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Duff defends ‘backing in’ new NHS as ‘political heat’ burns

NORWALK, Conn. — Political games are being played with the proposal to build a new Norwalk High School, Mayor Harry Rilling and Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz said Monday.

Norwalk Public Schools’ refusal to put the request into their capital budget proposal was “very upsetting to us,” Dachowitz said to the Board of Estimate and Taxation. This, after Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton told the Planning Commission last week that he expected Mayor Harry Rilling to add the school to the budget at the end of the process.

Much water has gone over the dam since State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) and other City leaders surprised Norwalk in December with the announcement that the City would build a new Norwalk High and take advantage of 80 percent reimbursement from the state. An anti-Duff faction has vocally tried to cast doubt while Rilling, Duff and others offer reassurances that current school projects will not fall to the wayside in favor of the high school construction.

Some question the reimbursement promise and decry a lack of transparency. They say the Board of Education was not informed, although Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski was part of the team that came up with the idea.

Others fear that what looks like a financial bargain with the state could come with hidden costs tantamount to sticking a toe – or perhaps a whole foot – into the murky waters of regionalization, though the school would only invite 200 students from out of town, 100 from Stamford or Bridgeport, and 100 from the smaller, wealthy communities that surround Norwalk.

Let’s review.

 

 

Reimbursement

Norwalk would qualify for 80 percent reimbursement by creating a pilot program to ease economic segregation, Duff said in December.

This has evolved to proposing that the nearby urban kids, from Stamford and Bridgeport, attend the P-Tech (Pathways to Technology) Academy and get a leg up on a lucrative career. The other 100 out-of-towners would attend the Arts Academy that Adamowski has been hoping to create at Norwalk High School. Konstantinos (Kosta) Diamantis, Director of the Connecticut Office of School Construction Grants & Review, pointed out in December that the State would prefer to regionalize expensive construction projects such as a black box theater.

Former Board of Education member Bryan Meek, a Republican who served as treasurer to Duff’s opponent in the last election, questions the 80 percent promise.

“New Lebanon school in Greenwich was promised 80% reimbursement and just recently closed out at 64%. A similar shortfall would cost Norwalk an additional $32 million and we’d get to pay 4% on that for an additional 20 years,” Meek wrote in a recent NancyOnNorwalk comment.

Former Mayoral candidate Lisa Brinton is also citing Greenwich in questioning the promise of State funding.

Greenwich Communications Director Sasha Houlihan explained the situation to NancyOnNorwalk.

“At the outset of the project, the school would’ve been eligible for up to 80% state reimbursement given the demographics of the school,” she wrote. “However, currently we’ve been reimbursed roughly 65%, as you mention below, because we did have expenses that fell outside of eligibility, for example going over the square footage allowance for eligible reimbursement. We suggest working directly with the state throughout your building process should you have questions about specific allowances and eligibility.”

Jim Giuliano of Construction Solutions Group, the city’s project manager for new school construction, and Norwalk Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo have routinely discussed the ins and outs of school reimbursement from the state.

So how do the reimbursements work? Would Norwalk put up $225 million and then wait for the state to pay it back?

No.

“According to Tom Hamilton, districts file reimbursement requests with the State as work is underway on a project.  The State withholds 11% percent of each submission until the project is completed,” Norwalk Public Schools Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams wrote in an email.

 

 

‘Not your first rodeo’

Duff has been relatively quiet on the issue since December, but a Freedom of Information request originally submitted by Donna Smirniotopoulos got everyone talking.

NancyOnNorwalk also put in an FOI request.

Although Duff had promised at the December announcement that NHS would be on the school priority list, it’s not.

“After the grilling I willingly took last night, and the Mayor’s Statement read by Erica DePalma, it was very disappointing to see that the Norwalk High School project was not included on the State’s ‘Priority List’ today as promised,” Adamowski wrote to Duff on Dec. 13.

“What I believe is the case is that while NHS is not physically on the list, it is budgeted in the overall school construction number that Kosta just put out,” Duff replied.

Diamantis said Monday that he doesn’t know what Duff is referring to.

However, in a Dec. 14 email to Adamowski, he wrote, “Mr superintendent not your first rodeo and quite familiar with the process…. The plan always was to either one back it on {to the priority list} or two follow the process which you are on and simply have the senator file for reimbursement increase if it satisfies the new SDE commisssioners’ {cq}vision.”

Adamowski attended the discussions that began in May, Duff said at the December press conference.

