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Council moves South Norwalk school plan ahead

Demographer Mike Zuba, who worked on the 2015 Facilities plan that inspired new school construction, explains the South Norwalk school district (in pink, at left) to Common Council members during a Jan. 5 meeting on Zoom.

NORWALK, Conn. — The plan to build a new school behind the Nathaniel Ely preschool center has officially been scrapped and the estimated price for a South Norwalk neighborhood school has dropped from $76 million to $72 million.

Common Council members on Jan. 26 gave the legal department the go-ahead to negotiate the price for a property described as only “identified and set forth” in a specific legal memorandum written Dec. 29. This greenlight coincided with approvals to shift capital appropriations away from the planned Ely School, or Norwalk Global Academy, and from the planned renovation of the existing Columbus Magnet School, instead allocating the funds toward the mysterious plan for a South Norwalk neighborhood school.  

No one has directly said where such a school would be built.

A map of South Norwalk, from the City’s GIS ( geographic information system). Highlighted in green is 1 Meadow St. Extension, an 11.74 acre parcel owned by Hatch & Bailey. It’s appraised at $8.1 million.

About a year ago, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella said the City had a 12-acre site in mind for the school. The only South Norwalk site approximating that size is the 11.74-acre Hatch & Bailey property at 1 Meadow St., according to the City’s GIS system. No other parcel comes close to that 12-acre description.

Activist Diane Lauricella criticizes that Meadow Street site as being in a 100-year floodplain.

Council Finance Committee Chairman Greg Burnett (D-At Large), on Jan. 5, observed that South Norwalk by nature has industrial areas, including contractor yards.

Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo agreed that South Norwalk is a mix of zones but said it’s “a long process to change. And it’s really an evolution a time and growth of a community.” He said, “It’s not unusual that all these mixed uses are all intertwined within a small area. …If the goal is to provide a neighborhood school in South Norwalk, it’s very hard to avoid that.”

Council member Darlene Young (D-District B) suggested that Council members “have to be just as diligent and determined as we are about other issues in the city” and work toward zoning changes in the area.

“I understand Mr. Lo’s perspective and point, too, I mean, we’re very limited in space in South Norwalk,” Young said. “And so we have to, you know, utilize the space that we have, but we need to really be forceful and use our voice to this concern as well.”

It was once expected that Columbus Magnet School would move into a new building behind the Nathaniel Ely preschool and adjacent to Roodner Court, but State. Rep. Travis Simms (D-140) and others objected to the planned use of 4 acres of Springwood Ely Park for the new facility, in exchange for land elsewhere in the city. The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) and the National Park Service did not approve the necessary land swap.

Columbus is instead moving into the new lower Ponus school building this fall, at which point it will be renamed Concord Magnet School.

Lo said he wasn’t aware of discussions concerning the eventual fate of the existing Chestnut Street/Concord Street school.

The new school would house 650 K-5 students and 32 preschool students, demographer Mike Zuba said. This, in combination with school choice options, will hopefully eliminate the “District 99” practice of busing South Norwalk children to other parts of the city, as far away as Silvermine, for the simple reason that they do not have a school of their own.

“I know that there’s been ongoing conversations for a number of years now, to make this a possibility for the community for the community. And I think that we are very close to potentially making this happen,” Estrella said.

“We are eliminating the concept and the idea of having to bus children. And I know we’re limited in space,” Young said. “But the reality is there still going to be young people who are bused that live in South Norwalk, but it would hopefully be by choice. The middle school young people will be doing the same thing. But I hope we get to that place with the system where it’s more and more equitable.”

The community rejected a suggestion that two schools be built on the existing Columbus site, the Chestnut Street/Concord Street school.

Lo said about $3.5 million had been spent on the failed Ely school plan, including $1.7 million to acquire property on Tito Court. Tennis courts were moved and there were architectural fees.

Others expressed concerns about the estimate drop from $76 million to $72 million. With Council members Nicole Ayers (D-District A) and Diana Revolus (D-District B) speaking about the need to provide South Norwalk students with equal opportunities, Burnett pointed out that it’s not unusual to approve a special appropriation for unexpected expenses.

The original South Norwalk plan involved two school buildings, Estrella observed. Now, with Columbus going to the lower Ponus building, it’s only one construction project and that’s part of the reason it costs less, she said.

Lo said the price is based on the per pupil allocation from the state.

“We are lowering the cap to 72 based on current numbers, but it is projected that the possibility that we will come back for additional money, even within the next few months, to depending on what the acquisition costs are and things like that,” Lo said.

In addition to the property acquisition issue, there may be a need to improve sidewalks in the area.

“This project is very preliminary at this point,” Lo said.

“We are looking to apply for state grant application by June 30 of this year,” Lo said. “Thereafter, we go out to RFP of architects and for construction managers, the design phase. From that point on, it’s about a year and a half. From then on construction is going to take another year and a half. So altogether three years from the summer, from June 30, this year.”

“As a parent, I would like it to be a building that almost invites that outside in,” Ayers said. “But I also want it to be constructed in a way that is futuristic and sustainable as far as green development. And I know we’re probably not at that stage yet, because you can’t kind of do all of those things until you really know where you’re going to be. But I don’t think it’s too early to bring that into the conversation, because it speaks to some things that other people have said about having a walkable school, a school that the neighborhood could tie into.”

