Updated, 7:42 a.m.: Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. – On Monday, Board of Education members:
- Moved ahead Ponus School expansion plans to the full Board for approval
- Decided to advance a study of air conditioning needs
- Discussed Roton Middle School cracks and ‘settling’
Ponus moves forward, with some controversy
Plans for the Ponus Ridge Middle School expansion to a K-8 school will be up for a Board of Education vote Tuesday, after the BOE Facilities Committee on Monday moved them forward with one dissenting voice.
“I will just be clear that I’m uncomfortable about voting on something on a plan that I don’t know the specifics of,” Barbara Meyer-Mitchell said after a discussion that began with her asking for a “walk through” of the plans.
BoE Chairman Mike Barbis, Committee Chairman, disagreed.
“There’s been a Committee, a building Committee, that’s been working on it since the project was approved, and I think I mentioned this to you in an email,” Barbis said. He explained that three rounds of cost estimating had been done with refinements due to drainage issues. “If you want to look at those (plans), that’s great. But the project hasn’t changed that dramatically since it was originally proposed.”
Bruce Kimmel, who like Meyer-Mitchell was elected to the Board last year, said he understood that the first estimate for the school was $5 million more than allocated by the Common Council during the budget process.
It’s about $3.5 million over budget, Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo said, as part of a lengthy explanation of the process. Although the Board of Education approved the plan for a school, once the Common Council approved funding the project is largely in its court, Lo said.
He added that he didn’t want to go to the Council for the money until cost estimates come in from a contractor, but Council members are aware of the situation.
He mentioned the $5 million that was recently taken out of the budget for Jefferson Elementary School renovations and moved to Norwalk High School, for renovations there.
Mayor Harry Rilling had gone “on record to say, you know, that the funding that was going to be taken from Jefferson to cover the bribe, the Bob Duff bribe, the $5 million, as well as the extra money for Columbus and Ely as well as Ponus, was going to get reinstated,” Barbis said.
NancyOnNorwalk emailed Barbis after the meeting to ask what he meant by “Bob Duff bribe;” Barbis replied “give me a minute” but did not send a second e-mail clarifying the comment.
Meyer-Mitchell returned to the topic of plans that she hadn’t seen, as a new member who hadn’t voted on the Education Specifications. “There have been plenty of meetings, you could have attended,” Barbis said.
“I asked to be invited in and was not included in them,” Meyer-Mitchell said.
She explained afterwards that she meant private meetings, open only to the school building committees.
Barbis replied: “You can’t micromanage all these projects, that’s what we’re paying all these professionals for. We’re paying a good deal of money and that’s what they’re for, and that’s what these building committees are for.”
The Ponus plans were presented to the public at a Zoning Commission hearing, Lo said.
“I really appreciate all the work that’s gone into it and I am not a professional engineer,” Meyer-Mitchell said. “I think that some basic layout of the plan included in the packet that we’re voting on, which then becomes part of the public record, would be helpful to the community for their understanding of what we’ve approved going forward.”
Air conditioning study
Complaints rolled in a few weeks ago on a “very contentious issue:” the lack of air conditioning in some schools, Barbis said.
“Keep in mind, we have currently 11 schools that do not have air conditioning,” Barbis said. “We do also have two schools with window units, Columbus and Fox Run, where each classroom is but then the hallways and other areas don’t. And when it gets really hot, they really don’t work that well. I had a lot of complaints; strangely, none from Columbus, but a lot of complaints from Fox Run.”
Ponus will get air conditioning as part of the expansion, a $4.6 million expense, he said.
“We’ve got 10 buildings that aren’t going to have air conditioning anytime soon,” he said. “… everyone wants an action plan. You know, we’ve got school, you know, got summer school and all our buildings, we’re using our buildings, it’s a different, it’s a different era than it was back in the day. We may or may not have global warming, it does seem warmer. People come up to me and say ‘we didn’t have air conditioning when I went to school,’ whatever. The fact is, it’s been really hot. We’ve had these early dismissals and we need to come up with (a plan)… We need to at least come up with an assessment of where we are, how it could be done, what it would cost. Honestly even the strongest PTAs are not going to be able to raise $4.3 million to air condition a school.”
NPS Director of Facilities Bill Hodel said a mechanical engineer could do a professional study, and Lo cautioned that this would be a preliminary study that would be followed by an engineering evaluation that would assign price tags to the effort.
There were 22 to 24 window air conditioners put into West Rocks this summer at a cost of $45,000, he said. He explained that working on schools is difficult because remediation work is often needed, leaving “one month of construction work.”
“I know the superintendent was planning to make a recommendation to the board tomorrow,” NPS Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton said. He explained that a capital budget request would be made to “develop a plan if you will, for for each building, understanding that each solution may be different depending on the specifics in that building.”
“My understanding is we’ve maxed the credit card for capital for five years out and then the sixth year has to do with the library,” Meyer-Mitchell said, asking Kimmel, a former Council member, to clarify.
This was a reference to the deal the City made with Jason Milligan, owner of 11 Belden Ave., for the land next to the Norwalk Public Library.
Milligan won Zoning approval for apartments there but the Library Foundation appealed the decision, and the City eventually settled by paying $460,000 for a 6-year option to purchase.
That timing was partially based on capital needs and the plan to build new schools, Kimmel said Monday.
“Somebody else will buy that (land), that’s what we think will happen,” Kimmel said. “Worst case scenario, it could cost us the $4.8 million, and I actually don’t think that’s the case.”
Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski has done a cost analysis on the expenses incurred by sending children home due to a lack of air conditioning, Kimmel said.
The number of students in summer school is going to increase, Meyer-Mitchell said.
“We want to start the engineering study,” Hamilton said. He expressed support for “looking at sort of short-term strategy and a long-term strategy because realistically to get the $45 or 50 million that we need to put the air conditioning in all the buildings now is not likely to happen in the next five years.”
Roton showing cracks
Structural issues at Roton Middle Schools should be addressed in the next capital budget cycle, Hodel said.
“It has to be looked at and it has to be a detailed in terms of what future recommendations can be made to remedy the situation,” he said. “So you look in the back of the building, there’s a structural members which are aligned in concrete, and a lot of the concrete has come loose, and you can see the exposed rebar in the back of Roton.”
Meyer-Mitchell asked, “It’s not in warranty anymore.”
“Oh, no, no, no, by no means,” Hodel replied. “And, you know, is the building settling? We don’t know, that’s something that needs to be looked at. And there’s a walkway in the back exterior of the school that seems to have separated away from the other building.”