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.”