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Norwalk Council moves school projects ahead

Columbus Magnet School.

NORWALK, Conn. — Capital budget funds were rejiggered Tuesday to cover Norwalk Public Schools construction budget shortfalls, in the amount of $13.6 million, as requested by the Board of Education.

Common Council members tabled the BoE’s request for $1.5 million to fund a new school on the Columbus Magnet site and approved funding for projects at various schools, including the installation of air conditioning units at Roton Middle School and asbestos removal at Rowayton Elementary.

The Columbus delay had noting to do with the controversy over whether the school should be demolished or renovated as new, Common Council President Tom Livingston (D-District E) said.

“We have been advised that the state will likely make the ultimate decision on renovate as new or new construction,” Livingston said.

Norwalk is in the midst of a historic new school construction program, a plan to build two new schools and renovate two existing schools into a new-like condition. Construction to turn Ponus Ridge Middle School into a K-8 STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) school is underway, with plans to move children into the building in 2021. But the new school planned for Ely Avenue, next to Roodner Court, has been delayed due to the need to get state and federal approval for an open space land swap. As a result, plans for the existing Columbus building on Chestnut Street are also delayed, as the school community needs to move into the Ely school so that work can be done on what is often called the “Concord Street school.”

There’s no point in applying for a grant for the Concord Street school now because the state requires that construction begin within two years of approval for a grant, and that is impossible, Livingston said.

The Board in April discovered that due to state reimbursement rates, building a new school on Chestnut Street would cost about $1.5 million more than renovating the old school, without factoring in possible remediation factors in the old building. This has generated much pushback and controversy, as some demand that history and the character of the neighborhood be honored.

“That building has a lot of pride in it over the years,” Common Council member Doug Hempstead (R-District D) said Tuesday. “It has had extensive renovations to it. I hate to see, from a carbon footprint (perspective) old buildings taken down and thrown away… Renovation sometimes may be just as costly but I think overall provides a good anchor for the neighborhoods they are in.”

The shifting of capital budget funds, which was unanimous, brought funding for the school projects up to their current estimated costs:

  • New Ely School, $45.9 million
  • Jefferson Elementary renovation, $33.6 million
  • Columbus Magnet renovation, $35.9 million

 

Funding to cover the major school construction project budget shortfalls was provided by taking $11.8 million out of the Facilities Master Plan and cancelling $1.8 million for other projects.

“We have taken a number of actions in the Council in support of the Board of Education facilities master plan, including moving forward the Jefferson project, renovate as new, for state approval, resubmitting the so-called ‘new Columbus school’ on the very remote chance that (state approval for the land swap will come in by June 30,)” Livingston said, mentioning individual projects at Kendall, Roton, Brookside, Tracey, West Rocks and Brien McMahon.

NPS Director of Facilities Bill Hodel went over these at Monday’s Board of Education Facilities Committee meeting.

There are:

  • Cafeteria renovations at Tracey Elementary and West Rocks Middle School
  • Portable air conditioners at Kendall Elementary School and Roton Middle School
  • Air conditioning and other work at Cranbury Elementary
  • Asbestos removal at Rowayton Elementary School
  • Air quality work at Brien McMahon High School
  • Solar panels on the Naramake Elementary School roof
  • Paving at Nathan Hale Middle School
  • Brien McMahon High School marine pathways program space

 

A library upgrade is proposed for Kendall, and landscaping upgrades will be done at to-be-announced schools, he said.

The Nathan Hale paving project is “big,” a cost of $350,000, Hodel said. The asbestos will be removed from the main hall, second floor mezzanine, two classrooms and a kitchen at Rowayton.

The Cranbury projects “outfitting the remaining classrooms with air conditioners,” library renovations, lighting upgrades and the removal of folding tables from the gymnasium, he said.

The Roton air condition project was overbudget and thus will be done in two phases, he said, explaining that the $500,000 budget is more than enough to upgrade Kendall but another $400,000 will be needed to do Roton.

He suggested that a special appropriation be made because this would both “demonstrate to the Roton community that will be completed, even if in two phases,” and result in lower costs as the project could be put out to bid well in advance of the summer.

Air conditioners will go on the exterior rooms but not the interior ones because a ductless system is needed, he explained.

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