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Adamowski details reasons behind proposal for new Norwalk High School

Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski speaks to the Norwalk Board of Education Facilities Committee, Thursday in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. – The surprise proposal to build a new Norwalk High School was vetted publicly for the first time Thursday, in a deliberate action by Board of Education Facilities Committee Chairwoman Erica DePalma.

DePalma stepped outside the usual focus of her Committee, questioning Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski about the reasons for the proposal rather than strictly scrutinizing the related draft education specifications for the new school.

Adamowski said, “This appeared, I think to everyone who was involved, as an excellent opportunity that probably would not have been possible under any other circumstances, it would not be possible in the future. So I think this is one of those cases where the kind of governmental process and the way we’ve always done things, really has to bow to the expediency of a once-in-a, you know, -decade opportunity to do something that would be truly remarkable for our students.”

The ensuing conversation touched on other projects in the works and the Norwalk High School swimming pool, with Adamowski getting into the details in front of about 10 citizens, an unusual crowd for a Facilities Committee meeting.

For one thing, the interdistrict magnet would be an exchange program, he said. And Norwalk is poised to capitalize on being surrounded by wealthier communities.

There are multiple reasons that Norwalk High is the intended project.

 

‘What’s really going on?’

Adamowski, State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) and Mayor Harry Rilling on Monday stunned the City by announcing that Norwalk High would be rebuilt with an 80 percent reimbursement rate from the state, due to it being a pilot program. Norwalk will get a new school for $40 million, saving Norwalk taxpayers $100 million, said Duff, who explained this stemmed from talks that began in May, involving Konstantinos (Kosta) Diamantis, Director of the Connecticut Office of School Construction Grants & Review.

Rilling said the investment would be financed over 30 years, causing little impact to the City budget due to the historically low interest rates now available. The Norwalk Early College Academy (NECA, or P-Tech) would get its own facility and draw in out of town students, and a Performing and Visual Arts Academy would be created, Adamowski explained.

This has drawn consternation and derision from some, pushback on the lack of community input.

Former Board Chairman Mike Lyons immediately left comments on NancyOnNorwalk slamming it as “pork barrel politics” because “Duff on his own decided that we should get a new high school, while starving us of the funds needed to address the real problems in our elementary and middle schools. He did so with practically no consultation with the Board of Education, which has legal control over any such projects.”

Former Board member Bruce Kimmel, who served as Chairman for less than a week before resigning in late November, echoed some of those thoughts on Facebook, asking, with the incredulity signified by three question marks, if having 100 out of City students would really justify an 80 percent reimbursement rate.

“What strikes me as kind of strange is that Norwalk High was not deemed a priority by the city’s consultants, nor by the folks in the focus groups who weighed in as the official five-year plan was developed,” he wrote. “What’s even stranger is that the board’s official plan is designed primarily, apart from improving school facilities, to address over-crowding, especially in our elementary and middle schools, where we have been using portable classrooms for years. Plus, the enrollment projections from the demographers indicate that we are probably okay when it comes to our high schools. So, what’s really going on? I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, but nonetheless, the absence of transparency in the evolution of this new proposal — I mean, it didn’t go through a single board committee — verges on the incredible.”

DePalma began Thursday’s discussion by reading a statement from Rilling, who she said had a previously scheduled engagement.

Rilling reemphasized that no other school project currently in the pipeline will be hitting the back-burner. “Needed projects like Jefferson, Columbus, Cranbury and others will move forward as planned as local and state officials continue to work through the intricate details,” he said.

The Norwalk High project won’t move forward without support from the Board of Education, the Board of Estimate and Taxation and the Common Council, and “members will have the opportunity to vet and discuss the plans and the upcoming months,” he said.

Finally, “Senator Duff kept myself and my team as well as the superintendent and his team, apprised of what was happening in Hartford over the last several months. Everyone knew that we could not afford to build a new Norwalk High School without the 80 percent reimbursement. And that is why it was never ‘a plan.’ A new high school is a unique opportunity that presented itself to our community and we are fully confident in the state support and financial commitment,” he said.

 

 

‘Every time you touch it…’

DePalma asked Adamowski if “anybody on the Board of Ed was aware of these plans being in motion.”

