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Consultants recommend ‘one school renovation a year’

Jana Silsby of DLR Group explains facets of the new Norwalk Public Schools facilities study during Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting.

NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk would ideally spend $20-30 million a year for two decades to update its schools, according to consultants hired to study the district’s facilities and advise the Board of Education.

“There’s probably some sticker shock when we look at these numbers, but it is not surprising if you’re looking at other districts that are investing as they should in their schools,” Rachel Pampel of Newman Architects said Tuesday.  

The numbers stemming from the 12-week study by Newman + DLR Group actually indicate up to $35 million in year one, to address “critical maintenance” and “critical multi-school projects.” Recommendations were made based on a “tiering” system, designed to make it equitable.

“Every school was, was basically given scores between one and five, one means it’s basically non-existent or needs replacement. And then five means that it’s functions excellently. The majority of all the schools were somewhere between a two and a 4.5,” Jana Silsby of DLR Group said. “And well, that then helped us develop the tiers, along with the physical assessment criteria.”

“We’ve all heard a million times that … the loudest, squeaky wheel is the one who gets to the oil,” Pampel said. “And so the intent and the way that we set all of these assessments up and the analysis was to stay away from that, and really focused on consistent criteria and data and data driven recommendations.”

The result is a recommendation to, again, get the “critical” stuff done in year one and then address these tier one schools with full renovations in years two to five:

  • Fox Run Elementary School
  • Naramake Elementary School
  • West Rocks Middle School

 

That first stage, years two to five, would also include renovating the existing Columbus Magnet School and build a new South Norwalk pre-K-5 school.

The tier one schools “also have the farthest to go in terms of meeting current standards for ventilation and air conditioning, which we’ve seen is become extra extra key coming out of COVID, but as we’ve been saying is also very key to educational outcomes,” Pampel said.

Years six to 10 would address:

  • Central Preparation Kitchen
  • Nathan Hale Middle School
  • Roton Middle School
  • Wolfpit Elementary School

 

And years 11 to 15 would include:

  • Marvin Elementary School
  • Rowayton Elementary School
  • Silvermine Dual Language Magnet School
  • Tracey Magnet School

 

Former Facilities Committee Chairman Mike Barbis, who shepherded the last facilities study in 2015, pushed back on many of the consultants’ conclusions – presented in a preliminary form, a summary of the results, ahead of an expected 459-page report.

“A lot of our schools don’t have air conditioning at all. Some of those schools are tier two. So I’m kind of surprised like, why they’re not in tier one if they don’t have air conditioning,” he said.

The recommendations factored in the ongoing effort to add air conditioning to schools, Pampel replied.

“There are short term interventions already planned,” she said. “And what we would recommend is that you go with your short-term interventions that are functional. And then because of the way state funding works, and because of the efficiencies that you can get from larger innovations rather than just targeted HVAC upgrades, that you then do have a full system rework” when the tier two work is done, “is about when the AC units that are in progress will be reaching the end of their useful life.”

“These kind of interim-air conditioning steps are, to put it nicely, bogus,” Barbis said. “…It’s not real air conditioning. It’s better than nothing, granted, but it’s not what, you know, schools that are fully air-conditioned benefit from.”

“I think there’s only so much that you can bite off at one time and be successful. And in some cases, you have to be able to pace yourself,” Silsby replied.

But, “If it comes to a place where you know, all of a sudden there’s a grant for centralized air, and you can get it into a bunch of schools, then we would never say don’t do that,” Pampel said. “This is just the best recommendations that that we can make based on the pragmatic understanding of the big picture.”

On another note, Barbis commented, “the useful life of the school building is, in your book, is 20 years, or 30.”

Not necessarily, Pam Loeffelman of DLR Group said. “It depends on when it was built. 60s buildings don’t have the same useful life, as, say, a 1920s building.”

“When you have a school that was built in the 1920s, and has just a really good structure, and it has a beautiful edifice, and it’s just like, really some wonderful spaces that are oftentimes in the that vintage of school, the school itself can have a life that’s perpetual, as long as it’s being upgraded,” Silsby said. But, “Mechanical systems typically only have a life of about 20 to 25 years, the roof will be somewhere between 25 and 30. Windows they’re, you know, around 30.”

The report also proposes providing at least one pre-K class at every elementary school through the district, Silsby said. The pre-K children shown in the data “do exist,” Pampel said. “Many of them are currently in alternative pre k options.”

Expanding Columbus Magnet School would relieve population pressure at the middle schools,” Silsby said.

Critical needs include “maintenance items, such as broken or malfunctioning equipment, or hazardous conditions,” Pampel said. The first year should also include upgrades to flexible furniture and mechoshades, “because these items have the most return on education.”

A mechoshade “a roller shade, that actually instead of being solid allows for filtered light, and views out while still controlling glare,” Silsby explained. Connecting students with the outdoors results in better education, consultants said.

