs were approved by the Board of Education in June. Jim Guiliano said the Ponus specs had been “verified.” Mike Barbis said he thinks that “distorted the context.”
“The latest process was programming– where the Ed Specs are reviewed and any discrepancies are clarified and the square footage requirements of the State are analyzed,” Barbis said. “Now, the team is looking at building layout, bus and parent drop-offs, etc. – and there is new standards with this, such that it is quite different from existing campuses.”
“The Ed Specs are done,” he said. “It’s really the programming of those ed specs that is being worked on now – that work is wrapped up at Ponus and getting finalized at Columbus.”

I just added all of that to the story.

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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.

About Nancy

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.