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Opinion: Can Norwalk truly afford a new high school?

Bruce Kimmel

The state-initiated construction of a new $225 million Norwalk High School, projected to cost the city at least $50 million over a yet-to-be-determined number of years, may not delay the Board of Education’s major building projects. But paying off the debt for the high school will probably have an adverse impact on other capital expenditures. In fact, there is already evidence the proposed high school has begun to delay certain capital initiatives.

A few years back, when the BOE first recommended its five-year facilities upgrade, replete with new schools, renovated-as-new schools, and systemwide facility upgrades, the city pushed back, arguing the plan would take Norwalk’s debt service beyond the limits recommended by the rating agencies and thus jeopardize the city’s AAA credit rating. The plan was modified and ultimately adopted, even though the projected debt would remain beyond acceptable thresholds for several years.

After discussions with consultants, the city agreed to finance the five-year plan, even with the excessive debt, because we had an extended-year plan to bring our debt ratios – such as per capita debt or debt service as a percentage of operating expenses – back to acceptable levels. Which means our debt service might still be above standard benchmarks. Which further means construction of the high school might require another debt-reduction plan to pass muster with the rating agencies.

Predictably, the Finance Director’s 2020-21 capital budget recommendation addresses the importance of controlling the overall amount of debt the city is carrying, which determines what we can afford to bond. It’s fair to assume that, without the $50 million expenditure for the new high school, his 2020-21 recommendations would have been considerably different.

Why else would the Finance Director not recommend funding the desperately needed Silvermine driveway project, cafeteria renovations at Naramake and Nathan Hale, a substantial portion of funds for curriculum material, critically needed security enhancements, the entire capital repairs account, and the entire instructional technology request. And it makes little sense to delay purchasing furniture for the new school at Ponus.

There are other issues besides debt service to consider:

First and foremost is the actual cost of the new high school. In December, when the initiative was first announced, the price tag was said to be $200 million. But two months later, the Finance Director’s capital budget recommendation pegged the cost at $225 million. And right now, the BOE is working with a consultant to come up with a real price tag, one based on the educational specifications of the school. We should keep our fingers crossed.

Secondly, a variety of questions have been raised about the new school’s impact on future operating budgets. The addition of 200 out-of-district students to Norwalk High will require teachers (with salary, insurance and pension costs), increased expenditures on technology, curriculum material, custodial services, as well as basic maintenance and utilities. This could (and I stress “could” because it is not clear how, or even if, the two-way “student seat exchange” program will work) add a significant amount to the city’s operating budget.

Norwalk’s student population is increasing rapidly, which accounts for much of the increase in the BOE’s most recent operating budget request. In this context, there needs to be absolute clarity on the operational impact of 200 out-of-district students. (In Norwalk, schools receive direct per pupil allocations; the allocation for high schools is about $8,500 per student. It is about one-third higher for English Language Learners and Special Education students.)

Many residents are aware of the long-term operating expenses associated with the much-needed construction of the four new/renovated-as-new schools in the board’s five-year facilities plan. The same goes for the proposed construction of a new Cranbury School. However, unlike the Norwalk High School project, these facility plans were predicated on the long-overdue need to address overcrowding and future increases in student enrollment.

As city agencies discuss the Norwalk High School project, it would be worthwhile to carefully examine its impact on the city’s long-term debt service, which should not exceed 10 percent of overall expenses for a sustained period. It would also be beneficial to nail down the additional operating costs taxpayers would have to bear should the new high school be built.

Bruce Kimmel is a former Common Council member who led the Finance Committee and a former Board of Education member.

8 comments

Norwalk is losing February 20, 2020 at 10:21 pm

Bruce, why do you even care. I’m a 30 something living in this town and I can’t wait for property to rise so I can leave. You seem older, educated, and retired. Leave this alone and go relax on a beach with an umbrella in your drink. If I make it to your age, I know I won’t be wasting my time worrying about a school. There’s more to life…

john flynn February 20, 2020 at 11:36 pm

I have asked multiple times over the years for the balance sheet and income statements for the City. I am sure a retired Police Chief receiving multiple incomes has no idea or any concern for anything other than his retirement. The mill rate, the debt service, the expense structure, etc. We replaced all the buses in one year. Soon they will recommend all new electric buses. We needed tax relief for the businesses years ago. Houses on Ledge Rd pay over $30,000 per year, none of them are selling. People complained and their taxes were raised. My father is 83 and lives on that street. Will a retired engineer in the 142 be forced to pay for a school for the undocumented after paying for every child in the 140 to go to school for 30 years? Lets sell.

Joel February 21, 2020 at 6:53 am

While the concept of a new High School looks interesting on paper, as a taxpayer it comes down for me to a “like to have” vs a “need to have” analysis. Real estate taxes are getting far too frothy in Norwalk and, in my opinion, there has been a callow disregard for many years when it comes to handing the bill to taxpayers for reckless spending projects, unnecessary litigation, unjustifiable tax credits to developers, and more. This proposed High School idea needs a clear- headed and honest rethink, with the fate of Norwalk taxpayers being first and foremost.

John ONeill February 21, 2020 at 10:04 am

@Norwalk is Losing: You can learn a thing or two from people like Bruce Kimmel. That is, if you listen. What I’m reading into your note is frustration and apathy. Get involved. We need younger people to pick up the baton.
@Bruce — Please keep us informed from your perch. We need to stay informed and your views are appreciated. Too many people in Norwalk don’t know enough of the inner workings of Educational system to develop an informed opinion of their own. WHICH, gives some of our politicians free reign to do as they please. AS long as they know how to put together a top notch brochure. So, please keep writing. With a little luck some of us will listen.

Tom Belmont February 21, 2020 at 12:35 pm

Andrew Carnegie gave us empty Libraries all over the country. He paid for it. He could afford it.It was his money. A new school for Norwalk?

Norwalk Is Winning! February 21, 2020 at 12:52 pm

Bruce — Your headline isn’t worked properly. It should read, “Can Norwalk truly not afford a to build new high school?” It’s about the kids, not your wallet. We need better education, better services to give these kids a chance once they graduate.

Tysen Canevari February 21, 2020 at 11:41 pm

Bruce Kimmel appreoved a $40,000 traffic study to change strat time of school? Fiscally responsible? haha what were the results? A 30 second longer wait at the light near NHS? What a joke

M Murray February 23, 2020 at 8:24 am

A wise man once said “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help. ” Why is the State so anxious to find 80% of this project? Try going back to them and say you are willing to do this, but without the requirement of accepting student from other districts. Or say that you will accept them, but the Norwalk School District will accept applications and retains all rights to select which students are accepted into the program. And let’s make sure the state knows that all participating districts will be required to fully fund the per capital expense for the students they send to Norwalk. And how did BRIDGEPORT become involved when they are 3 districts away. It’s a nice financial gift in the beginning, but is it one of those “gifts that keep on giving”? Is it an obscured attempt to start a regionalized school plan that has been soundly rejected by most districts? Is it the start of the state forcing regionalization of high schools one district at a time by this “gift”? Certainly this Governor wouldn’t try to pull a fast one by saying one thing while having a hidden agenda. (Tolls for trucks only…)

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