Addressing the critical needs in year one results in an equitable spread of repairs across all the schools, Pampel said.

Consultants reaffirmed the 2015 assessment that the bathrooms need work, Pampel said.

“On the outside because many of them or almost all of them are clean, and very well-maintained, they seem to be in good shape. But …many of the fixtures are actually past the end of their useful life and have issues like clogs, that are a really big issue, because they can cause you to have to shut the bathrooms down.

In addition, there are accessibility concerns and “the majority of the fixtures, even if they’re functioning well are inefficient, which causes excess water and sewer costs.”

Those are year one recommendations.

The Common Council recently approved nearly $1.5 million to renovate school bathrooms as needed as soon as possible Mayor Harry Rilling said the work would begin in July.

As for sticker shock, the cost estimates are “not surprising for a district of Norwalk size, they do relate to about a renovation of a school a year,” Pampel said Tuesday. Middle schools cost more than elementary schools and high schools are more than middle schools, “so the breakdown is around 20 to 30 million of spending a year.”

Consultants emphasized that the long-term projections do not allow for escalating costs. The previous study didn’t “necessarily include soft costs or escalation credits,” Loeffelman said.

That study “was asking a different question than we were here,” Pampel said. “So it’s not to say that, that it was a bad report, but to recognize that the question that was asking was not as holistic as the one that we were asking those schools.”
Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella began the presentation by noting that school evolve, the “need to make adjustments to our educational structure to align to what the workforce is demanding.” The goal was to set a 20-year trajectory, she said.

The discussion touched on outdoor experiences and “inquiry-based learning” and “enriched learning.”

“I’m not even kidding, even the fifth through eighth graders made this statement that ‘they’re really wanting to have an inquiry based learning model,’” Silsby said. “It should be a cycle of learning with different activities, and different activities take different types of spaces.”

Loeffelman spoke of a “General Accounting Office report about the state of our schools that kind of was submitted to Congress (a couple decades ago). And it really talked about deferred maintenance. It’s an interesting point in time, because, you know, there is a lot more research on how kids learn and whatever.”

She expects continuing discussions, “particularly triggered by all of the conversations around COVID,” about equity and “multiple components that really allow your buildings to function appropriately, and allow your teachers, your students to do their job of teaching and learning,” she said. “Conversations with funding agencies… are happening all the time around policy and funding…. it’s changing. So I would just put that out as perhaps an optimistic note.”

Estrella said, “I’m hoping that this will propel more conversations with Common Council, with our mayor who has been working with us and in trying to address some of the facilities we need. Hopefully this builds something … for the community to understand that deferred maintenance has an additional cost associated to it, the more we wait, the more it’s going to cost and the more our systems will deteriorate.”

2021 0420 Norwalk Facilities Plan Study-BOE Report Out-Final-R2

11 comments

Patrick Cooper April 22, 2021 at 10:04 am

This town, care of 1-party stranglehold – has a mental disease. We simply will NOT talk about the 800 lb. gorilla in the room – the “NEW” Norwalk High School.

Look at the attachment – specifically slide 18. Grading for all the schools. What’s missing? Yep – Norwalk High School. It’s like the first rule of “Fight Club”.

Let’s say (huge “IF”) the 80% of 180m holds – that means we have 144m (re)paid for by the state . So, if the final cost comes in around 250m (low ball estimate) – that means “this” project that shall not be named will eat-up over 100m – or 3-4 years of this construction diet. Nothing else gets done. Kid’s going to their first High School year in 2021 / 2022 will never set foot in the new building as students.

Barbara Meyer-Mitchell April 22, 2021 at 11:56 am

Just to put the sticker shock into context, in my quick analysis, if we assume the census shows we have ~90k residents in Norwalk,$20-30 million is equivalent to $222-333 in additional tax per capita. To generate $20m more the mill rate would need to increase by 1.36, and to generate $30m the mill rate increase would be ~2.04. For further context,that would be closer to the mill rates Norwalk had prior to 2003, when the city began sharply lowering the mill rate. That level of mill rate would place us closer to the levels of Stamford (26.35), Fairfield (26.79), Danbury (27.6), and Wilton (27.4616). If we went a bit higher, we would be more in line with Weston (33.37). Listening to native Norwalkers talk about “the good old days” in Norwalk, I can’t help but think those days were good because the tax level was sufficient to fund the schools, Parks and Rec, DPW, and other vital services. If our resources are too scarce, that is when we get into a place where we have neighborhoods scrapping for resources, and we have large infrastructure needs because we aren’t able to maintain properly. I will need to review the final report, to understand if this is the total cost, or if the city would receive 23-32% reimbursement on this work. This investment will pay off as the city’s school reputation improves, and that in turn will raise the grand list. I hope the city will partner to get this work done.