The proposal has support from Gov. Ned Lamont, the Office of Policy and Management (OPM), DAS, Senate leadership and Norwalk House Democratic members, and “the project will then be backed on to the list once the governor signs the bill,” Duff said in his email. “If we did the state bill first, we would have to wait another year to be on the priority list (December 2020) and begin construction a year after that therefore increasing costs for the state/city. With everyone’s support that doesn’t make sense. (If there is confusion it may be because we kept going back and forth in the meetings if we would actually need legislation.)”

Duff claimed he mentioned “backing it onto the list” at the press conference; NancyOnNorwalk has no record of him saying it.

“State statutes are clear as are local rules,” Diamantis wrote to Adamowski. “We follow them all and for that reason we meet with all districts in advance to navigate the hurdles and issues as partners. The ‘grilling you took or I take as professionals in our field is part of the commitment we make to the children in this state and our responsibility to taxpayers. I see it your job to develope the program that meets the new commissioners vision the delegations vision to promote its merit if it warrants merit and {my job is} to build and· follow the rules .”

NHS FOI_Emails_mid Dec 2019 1.30.20

NHS email exchange 19-1215 Diamantis

 

‘Easier to back it onto the list’

The plan to back it onto the list was devised to get the project started quickly, Duff said Monday. This will save on costs.

“There’s not a lot on the school construction list, as far as costs go for the state this year,” Duff said.

The priority list was released in December and offers these statistics for “estimated grant obligations:”

  • 2014/15: $724,819,100
  • 2015/16: $307,877,737
  • 2016/17: $505,697,620
  • 2017/18: $315,404,596
  • 2018/19: $418,035,720
  • Jan. 2020: $209,152,199

 

Those are authorizations, except for this year’s figure, which is a proposal.

Kevin Coughlin, spokesman for Senate Democrats, recently provided NancyOnNorwalk with a list of payments that have gone out to cities and towns for school construction:

  • 2014: $263,611,094
  • 2015: $406,729,270
  • 2016: $418,036,816
  • 2017: $409,860,867
  • 2018: $298,841,821
  • 2019: $262,719,201

 

 

“It’s easier to back it onto the list,” Duff said Monday. “So that’s exactly what’s going to happen. So once the Board of Ed and the city do their part, and the state legislation is done, it’ll get put on physically put on the list though the money is reserved for the new Norwalk High School, already.”

Board of Education members are set to consider the education specifications (Ed Specs) Wednesday evening. Ed Specs are the first part of coming up with a design for a new school.

“Because of the fact that an 80 percent reimbursable doesn’t come along very often we thought that it was an opportunity to move this along quicker by backing it onto the list, provided that the Board of Ed and the City approve the plan, which is why the Mayor and the Superintendent were at all the meetings,” Duff said.

Duff said in December that meetings were held May 3, Aug. 29, Oct. 2 and Nov. 6.

The proposal also postulates a tuition swap with surrounding communities. Adamowski has said that he needs to talk to his counterparts in surrounding communities to see if they’re interested.

“It’s premature for those conversations, as the Ed Specs haven’t even been approved and submitted yet,” Wilcox Williams said on Feb. 5.

 

 

‘Purely political’

The new high school is not on Norwalk Public Schools’ capital budget request.

“They want it to be seen as the Mayor’s request only,” Dachowitz said Monday. “They were side by side with us with all of the meetings, whether they were here in Norwalk or up in Hartford. They stated they wanted the school, they stated it historically, they stated it on Friday when we met with them.”

Rilling said that he “called a timeout” in the discussion and asked Adamowski and Hamilton if they want a new Norwalk High School with a $50 million cost estimate now or would they rather wait five years and get a $250 million high school with 32 percent reimbursement.

“Both of them stated, ‘Absolutely, absolutely.’ They want to do Norwalk High School now. So I told them, ‘If you don’t, let me know and I’ll mention it publicly, that you don’t want the school.’”

Adamowski and Hamilton committed to going ahead, Dachowitz said.

“They’re doing one thing privately, and they’re saying something publicly, simply for political gain,” Dachowitz said. “And this disingenuousness was purely political for the Mayor to take any heat for the project and to disassociate the public schools from this joint program.”

On Tuesday, Dachowitz told Common Council members, “Look, I’m all for buying a $225 million school when someone’s paying me 175 for it. That’s smart. Wouldn’t do it if they don’t want it.”

Wilcox Williams released a reply:

“The Mayor has previously indicated that priority school renovation, repair and construction projects would not be impacted by the addition of a new Norwalk High.  In discussions that Dr. Adamowski and Tom Hamilton had with him last month while Mr. Dachowitz was away,  all agreed that it was premature to include the project before the Board had approved Ed Specs, and that once the Ed Specs, cost estimates and architectural drawings were ready, the Mayor would then add the project under his authority per the City Charter.

