NORWALK, Conn. – The state of Norwalk’s athletic fields and schools brought an unusually robust crowd to Wednesday’s Planning Commission public hearing on the capital budget.
“The city has been very, very generous in terms of turfing several of our fields here in Norwalk,” Norwalk High School Athletic Director Doug Marchetti said. “I hate to say it, but it still doesn’t seem like it’s enough. … Sometimes we are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole in terms of trying to meet the needs and accommodate all of the groups that want to use the fields that we currently have at our disposal… I think another field would just ease the crunch city-wide and again provide a viable safe surface for all people in Norwalk to utilize.”
“Sixty years old, this building looks disgusting and it needs to get renovated,” David Young said about Cranbury Elementary School. “We have an opportunity to give these kids some way to kind of explore and know what it is going into a lunch line instead of going into a gymnasium. Some separation between church and state for that.”
Up to 100 people attended the Commission’s hearing, one of many steps in the process for the 2019-20 capital budget. At issue were requests for $45,000 for a feasibility study for softball fields, $2.2 million for a West Rocks Middle School soccer fields and $175,000 to install bathrooms at the Nathan Hale Athletic Complex, along with $9 million for Jefferson Elementary School, $100,000 for asbestos abatement at Rowayton Elementary and nearly $2.7 million for the facilities master plan, repairs at a variety of schools.
Planning Commissioners noted the unusual nature of the crowd, given poor turnouts for capital budget hearings in previous years.
“It’s great to see everybody, please come to more public hearings,” Commission Chairwoman Fran DiMeglio said. “Let us know what you’re thinking, don’t assume that we know all that. We try to listen and do the best we can.”
First up was the athletic field issue. Brien McMahon High School Athletic Director Joe Maddafari said both high schools need softball fields; Marchetti said tennis court drainage issues can cost $40,000 to $50,000 a season and the team “lost a complete tennis season two years ago.”
“The current field inventory is falling significantly short of the demand,” Norwalk Junior Soccer Association President Bob Fosina said, echoing the athletic director’s comments that with Norwalk Public Schools working to change start times, the athletic field availability will be impacted.
“State of the art facilities create a better community,” Fosina said. “…Improved parks and recs facilities don’t just impact one organization or only the families with kids, it improves the home values for everyone in the City.”
The softball field covered in water when other fields have drained, Neil Putterman said, and, “softball is the only field sport that does not have a turf option,” even though more than 300 girls play.
Commissioner Nora King asked Acting Recreation and Parks Department Director Ken Hughes why the request was for a study, not a field, given the obvious need.
“We have to make sure we have the correct site picked, in terms of drainage, in terms of feasibility to install lights, in terms of parking,” Hughes said. “So instead of just making decisions unilaterally for the field at Brien McMahon, it makes financial sense to have a study done first, with a company that will look at all these options before we do spend the money to install the field.”
The actual request to fund a new field will come next year, he said, leading Commissioner David Davidson to request a placeholder dollar figure to plug into the five-year capital budget plan.
The study is new to the five-year plan.
King said the City could factor in whatever estimate Hughes provides, “$1.5 million or whatever,” but Hughes was reluctant, given the variables. The new Nathan Hale Athletic Complex cost nearly $3 million, due to drainage and lighting issues, he said.
Maria Basset said a youth field hockey league started in 2012 had grown from 60 player to 130, just in the last two years, and with that growth 200 players are expected. “Inventory is a problem and obviously the bathrooms at Nathan Hale,” she said.
Katrhry Sillschop called all the comments “eye-opening.”
“I feel very strongly and passionately about equity in the sports and the programs in the schools, that there’s equity between the boys’ athletic programs and the girls’ athletic programs,” she said. “From what I am hearing, it’s not just at Brien McMahon in terms of the facilities, because softball and baseball, that’s the only sport that can’t share facilities. So it’s a very obvious and blatant disparity in terms of what you see in the programs that are able to be offered and the facilities that are available.”
But Diane Lauricella spoke in opposition to some of the enthusiasm.
“Before another dollar is spent on either a turf field or upgrading, there needs to be feasibility study or blue-ribbon panel to take a look at where we should add fields,” she said. “We have plenty of room at Taylor Farm and I think that people that walk their dogs have plenty of room at Cranbury or Taylor Farm. We have the room for soccer fields and possibly even additional ball field.”
There are health concerns with turf, she said, adding that Westport banned rubber infill on turf.
“I don’t want to come here today with all the folks cheering and clapping, because they’re right, they need a safe place for their kids to be benefitting by all the rich relationships that playing sports does,” she said. “I know, because I played sports in school… but we cannot allow the continuation of slapping down artificial turfs unless and until the health director and others do a true study…. why can’t Norwalk look into it and take this serious issue, finally, seriously?”
Equity was a theme as Norwalk Public Schools made its presence known, dominating the second half of the three-hour long hearing.
“I am pleased to hear some of the commentary because the request from Jefferson underscores what we are hearing,” Jefferson Elementary School Principal Nicholas Brophy said. “We are talking about access, we are talking about safety and security, we are talking about healthy wellbeing and we are talking about equity.”
Asia Johnson described what Jefferson is like through the eyes of her fifth grade son, heading outside to portable classrooms despite whatever the weather conditions, asking, “2 degrees, would you want to go between a portable and a main building?”
It’s a disgrace that the school hasn’t been renovated since 1970, she said.
“With that said, they thrive. Because even though the situation is as dire as it is, the staff at that school is wonderful,” she said.
“You have my 200 percent support on this school because it has been shocking what has been going on in my nine years of awareness of the situation there,” King said, to Brophy.
NPS found out Wednesday that there’s asbestos in second floor classrooms, Principal Joe Rodriguez said, adding that an employee tripped on one of the aged area rugs and needed major surgery, and a new kindergarten pupil has begun to experience health issues, with the parent attributing it to the carpet.
Rowayton kindergarten teachers Lisa Larusso and Mary Cambareri made an impression, with Larusso saying she remembers when the carpets were new and teachers were excited, but then they realized it was impossible to keep them sanitary.
The asbestos dust is dispersed in the air, Cambareri said, asserting that a study done in 2000 showed that elementary school teachers were more than twice as likely to die of cancer.
“I can personally name six teachers from Rowayton elementary School in the past, who have worked in the classrooms that we are talking about… that have died due to lung cancer,” Larusso said. “Is it a coincidence? We don’t know. But four out of six of them were not smokers. We don’t want to be next.”
“Our present kindergarten students have experience escalated allergic outbreaks while sitting on the carpets and have to be moved to their chairs. There is no excuse for this,”Cambareri said.
“The testimony from kindergarten teachers was the most powerful I have heard in a public hearing in a long time,” Commissioner Mike Mushak said.
Late in the evening, the Cranbury parents made their presence known.
“It boggles my mind that we don’t have window (air conditioning) units,” Young said.
Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton explained that it will be three years before permanent improvements are made at Cranbury.
“Everybody is concerned, you wouldn’t have to work when it’s 112 degrees,” DiMeglio said.
“These are multi-million dollar projects that require state approval before you can do anything,” Hamilton said, explaining that it’s not like flipping a switch.
Board of Education member Barbara Meyer-Mitchell was the last person to take the lectern, explaining that the Board Facilities Committee has been looking at long-term and short-term solutions and the $500,000 that’s been requested is for window air conditioning units.
The Commission will transmit its capital budget to Mayor Harry Rilling on March 4. Rilling then submits his capital budget recommendation to the Board of Estimate and Taxation, which will then submit a budget to the Common Council.