Construction contracts for both the South Norwalk Elementary School and Norwalk High School were advanced on February 7 by the Land Use and Building Management Committee of the Common Council.
The committee voted unanimously in favor of a contract with the Newfield Construction Group with a “guaranteed maximum price”—or as Alan Lo, the city’s building and facilities manager described it as the “contracted price”—of $51.8 million for the South Norwalk Elementary School.
The committee also voted to advance two contracts—one for $219.6 million and one for $3.7 million with Gilbane Building Company for the Norwalk High School. The project is receiving a special 80% reimbursement rate from the state, meaning that the state will cover 80% of the costs, but not all items are reimbursable, Lo said, so he pulled out the non reimbursable items into the second contract. That includes things like the concession stands at the football stadium and improvements to local roadways. The committee voted six in favor, with one, Council member Heather Dunn, abstaining from the vote. The full council will now vote on approving both contracts at its meeting on February 13.
However, Lo said that unexpected costs, such as soil remediation, could drive the price higher. That would mean the city would have to return to the state to request additional funding, or pay for it with local funds.
Lo said that due to the size of the high school project it was “more challenging” than the elementary school, and so the city opened the bid process for it three times since Thanksgiving.
Proceeding with Caution
Lo did note that, especially with the Norwalk High School project, there are some potential unforeseen costs, like soil remediation. If that requires more money, the city might have to go back to the state, or use city funds to cover the difference.
“Our contingency right now, the way we set it up, it’s very low,” Lo said. “So what we’re going to look to do is that we have enough money to cover all of the projects and we anticipate as these bids come in we will look to the state to cover any differences that we may be short because we don’t know those numbers at this point.”
Some council members were concerned about being on the hook for more money, particularly Council member Greg Burnett who said that he believed the city should be cautious.
“I walk away from this discussion with a feeling of we need to proceed cautiously as it relates to other projects because taking on a project of this magnitude and this cost—as we stand here today, these unknowns, it sends caution that we have to really look at taking on any really big major projects until we have some more information as to what the final number is going to be,” he said.
Burnett said that’s “going to impact other projects coming down the line.”
“I guess my concern would be—and I think Mr. Burnett has the same thoughts—that we get down the road here and we’re short $5, $10 million and the city doesn’t have it, where’s it going to come from?” Council member Jim Frayer asked.
Lo said that he and Jim Giuliano, the president of the Construction Solution Group, who is managing the school construction projects across the city, will be closing “managing these projects in a timely efficient way” to stay as close to budget as possible.
“I gotta say, though, that on all the projects I’ve ever seen you bring in there’s always something left over at the end of the day,” Frayer said. “So it gives me some confidence.”
Importance of the Project
Still despite some concerns, council members and city officials said that they fully supported a new Norwalk High School and were grateful for the high reimbursement rate from the state.
“It’s incredible that we get 80% reimbursement—it’s a different world for us,” he said. “I mean think about 80% of $200+ million dollars is $160 million. We can’t build this high school without the state help on this project, especially 80%. So it’s an opportunity that we need to continue to cherish. I mean, I’ve never done a project—typically 20 or 30% [reimbursement]—80% is something that, it’s very valuable to the city.”
Council member Barbara Smyth, who chairs the committee, called it a “gift to the city.”
“This project’s potentially transforming for our city and for our schools to have a state-of-the-art high school like this, it really is a gift,” she said.
Lo also emphasized that the high school would have a pool, something that was initially not included in the state’s first approval.
“When the state approved a number, the pool, it was questionable whether that’s in the project because what they included wasn’t enough money to do the pool,” he said. “But since we added it back in, and the pool is in there.”
Lo said that he believes they could probably be on site by March 1 and building the new high school is estimated to take about 3.5 years, with the new building projected to open in August 2027, and then after the students move in, the old building would be demolished.
He said that they’re going to be meeting with the high school administration the last week of February to review many of the logistics ahead of construction.
What About Sports?
Council member Jenn McMurrer asked for clarification about how the athletics situation would work. Lo said that the outdoor athletics would be impacted as the new school will be built on the existing football field, but he said that they were working to make sure students had a place to go.
“We are taking steps to work with the athletic director to figure out where he goes and we’re looking to provide busing to get the kids from high school to school to those locations,” he said.
McMurrer also said that she had heard rumors related to how this would affect other sports in the city.
“The rumor that’s going around or the information that’s going around amongst parents of younger children is that the other sports like junior sports like Norwalk Junior Soccer Association, and things are going to be displaced because of this,” she said.
JoAnn Acquarulo, the city’s assistant building and facilities manager, said that the high school sports are going to be using fields during existing practice times, when the fields are used by school and not by recreation leagues.
“I did work with Ken [Hughes] at the rec department … to try to alleviate any time where they would go into the recreation time,” she said. “Because like I said they’re already practicing. I don’t think any of them—maybe a softball could possibly have used Brien McMahon later in the evening when we’re there practicing—but it’s very limited.”
South Norwalk Elementary School
Lo said that the bids for this project, which is smaller in scope than the high school, were “very, very successful.” The project was budgeted for about $76 million, of which around $14 million was used for land acquisitions, leaving about $62 million for the school. So the contracted price of $51.8 million fell well under that estimate. However, Lo said that some of the remaining money would go toward softer costs like furniture for the school after construction as well as cover any unexpected costs.
Lo said that they planned to be “mobilized by the end of the month to start work on the school.”
“I think this project is scheduled to go through construction to completion [in about] a year and a half or so, which is August of 2025. So it’s very aggressive,” Lo siad.
He said that by April 2025 he’ll provide an update to the committee on the status of the project in terms of cost and timeline.
“By April 2025, we will confirm the completion date so that we know we’ll be able to open the school for the fall of 2025,” Lo said.