Correction, April 26: $135 million is not state funding. This is an editing error.
NORWALK, Conn. – Columbus Elementary School is one step closer to a wrecking ball, after a Board of Education vote to request funding for a new school to replace the 81-year-old building.
The Board voted unanimously Tuesday to request an additional $1.5 million from the City for the proposed new school, and ditch plans to renovate the edifice on Chestnut Street which houses Columbus Magnet School. The Board also delayed work on Cranbury Elementary School, which will free up the money needed to cover the $13.6 million budget shortfall in its construction projects.
Prior to the vote, historically-minded Norwalkers urged that the Columbus building be saved, and Board members discussed options: Sarah LeMieux spoke from experience in support of demolition, Barbara Meyer-Mitchell worried about finite funding, and Bruce Kimmel reminded the public that the budget shortfall stems from cuts that were made on the City-side, when he was on the City-side team as a Council member.
Board Chairman Mike Barbis said he learned at a meeting last week in South Norwalk that resistance to a new Chestnut Street school is based on opposition to the neighborhood change that would come from demolition.
Longtime preservationists David Westmoreland and Todd Bryant said in remarks to the board that the old school is eligible for $4.5 million in Connecticut Historic Tax Credits. Westmoreland is former Chair of the Historic Commission and Bryant is a founder of the Norwalk Preservation Trust, and a historic preservation consultant.
Current Historic Commission Chairwoman Susan Betts, in a letter to the board, called for preserving the existing building.
“The 1938 brick structure adds significant historic character to the Chestnut/Concord Street neighborhood that is rapidly being lost through new development and gentrification,” Betts wrote. She expressed doubt that a new building would match the existing building’s quality.
Columbus was built during the height of the Great Depression, and at the time was “a huge source of pride” for Norwalk’s Italian Americans, Bryant said. “This is more than just a school, it’s a monument to those people who managed to get through the Depression and who came here as immigrants.”
Westmoreland told board members that he had not seen justification for a new school in the form of “an overwhelmingly better experience for our kids,” or cost savings which would significantly reduce the BoE operating budget.
Jim Giuliano of Construction Solutions Group, the city’s manager on multiple school construction projects, later said the tax credits won would be a net neutral for the project, because any tax credits that would be granted would be deducted from the construction funding provided by the state.
“The state. Those schmucks,” Barbis replied.
Columbus Magnet School.Giuliano on Monday agreed that the 1938 building contains better materials than a new school would, but said a new building would be much more energy efficient.
The energy savings over 30 years, the projected life of a new school, would be astronomical, Kimmel said Tuesday.
Giuliano read from a list of pros and cons for each options. His list included only one con for a new school: a curb cut needed at Mulvoy Street and Henry Street.
Pros include getting traffic off Chestnut Street, increasing the size of the parking lot and improving accessibility to the building’s entry points. A new school would also have a separate gymnasium and cafeteria and would be more secure.
LeMieux asked if the new building could resemble the existing building; Giuliano promised that the architecture could be similar.
“It is very difficult for that school to function as a school now because of the space concerns, because of the number of students that are enrolled,” LeMiuex said.
Meyer-Mitchell said she respects the need for a new school and its energy efficiencies, but believes $135 million in expected City funding cannot be increased. She’s concerned that spending more for new construction could leave a shortage of funds for other important projects.
“Every time we choose to go to the higher end on a project, we are jettisoning some other possible use of that funding,” she said.
“I am just a little worried that we are jettisoning projects that may never get back on the list for seven years.”
Norwalk through its 2017-18 and 2018-19 capital budgets, has committed $129.9 million for school construction – two new schools and two renovate-as-new projects. It also committed $6.3 million in 2017-18 and $12.8 million in 2018-19 for work at other schools.
Cranbury was in that mix, with a $9 million renovation project now estimated to cost $17 million. The plan approved Tuesday redirected that money to cover the shortfalls, and Barbis on Monday expressed confidence that the City would award money for a new school instead in the 2020-21 capital budget.
Mayor Harry Rilling said Monday that the possibility is being “explored” and “discussions are in their early stages.”
There’s a municipal election this November, so the players on the stage could change.
Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski on Tuesday said Norwalk’s attitude has changed, with a new level of awareness of building needs.
Addressing the needs will “require a somewhat larger commitment” than the already historically large capital bonding has provided, he said.
“I can tell you from my discussions with Mayor Rilling on this, he has certainly accepted that and is committed to doing everything the city can possibly do,” Adamowski said. “I think there is an enhanced understanding that the capital budget is going to have to be enhanced further.”
Kimmel attributed the new attitude to NPS’ increased accountability scores, and blamed the reluctance of years past on lower scores.
BoE member Bryan Meek on Monday decried the “Band-Aid” approach to school buildings, and Kimmel said Tuesday that NPS has been penny wise and pound foolish. He called for officials to “bite the bullet and spend the money.”
The Board’s consultant, Silver Petrucelli, formulated a school construction plan that was fairly close in its budget projections for the schools, but the City cut them dramatically during the capital budget process, Kimmel said, pointing a finger of blame at himself as then-Finance Committee chairman.
“You asked for the right amount of money, I said no. We couldn’t afford it at the time,” Kimmel said. “The Board had no choice but to radically reduce the overall capital request. … It really is not fair to blame the Board for this. The City was involved also.”