“Well, there were no plans in motion. There was a series of discussions, I think three meetings in Hartford,” Adamowski said.

Duff and the Norwalk High School Governance Council were frustrated that the cost of repairs and renovations kept escalating, he said. First, it was $7 million, and then last year it became $11 million. Which then became insufficient.

“You know, every time you touch it, it gets bigger and bigger. So there was a, there was a suggestion from Mr. Diamantis that, you know, maybe we should just not keep patching this,” Adamowski explained.

It had earlier been explained that $5.1 million of the $11 million has been spent. “The PCB issue in the paneling and the doors was not anticipated. And that was, you know, quite expensive, and that was eating up a lion’s share of this $11.5 million, basically,” NPS Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton said.

Adamowski, Duff, Rilling and others discussing the situation were under the impression that a new school was impossible unless it was an interdistrict magnet, but Gov. Ned Lamont has ruled out further magnet school construction, Adamowski explained. He said he informed former Facilities Chairman Mike Barbis twice that a discussion was underway.

“And we then we went through a period of time where there was no, nothing really happened,” Adamowski continued. “Then we were asked at another meeting to come up with Ed Specs, and something creative that would enable other students in the area to attend the school from the standpoint of shared services.”

Since the push for school regionalization failed, the state is focused on shared services, he said. “It was explained to us that in order to get 80 percent reimbursement you had to meet a public policy purpose.”

For a magnet school, racial desegregation is the purpose, he explained. But in this case it’s a groundbreaker – economic desegregation. Plus, the shared services aspect is “not having to build a black box theater in three different places.”

“In about a week, when we received that request, everybody worked really hard to come up with the (Ed Specs) drafts that you see in front of you, including the enrollment plan,” Adamowski said.

Jim Giuliano of Construction Solutions Group, the city’s new school construction project manager, said he spent five days coming up with the draft, consulting with NECA Director Karen Amaker but basically “in a vacuum.”

Other school districts are losing enrollment but Norwalk is overcrowded and the enrollment is increasing, Adamowski explained. “That motivated creative thinking” over the usual tuition exchange for an interdistrict magnet, and a one-to-one exchange is hoped for, with Norwalk students going to other districts via a lottery.

“People felt more comfortable with that, I think, although this would require the agreement of different Boards of Education to participate,” Adamowski said. “…So, it’s really a combination now, underserved students in two other districts, plus students from our economically segregated suburbs. This all occurred in a very, very short period of time. And as, as the Mayor said in his statement, we’re attempting to take advantage of an opportunity that presented itself. It was clear from our standpoint, and this was also conveyed to the former chair.”

 

Norwalk High?

DePalma suggested that NHS was chosen because it’s where the P-Tech Academy is. Adamowski instead emphasized the economic desegregation, “a model for the state, in particularly in the most economically segregated area of Connecticut.”

So, it’s the exchange student program, she said, going on to ask if Norwalk will have to refund money to the State for the projects that have been funded in a school that will be demolished. The answer was no.

She asked about the swimming pool. The reimbursement rate for a pool is 50 percent, so that would affect the money Norwalk spends, Adamowski explained, and, “I had also asked the city to at least look at the concept of operating a separate recreation center with a pool that we would be a customer of for a swim team.”

He reiterated comments made at the Board of Education retreat in July: enrollment trends show that Brien McMahon High School would be overcrowded and Norwalk High School would be under-enrolled, unless something is done to attract students to Norwalk High.

In July, it was proposed that Wolfpit Elementary become an arts school and feed students to NHS. But any student could attend the proposed Performing and Visual Arts Academy, Adamowski noted.

Norwalk Public Schools received new enrollment projections Thursday, which preliminarily show that the enrollment projections at both the middle school levels and the high school are going to be greater than the June predictions, Hamilton said.

 

A survey?

“There’s still concerns about overcrowding in our elementary, middle schools. I’m concerned again about the community input, board input, focus groups, surveys, to really, in my opinion, adequately vet this,” veteran Board member Heidi Keyes, attending by telephone, said. “In addition, having transparency and openness, full dialogue, which we’re having now, but we haven’t had before, as well as full inclusion with the full Board.”

“This is not a case where we could have endless process or even normal process. We just have to accept that up front if we’re going to do this,” Adamowski replied.

