Updated, 2:43 p.m.: Additional information.
NORWALK, Conn. – Plans to renovate Cranbury Elementary School may be ditched in favor of a brand new school, as the Norwalk Board of Education responds to a budget shortfall by rejiggering its facilities improvement program.
The BoE Facilities Committee on Monday voted to shift its school construction funds by transferring $11.9 million from a capital projects account, in addition to other money, to raise the additional $13.6 million needed to move forward with a new school at the Nathaniel Ely site and two school renovations. Of the $11.9 million, $9 million were originally slated for Cranbury renovations, and $2 million for improvements at Fox Run, Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton explained.
The Committee also planned to request $1.5 million from the City to fund a new school at 46 Concord St., the current home of Columbus Magnet School, instead of a renovation.
Barbara Meyer-Mitchell at first pushed back on the plan. Meyer-Mitchell urged “parity” at the schools and asked how much it would cost to build separate cafeterias at Wolfpit, Naramake and Cranbury. She later voted with the other members to unanimously approve the proposal.
The additional funding comes from “multiple sources,” Hamilton said. “Essentially, we scoured all of the Board’s capital accounts to identify where is there money that can allow us to proceed with these projects, while making it cost neutral, except if we opt for new construction” at the Concord Street school.
- A building management system, $1 million
- District fire alarms systems, $50,000
- Schools for the New Millenium, $97,000
- Facilities assessment study implementation, $579,000
- Facilities Master Plan Capital Needs Implementation, $11,868,000
The last item was not detailed in the information provided to the public before the meeting; Hamilton offered the explanation mentioned above only at Meyer-Mitchell’s prompting.
The Board of Education is expected to vote on the plan at its Tuesday meeting.
Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski met with the Cranbury School Governance Council (SGC) last week, telling parents that a $17 million renovation would not meet long term needs, Hamilton said.
After Adamowski’s “strong pitch,” officials felt parents would support the new school in lieu of renovations, the schools CFO said. NPS expects to submit a request for new school funding in December. “We have every reason to believe,” the City will approve the request, Hamilton said.
Although Hamilton pegged the Cranbury renovation cost as $17 million, the Cranbury plan was originally thought to cost $9 million, the amount that was approved by the City and appropriated through the capital budget process.
Meyer-Mitchell said she had asked for a breakdown of those costs, two days after the last Facilities meeting, and not gotten it.
“I feel like I don’t have enough information. I don’t know what’s changed between the original appropriation of $9 million and that new number, $17 million,” she said.
BoE Facilities Committee Chairman Mike Barbis said nothing.
Meyer-Mitchell said she “enthusiastically supports” the plan to build new schools to address overcrowding, but is concerned that the Board find a good balance, and that the plan was built from an engineering perspective, not from the point of view of end users.
Six schools don’t have separate gymnasiums and cafeterias, which is a problem because during indoor recess — which she believes is one third of the year — pupils can’t get “gross motor play.”
The plan fixes the problem at Columbus, Jefferson and Ponus but leaves Cranbury, Naramake and Wolfpit at an instructional disadvantage, she said.
“Without gross motor play in the middle of the day the kids have more behavioral issues,” Meyer-Mitchell said. “It especially effects the Special Education community.”
Tracey Elementary is 20 years older than Cranbury and probably needs renovation to a new-like state, and the new Plan of Conservation and Development (also known as the city-wide master plan) describes Silvermine Elementary as becoming a K-8 school, which will require an addition, she said.
“I am curious to know how we will afford what’s being proposed,” she said.
She asked if there’s a plan in place for the possibility that the City will decline to fund a new school at Cranbury. Hamilton said there isn’t.
Mayor Harry Rilling said it would get funded, Barbis said.
Rilling said in an email after the meeting that “it seems reasonable to evaluate the logic of putting approximately $15 million into a school building that is stressed and tired.”
“We are exploring the possibility of building a new school at Cranbury as a way of giving the residents of that district a school of which they could be proud,” Rilling wrote. “The discussions are in their early stages. We also want to see what we can do for Cranbury school in the interim period. We know they need air conditioning, and we are evaluating the possibility of building a new gymnasium as well as a new cafeteria which will eventually be attached to the new building.”
Barbis new Cranbury school would have a three-year timeline, with state approval in December 2020, a design phase in 2021, and construction in summer or fall 2021.
“If we luckily get $45 million more, what happens to Wolfpit and Naramake?” Meyer-Mitchell asked.
“The Mayor is very committed to adding cafeterias at every school, so everyone has to get in line. It can’t all be done overnight,” Barbis replied.
“We would also like to have each school with the cafeteria that is designed like the cafeteria we put at Rowayton Elementary,” Rilling wrote.
Board of Education member Bryan Meek endorsed the new school plan, noting that Cranbury is 60 years old and not much different from when he went there.
“The city needs capacity,” Meek said. “I am sick and tired of watching these Band-Aid projects at every school. As long as I have lived here, they always run over money. Always, we have to cut corners at the end. We end up with something half-assed and what we really need is, we really need new schools.”
Heidi Keyes, attending the meeting by phone, agreed.
“I think at this point it is a quick Band-Aid fix and I am worried long-term. If we do these quick fixes, what happens 10 years down the road?” she said.
One Naramake parent told the committee that parents are frustrated with the wait for school building renovations.
Naramake parents “don’t know what to do” to get higher up on the list for renovations, Janine Randolph, mom to a fourth-grader, told the committee. “Dedicated staff” are giving the kids the tools for success “in a deficient building and antiquated facility.”
Not only are the kids “pent up” in school, they can’t socialize in the cafeteria well because they must sit in their classroom section, due to the “cafegymatorium” situation. She also decried “old tired bathrooms.”
“Norwalk is now this community and district of choice and I feel like we are getting farther and farther down on the choice list as renovations are made to other schools,” Randolph said. “…We are just basically here not knowing what to do. I really hear and understand how difficult this all can be, lots of moving pieces, lots of red tape, money that isn’t there. … We are working so hard to make our school a beacon for the neighborhood and we just feel like the district needs to step up and support us with that.”