Young spoke of safe pathways and a “balancing act,” as “regardless of the tax base, and the business and all those other things, safety for our children should come first.”

Zuba said 1,000 children live in South Norwalk.

“I wouldn’t use the prior uses or the direction zoning’s going as a reason to not put a school in there,” Zuba said. “I think everything’s a balance. And it’s a communicative process. And you know, you’re going through the zoning study, it’s understanding everybody’s viewpoint on what you’re trying to accomplish within this area. And there’s importance of growing the tax base, there’s importance of putting viable uses to land, but there’s also a greater importance to be able to kind of provide that opportunity there for students that historically haven’t had it and do it in a way that adds the community, do it in a way that it doesn’t create a conflict.”

Comments

11 responses to “Council moves South Norwalk school plan ahead”

  1. DryAsABone

    How much does it cost to build a school in the rest of the US? Seven million?
    Corrupticut is soooooo out of touch with reality and residents of this state deserve more.
    And as for location…at least Norwalk uses up undesirable industrial land. Next door in Scamford they lean towards swampland.

  2. John O’Neill

    Some thoughts for today:
    1) Open Choice is a Tremendous Idea…We should have Open Choice for every child in Norwalk. This would allow taxpayers to find out once and for all who the good administrators are and who the horrible administrators are. It’s always been an open secret in school circles for years. Let’s bring it to light by allowing kids to go to any school they want…But then again, we’ll have a few empty schools with those principals with nothing to do. Come to think of it, that might be progress.
    2) Those quoted in the story would leave you with the impression they’re heroes for saving the city money. In my opinion, that can’t be further from the truth.

  3. Katherine M Deamer

    I own two pieces of property across from Columbus School on Concord St.
    I wonder if people who own and are part of all these great plans are even considered in all your plans. It seems to me you have already spent more than enough to update the existing Columbus school, which though an older building is a better and more solid built structure than anything that would be built today. Every time plans are made this city runs rough shod over existing tax paying residents. The land lays fallow for 20, 30 or more years and all the millions spent making plans that will never see the light of day and will in fact be changed to some other outmoded use like the mall on Main Street built during a time when mall shopping centers are becomming a thing of the past. Further no matter what cost amount is put on the project, it will cost twice of more before it even comes near to fruition. I do not see the costs assiciated with the needed revamping of the city plumbing and electric that will be required for any of this to move forward. A good deal of SONO is part of the 100 year flood plan, unless you have the money to get your property exempted. My two homes have been on concord for over 100 years and never had an inch of flood water. Every scheme appears to have its own agenda, without thought to those who will actually be affected.

  4. Stuart Garrelick

    Please help me understand.
    The “other” side of busing is to achieve an integrated student body. What percentage of the 1,000 children in South Norwalk are minority? Unless we can imagine a school so special that it will encourage reverse busing, how do we avoid creating a ghetto, minority school in South Norwalk?
    As long as our neighborhoods are not integrated busing cannot be eliminated while integrated schools are maintained.
    Or am I missing something?

  5. Admiral

    I find it insulting at this point in time in our nation’s history that children in South Norwalk still have to be bussed all over the city to get an education.
    The families in South Norwalk should have their own community school in which they feel proud of.
    Bussing these children to predominately “white” area schools such as Silvermine, Rowayton, Naramake, Cranbury, Fox Run, etc…is absurd in this day in age. When you bus students out of your own neighborhood, you are basically telling them that they can’t get a quality education where you live, so you must get bussed to other schools.
    This is long overdue.

  6. Alex Kemeny

    School choice is a win win for all involved. When families choose where the children want to go to school, they are more invested in their education. One reason Columbus students did so well was that parents were required to be involved somewhere or somehow in the school (and sign a commitment statement). Am I wrong? However, I foresee one problem. School Choice will not work unless students have transportation to the school of choice. What information they have neglected to relay is that you have a choice as long as you (your parent) supplies transportation to and from your school of choice. Am I wrong? Think not. Busing will cost $$$.

  7. Piberman

    How do we get our BOE which seems to spend all of its energies building new schools to focus on getting our high paid school administrators to educate our children so they meet CT Dept of Education standards ? Isn’t that the BOE’s role ? Isn’t the BOE embarrassed that most of our grads do not meet CT Edu Dept standards for graduation ? Nor ever secure 4 yr college degrees when 45% of City adults have secured them ?

    For many years Norwalk was disparaged as the “hole in the middle of the donut”. Isn’t our BOE embarrassed that our surrounding towns each have high performing public schools while Norwalk’s schools continue to fail meeting CT Edu Dept standards for graduation ? Is that why we’re spending $200 million annually ? For a public school system that needs major remediation ? Where are the concerns of our Common Council and City Hall that our BOE is failing our students ? Are they not important ?

  8. Mitch Adis

    Darien just voted against Open Choice. So, all those people who believe Black Lives Matter, don’t believe in equality in education.

  9. Just Curious

    Maybe a base salary with incentives for student graduation percentages and acceptance to colleges would have them focus more on the students than buildings.

  10. s

    All talk and No work. Everything is just a planning and planning and nothing gets done in Norwalk. what a waste of time and energy.

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