“As a result, we’re greatly puzzled by Mr. Dachowitz’s assertion that NPS has ‘refused’ to include it. But we’re confident that the Mayor will honor his prior commitment on this.”

 

 

8 comments

Isabelle Hargrove February 12, 2020 at 8:01 am

#1 – A lie

The quote from Senator Duff: “…it’ll get put on physically put on the list though the money is reserved for the new Norwalk High School, already.”

It pains me to say it, but there is no other way to characterize this statement; it’s a lie, pure and simple. NO MONEY IS RESERVED. It might be promised in exchange for Duff’s support on tolls or school regionalization. But, let’s be clear, the 2020 school construction request that was already sent to Lamont for a total of $209,152,199 does not include any reserves. Any new project would have to be approved by Lamont and voted by the FULL legislature. Notice that the $175,000 would nearly double the total amount for school construction statewide and Norwalk is already getting a piece of the current amount…

I would encourage Nancy to pursue proof about this fictitious reserve…

#2 – More lies and unsavory threats

“Rilling said that he “called a timeout” in the discussion and asked Adamowski and Hamilton if they want a new Norwalk High School with a $50 million cost estimate now or would they rather wait five years and get a $250 million high school with 32 percent reimbursement.”

The 80% reimbursement is because it is a regional, interdistrict school, not because it is happening now. And where did the “either today or 5 years from now” come from? And again, mone of this is approved or real yet, it is more akin to a teenage boy night dream…

Rilling: So I told them, ‘If you don’t, let me know and I’ll mention it publicly, that you don’t want the school.’”

Is this a Scorsese movie about the mafia?

Why all the lies and arm twisting? Why wasn’t the Board of Ed included in the meetings and discussions about this huge project?

Norwalkers should demand transparency and honesty from their elected officials. We should also fight hard against usurping power from any of our duly elected local officials (in this case the Board of Ed). Good governance, without corruption, is impossible without honesty, transparency, and balance of power.

This project could be a wonderful opportunity or an expensive long term liability for a city struggling to meet its current obligations and with an already skyrocketing education budget that is cannibalizing all other city services.

The devil is in the details. With this rush to action and chaos, I am afraid that Norwalk is being pressured to make commitments without understanding the long term cost implications and risks. Taxpayers once more will be left holding the bag. This is no way to govern.

M Murray February 12, 2020 at 8:04 am

This is the problem with our whole tax structure where the State and Federal government race much more than they need to run the necessary functions of state and local government. They then redistribute the excess they stole from you back down the food chain with conditions and requirements that are not in your best interest. If the state and Federal government only taxed Norwalk citizens only what was necessary without having excess to fund back out, Norwalk could tax what they needed and keep that money within Norwalk and have plenty to build schools with no conditions forced upon them. Norwalk citizens pay over 5,000 per return in state income tax, which is one of the highest in the state. Yet they get some of the least funding back. This redistribution of wealth to other communities is what makes it unaffordable to build Norwalk schools with Norwalk money, and now in order to do so Norwalk has to beg for money from the state and endure their condition of forced regionalization and end up paying annually for out of district students to attend Norwalk schools in perpetuity.

Mellania February 12, 2020 at 8:12 am

Hi everyone, Mellania here. I’d like to talk to you about bullying and schools. Sometimes there are bigger persons who like to coerce vulnerable people for satisfaction. The purpose of that satisfaction is often unknown, sometimes it’s for show, sometimes it’s for ego, sometimes it’s for validation or lunch money Etcetera.

Everybody likes to complain about the new high school which looks like your home-State bullying you taxpaying sheep. What’s ok is that it only costs Noyank’ers 50 million over 30 years so if there are 90 thousand sheep in Norwalk, every sheep would only have to pay $556 for the school or only $19 per year, for that little city portion you’ve been fooled on. Now, not all sheep pay tax, and some population are youthful lambs, so it actually costs true adult taxpaying sheep higher. The good news is although the Hartford bullies stuff Norwalk sheep in lockers with this school and the ugly excessive big bridge for their train, your loan for the school has not yet started.

I got bullied sometimes so I started an organization called Bee Best. This has really helped me stand up for what’s right. People call my boss a bully for his tweets inside the White House, but he is a nice man. Sometimes it’s hard to look at him, and we don’t horse play ever, but like his Senator friends indicate you just have to be ignorant of reality sometimes and pull the wool over your eyes during trials in life, in order to be soft obedient sheep.