If the Board of Education approves the Ed Specs in January, the City can probably get its approval process completed in March, Adamowski said. Then assuming the State Bond Commission approves funding, design can begin this summer. Although Rilling and Duff said the school might be open in four years, Adamowski predicted 2024-25.

“We’re all concerned about cost escalation here. Every time we delay and again, the state is not going to be sympathetic with us, taking a long time to decide what we’re going to do,” Adamowski asserted. If Norwalk doesn’t approve the proposal this spring, the State will move on and search for another shared services opportunity, he said.

Keyes pressed for a survey, focus group or community meeting, before the Board’s January meeting.

Rilling said Wednesday that a public information session will be held at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 19, in the Norwalk High School library. Duff and Rilling will be there.

Adamowski on Thursday said, “I did mention we think under the circumstances, it would be helpful to hold a forum at Norwalk High School.”

The Ed Specs need to be developed so that questions can be answered, Adamowski explained, suggesting it’s up to the Board to decide if the forum comes right before the Ed Specs approval or afterwards.

There’s no need for an Ed Specs Committee, Adamowski asserted. “We had two Ed Specs Committees for our first two projects, which were Columbus and Ponus. And we did that because the city had never done this before,” but State Statute gives the responsibility to the superintendent.

 

‘Very rough estimate’

The cost of construction depends on the Council’s decisions, Adamowski said, with Giuliano calling the numbers being bandied about a “very rough estimate.”

“It’s not based on any particular design, it’s based on more of a square foot basis” of $400 to $500 a square foot, Giuliano said.

DePalma did some back of the envelope math: Adamowski said the state usually reimburses 22 percent for new school construction so she came up with Norwalk getting a new school for $43 million instead of $168 million, given the unique opportunity to pilot economic desegregation and qualify for 80 percent reimbursement.

Adamowski said, “This is obviously a compelling situation, which is why the Mayor and I reacted the way we have.”

Story corrected at 4 p.m. to show that $5.1 million has been spent on Norwalk High School, according to Jim Giuliano.

9 comments

Norwalker For Life December 13, 2019 at 6:58 am

I went to NHS in the late 80’s when it was still referred to as the “New” school. McMahon wallowed in its Green shades of disrepair… now McMahon looks amazing while NHS gets “lipstick on a pig” painting while internally the building falls apart. This doesn’t surprise my kids as they are used to outdated buildings throughout their school career at Naramake and Nathan Hale. Buildings created before even faxes were thought to be the wave of the future. These school buildings are old and outdated. NHS used to be amazing with a TV in each room… the “Home of Pride Intensified” now seems like the second rate school in town while McMahon gets the last laugh as kids from Ponus and Roton are excited to head towards possibilities while kids from West Rocks and Nathan Hale think “it can’t get any worse” and then enter into a shell of what some still refer to as “the New school in town”. It would be nice to see better facilities all around town but alas then our property taxes go up. Yes, we keep building apartments around town but most of those who take these apartments are younger and in Norwalk for the nightlife but will transition to a surrounding town to settle in because of things like “better schools and facilities.” So if we can upgrade a dying school for a lot less, then I think it’s worth it. NHS looks like an eternal construction zone on the Strawberry Hill side anyway But, it would also be amazing to see plans for some of these other schools to become updated as well since they were built and designed before MASH went off the air.

Alice December 13, 2019 at 8:36 am

Hopefully the new building won’t look like a prison or some other monstrosity. Whoever designed the current building did a horrible job & whoever authorized the design for the city had NO taste!

Bryan Meek December 13, 2019 at 11:48 am

$400 to $500 is the number we were given 2 years ago applied to the elementary schools that can’t be fast tracked for some reason, or even given a normal response time.

It’s a good conversation starter using basic math that was absent from the photo op press release. Glad to see the BOE is picking up and asking the real questions about this now that they are allowed to know what is being planned for them.

A few other questions we might ask…..

Given this will be a job subject to prevailing wage which factors amongst other things minimum wage, which is going up 50% over the next few years, are these reasonable estimates for labor expense?

On top of the $168 million for new construction adjusted for inflation and labor costs, what will it cost to bulldoze the existing structure. There was very little demolition involved in the Columbus at Ely plan and that came in closer to the $500/sf.

