Updated, 3 p.m.: PDF added.
NORWALK, Conn. – It will be almost certainly be a year before construction can begin on a new South Norwalk school, Norwalk Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo said Wednesday.
That means a corresponding delay on the current Columbus Magnet School building, erasing the urgency in deciding whether it should be renovated or replaced, Land Use and Building Management Committee Chairman Thomas Livingston (D-District E) said.
Even with the change in plans, Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton asked the Council to continue on its path toward approving the Board of Education’s request to rejigger $13.5 million in capital spending, covering shortfalls in school construction.
“There’s nothing changed that would indicate to us that we think that these numbers are going to go down in any way,” Hamilton said.
The delaying factor for South Norwalk is the plan to use park land for the Ely Avenue school. City officials need the approval from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) and from the National Parks Service on their request to replace the open space with land in another part of town. Lo put in the request in November, right after other Ely property had been obtained through the eminent domain process, Hamilton said. DEEP has yet to issue a decision and there is a June 30 deadline on submitted a grant application to the Connecticut Department of Administrative Services (DAS), to fund the school construction.
DAS will not consider the Columbus school application until Norwalk has the approval for the Ely school land swap, Livingston said.
“I heard some people say they were pulling the plug on the project. I don’t think that would be an accurate characterization. They are must simply saying that one of the elements that has to be fully in place before they will move a project forward,” Hamilton said. “… this land swap has to be out of the state DEEP and also has to be approved by the National Park Service before they will consider the city to have site control sufficient to move the project forward.”
The plan to use the Springwood Park land for new school construction was developed by NPS and the Board of Education. It was the reason cited by then-Council members Travis Simms and Faye Bowman in opposing the new school, a planned K-8 magnet school with a Banks Street model.
The Concord Street school plan has inspired similar controversy, as the Board of Education recently dropped its plan to renovate the school into a new-like condition, asking the City for an additional $1.5 million to instead build a new school. The Planning Commission on May 21 voted 4-3 on that request, meaning it was turned down because a 5-2 majority was needed. Board of Education Chairman Mike Barbis instantly condemned those who voted against it, promising to hold them accountable down the road as costs mounted due to possible remediation costs.
A Planning Commission denial could be overturned by a super majority Council vote, but Livingston’s Committee also voted against the request, citing historical concerns and the high cost of NPS school construction projects. As the Columbus/Ely controversy swirls, construction is underway to turn Ponus Ridge Middle School into a K-8 magnet school, and planned work on Cranbury Elementary has been put aside to cover cost overruns.
There will be no Council vote on the Concord Street school next week because a DAS official toured the school Tuesday and told Norwalk not to apply for the grant, Livingston said.
“It was interesting. He very straight shooter, I think,” Livingston said.
There were more details on the delayed land swap approval: the DEEP official who has been handling it retired about two weeks ago, Norwalk just found out and is unsure of who is replacing him, Lo said. Although there’s a request in to State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) to expedite the application, no one is optimistic because even if DEEP did approve it, the Parks Service has yet to weigh in.
DEEP does not do many land swap requests, he said.
Because the Columbus student body is expected to move into the new Ely school, the Columbus building cannot be addressed before the new school is built. Even so, the state requires that construction begin within two years of a grant being awarded, so it’s not a good idea to apply for the grant now, Livingston said.
Another factor has changed: Lo said the urgency stemmed from a belief that the state was poised to change its reimbursement rates for school construction, but the legislature is not moving ahead with that. So waiting on the application is no problem.
Nevertheless, Hamilton asked Council members to approve the authorization to submit the application to the state. It would signal “to the state that this is still a project that is very much, you know, active and moving forward. And once this one final hurdle is crossed, we expect to be submitting an application. So I think is it it’s important for that reason,” Hamilton said.
Council member Doug Hempstead (R-District D) suggested that the Council approve it, knowing that it won’t be submitted, so that after the election the approval would be in place. That did not inspire support.
“One of the concerns I had at the last meeting … was that we don’t have all the information we would have liked to have had for that decision,” Livingston said. “We made the decision. I don’t regret the decision. But we made it based upon the limited information. We now have a year to get make sure we have all the information and why not take advantage of it?”