Bryan Meek April 22, 2021 at 3:39 pm

The only thing more fictitious than the mill rate is the grand list and arbitrary valuations it assigns to way too many properties. The mill rate is always derived from dividing the town’s budget needs against its valuations, bogus or real. The mill rate isn’t the driving force, it’s the result. GASB 101. But for some reason the talking head politicos can’t seem to grasp anything else, except for the MBR phantom menace they like to throw around as well.

In any case, the city certainly should continue to spend $ millions each year planning on things that never happen. At least our legal bills dwarf that I suppose.

Bobby Lamb April 22, 2021 at 6:06 pm

This superintendent is out of control. Demanding the city raise takes while getting tens of millions in federal aid, demanding welcome centers, proposing crazy rushed no playground schools, what’s next? She’s worse than the last guy.

Patrick Cooper April 22, 2021 at 7:58 pm

Norwalk resident taxpayers don’t understand math: it’s why they chose, poorly.

Sticker Shock? Additional tax per capita? Is that how it works?

Payments for schools are largely locally funded. There are state grants, and other revenues. But close to 90% of Norwalk’s budget are funded by property taxes (and personal property taxes). That budget includes the BOE, and the debt payments to borrow for “capital projects”. “Schools”. Per capita how?

Mill rate. This is total confusion. This is short for – Tax Rate. It’s derived from “thousandths”. Do we simply change that to make that math work? Is that how it works? No. Never. Anywhere. Ask Henry. He will laugh.

Aside that you may have different mil rates depending on who is taxing you, the fact is – the first step is valuation – and the second is budget. Those are the key numbers. Mill rate is a tax rate—the amount of tax payable per dollar of the assessed value of a property. To my understanding, the mil rate is a derivation of those two numbers – (Value, and Budget) not the other way around.

Make no mistake – an increase of taxes on a value, does not add value – to the value.

Here is the issue: Norwalk is on a path equivalent to the movie Armageddon. No one will talk about it, no one will address it – but – what will happen to the “valuation’ of Norwalk commercial real estate in the post covid19 world? No one is addressing what this means to the grand list. Seriously, if people are no longer commuting to NYC – why do we support TOD?

Oh, sorry to say – the cost of debt service in the annual Norwalk budget is growing – enough that combined it is greater than Norwalk “police” and “community services” combined. And that’s before the new Norwalk High. Last I saw – our city CFO is ringing cow bells about our financial status. We should listen.

Oh yea, but it’s an election year.

John ONeill April 22, 2021 at 11:22 pm

Based on the experts I’ve talked to Norwalk High project will be a disaster. The footprint along Strawberry Hill will be difficult. The pool will most likely not be covered by 80% state money. The time line will be 2025-2026 at best. The project cost will increase by 5% per year. Norwalk will be on the hook for extra tens of millions..These consultants can take their report and file it in the cabinet that flows into recycle bin…Thanks to Norwalk High disaster. We are not being told the truth. I find that a disgrace. Maybe Barbara can fill in the blanks. My information is solid.

Adolph Neaderland April 23, 2021 at 11:29 am

Patrick’s point is critical, and raises a basic question about the scope of the study and information provided by the sponsor, Education Committee? P&Z? (shades of POCD 19)
The information in the presentation is not detailed enough to support the conclusions.
1: For example, only 251 PK’s from 2000 new apartments? (I feel certain the
recent Pandemic lock-down will result in more) – Page 11
2: Perhaps more germane, there doesn’t appear to include cost for virus mitigating measures that should be included. Dr.Fauci has warned that virus attacks are here to stay.

Need for More Data April 23, 2021 at 12:21 pm

This is a dumb plan. A couple of the schools that won’t see renovations for another 10 or 11 years will each be just under 100 years old at that time. There are other buildings that are also far older than NHS that won’t see badly needed repairs, possibly ever.

Take away the money being poured into a new high school that the board of education never requested, but that is needed for purely political reasons by Bob Duff and possibly the mayor, and the city could significantly renovate all of the schools within relatively few years.

I expect that there will be cost overruns that will add significantly to the City of Norwalk’s promised share of the costs, and so some of those other school projects that will be held off far longer because the city has already reached a critical level of bond indebtedness. Moreover, some of the buildings will have further deteriorated so badly that it will cost far more to fix them. Some will probably have to be demolished and rebuilt.

So what do we have? We have one school that will be brand new and another 19 schools that the city won’t be able to fix. I say again that this is a dumb plan.

Mike Barbis April 24, 2021 at 9:59 am

Need for More Data — you hit the nail on the head. Too bad more people don’t read the comments on NON. The outlook for Norwalk is bleak — uneducated politicos with no plan taking Norwalk down a path of no return. The only hope is on Election Day, November 2, 2021

John Miller April 26, 2021 at 5:48 pm

It’s time to take the Duff Mahal project on the corner of County Street and Strawberry Hill Avenue off the table. We don’t need it and cannot afford it and fix the schools that need to be fixed. Query: How much did the BOE pay these consultants. This is a joke.

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