Siting? Looking at the site now, it seems logical that the new building would go on the ball fields that Parks has spent $ millions on over the years. Will the capital outlay for new ball fields (presumably where the old building is) be picked up by NPS or parks and is that part of the equation?

If the building is sited on the existing ballfields, how high will it tower over King Street and surrounding neighborhood? Will it be 4 stories like the current one? Does anyone know why the existing one is sited where it is now? Anecdotally some say there was so much ledge in the property they had to re-engineer the layout after initial plans were drawn. That could be a rumor, but there has to be a good reason for how and why the front entrance is situated in the middle of the property where most schools front entrances face the main road. At $100 a cubic yard for rock excavation, how much would it cost to dig down and bury the mechanicals subgrade so that neighbors don’t have a tower to look at?

Last and most curious, and I’m very glad to see Cranbury moving forward, but why does the capital plan presented last night include $2.7 million for Cranbury engineering, but $0 for NHS? If this is going to fast track, doesn’t capital need to be put aside NOW? The capital budget is due in a very short month and should probably contain $5 million Norwalk will have to put out of pocket to design this thing. Or will that be a special capital appropriation request later after Duff waives his magic want and gets laws passed to make this a legal request and manages to convince the other 168 towns represented in the legislature that Norwalk alone should get over half of the money the state is allocating for all school construction next year?

I’d love to see a new NHS built and wish our BOE well in climbing this mountain dumped in front of them. It would be nice to see Duff and company do something to expedite their prior requests in good faith for asking us to expedite his. The mayor’s announcement last night needs action, not words.

Seth Kent December 13, 2019 at 2:10 pm

I don’t really understand how the school will attract students from other districts? Wilton or Westport parents will not be sending their kids outside of an A+ district they paid dearly to live in, in order to participate in an economic desegregation experiment. So are the students supposed to come from Bridgeport? Greenwich tried a magnet program (New Lebanon School) to achieve racial balance and it was a colossal failure, but did cleverly use it as a guise in receiving state funding for new school constriction. So, is that what is being proposed here in reality? Take what you can get while you can?

Susan Wallerstein December 14, 2019 at 7:29 am

@Seth sorry can’t remember name but think the same architect designed Wilton & Norwalk High. I was a beginning teacher when Norwalk High on Strawberry Hill opened in 1971 (after a day or two of teacher strikes). A few years ago I chuckled when I realized “new” Norwalk High has been the home of NHS longer than the one on East Ave. (City Hall).

Erica DePalma December 14, 2019 at 1:41 pm

Update: Facilities Committee is planning a Public Forum on the NHS project in late January or early February – date to be determined.

John ONeill December 14, 2019 at 3:12 pm

Does anyone know the typical TimeLine on this type of project?
@Brysn Meek @Mike Lyons – Please keep us informed. Your input is appreciated more than you know
@ Erica – I hope you’re up to the task.

Steve December 15, 2019 at 1:44 pm

Sometimes Norwalk feels like a circular firing squad. Neighboring districts would hardly bemoan and complain about paying 40 million of a $200 million building. NECA. Is an exciting program that just might interest neighboring directs and a performing arts school would be a fantastic addition to the City. Bryan Lisa Mike and Donna help troubleshoot the problems, use your talents to facilitate the programs and construction . You’ve done it before . If letting bob duff get a feather in his cap so be it. We need weavers not rippers. This sounds like a rare opportunity to advance a wonderful idea, it’s far easier to destroy than create

Davis December 16, 2019 at 10:12 am

Sounds like insubordination on behalf of the superintendent.
He’s working deals behind the elected, BOE members that hired him.

Now it’s starting to come to light. The catch it that NHS is now open to even more out-of-towners. I have no issue with a regional magnet, etc. but this a b.s. deal.

Bob Duff simple discredits everything the BOE has been working on for the past 5 years or so with one press conference. It shows how disconnected he is.

Norwalk needs funds to deal with the increase in ELL students, Norwalk needs funds to build/fix elementary schools based on professional facilities studies and he comes out of left field with “Let’s build a new NHS.”. That’s great, I’m all for it but how about you get some funds for the things we really need right now!

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