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.”
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.
“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.