We all must do everything we can for my big boss so he can force bazaarly expensive nonsense down our throats as if we’re sheep lost in a space force. Do not worry if he’s not contributing anything in taxes himself, he likes for big bullies to give less because weak sheep’s lunch money can pay for his part, and MOST important he’s great at skinning wool off the next generations unborn backs, to provide the slaughter houses’ corporate tax cuts today.. This secret tactic fools thirsty sheep into voting for his free money, even though it hurts their great grand-sheep. My big boss does not balance dollars and common cents so sometimes it’s easier to cover your eyes and nod to acquit his cheating your democratic sheep election.

It could be worse for you, the GOP Senators are very much weaker sheep that have no spines. I think your area bee’s better because as sheep in the Northeast pastures you have educations and values. Even tho you adult sheep get bullied in schools also, I hope the one you buy is nice.

Bee Best Everyone

Mellania

Post.script. As the immigrant sheep from Yugoslavia say.. “bahhh”

John ONeill February 12, 2020 at 8:41 am

Thanks Nancy for the update. I don’t know if anyone else feels this situation is now “CLEAR AS MUD”!! If something is not done the proper way at the beginning, it is ripe for disaster long term. Sure, we’d love to have a school for
$50 Million — BUT, why would DUFF and his minions not do it the right way. The planning and execution for a project this size takes years in every other case. Why should this be different? Doesn’t the opaqueness of this scare anyone. It certainly should. If this is a payback for Norwalk legislators vote and tolls, let us know. Shouldn’t taxpayers have a voice in the process. Wouldn’t Mayor Pete give his constituents the time of day?? —

Bryan Meek February 12, 2020 at 8:58 am

At first I thought Mr. Daschowitz would be a breath of fresh air after the wet blanket he replaced, but now I see it is business as usual.

Accusing NPS staff of playing politics? WTF? Who is it who just scrapped $50 million worth of other city investments much more desperately needed including schools, parks, and other areas of the city? Who was it who said NHS wouldn’t impact any other areas of the city?

And where is Bob Duff while all of this is going on? Up in New Hampshire campaigning for a Mayor from Indiana. Meanwhile, there is still no bill introduced that is needed to bend the laws to make this happen. And where exactly is the money from a state that continues to see its debt rating spiral even after cutting pension funding by 60%? Where is the bill? There’s bills for legalizing dope, taxing insulin, and taxing the internet. Where’s the bill for funding 80% of regional school construction before Norwalk gets to pony up $ millions on plans?

Recall, Bob Duff couldn’t even get his bill passed last session that removed autonomy from the board to pick it’s own chair. That would have cost ZERO except for the ink and paper it was written on. Now we are supposed to believe he is going to get $200 million (and climbing) from one of the most financially insolvent states in the union?

And meanwhile there is an $8 million annual hole in the operating budget thanks to Bob’s inability to actually get what the district needs which is fair stage funding.

The PATCH just posted an article showing Norwalk paid $155 million in state income taxes on 42,000 returns, while West Hartford paid $200 million on 28,000 returns. If you grind that out West Hartford residents earn 2x as much as Norwalk residents.

This year West Hartford will get $22 million in ECS funding compared to Norwalk’s $12 million.

Bob says its all legal. Is it ethical for him to trade away what is due to Norwalk for his shiny titlle.

Can anyone ask Bob Duff to take accountability for his total failure as our Senator? Can he give any answers other than calling people racists who call him out for his failures?

Lisa H February 14, 2020 at 1:24 am

This is not a tuition swap. This is a seat swap, student for student. What if we wind up with 100 students needing special education services? Will Norwalk now be on the hook for these out-of-town students’ special needs?

Also, Senator Duff was crystal clear in a meeting at the library on Wednesday evening that he knows nothing about the arts/performance school and it is not a part of this regional/inter-district/call-it-what-you-want new high school. Does that mean that the cost for the additional building requirements for the arts/performance school will be borne by Norwalk taxpayers?

How about the yearly, additional operational costs for this new mega-school. Who will pay for that so that we can educate out-of-town students? It sounds like we are currently maxed out with the student population at NHS. Will building a school for 2000 be enough?

We certainly don’t want to get into a situation like Greenwich where additions/add-on costs were paid for by the taxpayers of Greenwich. We are not Greenwich. Norwalk taxpayers are tapped out.

M Murray February 14, 2020 at 7:03 am

Bryan, your fuzzy math confounds me. It seems like West Hartford pays more than twice as much per taxpayer than Norwalk in state income tax, yet gets less than twice as much back per taxpayer in return. The state should get out of the educational funding business, reduce the state income tax by the amount they give to towns for education, and let each district tax itself and run its own education budget.

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