Updated, 10:25 a.m., clarification about District A meeting.
NORWALK, Conn. — A possible new school in South Norwalk is being looked at skeptically in some quarters.
While Board of Education member Mike Barbis called the idea of building on the Nathaniel Ely site “just dumb,” BoE Chairman Mike Lyons said he still thinks it’s the best option. Meanwhile, some African American community leaders are declaring themselves against the idea.
BoE member Sherelle Harris said she supports it but sources say there was a spirited discussion at a recent meeting of District A Democrats, where, those sources said, Carolyn Fuller, Brenda Penn-Williams, Jalin Sead and former BoE member Rosa Murray said they are against it. District A secretary Elsa Peterson-Obuchowski said Tuesday, though, that neither Penn-Williams nor Sead were present for that meeting.
Sead did respond to an NoN inquiry.
“At first glance it seems like a good idea, it solves a major issues, Norwalk needs more schools,” Sead said in a Thursday email. “But, when I look at the history of it, it scares me. We had a problem when Ben Franklin was a school; it was basically a ‘black school.’ I’ve heard talks of this being behind the Nathaniel Ely site, and being a neighborhood school, that is uneasy for me and a lot of others in South Norwalk, because of the fear of having another ‘black school.’”
Building behind Nathaniel Ely was the No. 1 recommendation made by Silver Petrucelli & Associates and Milone and McBroom in the recently completed facilities feasibility study. The new two-story school would be totally independent of Ely, perched behind it, with its own bus loop.
Barbis, chairman of the School Facilities and Planning Committee, said after a recent committee meeting that he had walked the Nathaniel Ely site, which is in District B.
“It’s a strange piece of property,” he said, describing the trailers being used by Grass Roots Tennis, the tennis courts, and all the ledge in the “narrow” lot. “We are going to need to do some work.”
Barbis, a commercial Realtor, has recently expressed disappointment that the study did not include the options of buying commercial property in South Norwalk, but admitted that, “All the sites I had in mind all had huge environmental liabilities.”
“Personally, I think it remains the best option for a local school in SoNo,” Lyons said in a Sunday email. “People have suggested buying commercial sites instead, but that would add millions to the cost and we already know the city can’t afford the whole Facilities Plan as it is. I would like to see if we could so something to clear the restrictions on use of the existing building and maybe make the site a K-8 school instead of a K-5.”
BoE member Erik Anderson, District B’s representative, said on Sunday that he tends to agree with Lyons.
“The concerns I have heard from community members revolve around it being an all-black school, therefore these community members feel that it will get the worst teachers, the worst principals and the worst resources,” Anderson said. “I have tried to express a different side to that, especially with our student-based budgeting, but there is a real concern around that and I am very sympathetic to it.”
Anderson said he has asked for demographics information because he, like Sead, has heard there were historical issues with an “all-black school.”
“I understand some concerns, but the level that it is going to is a bit extreme,” Anderson said. “It is causing unnecessary panic without anyone giving opportunity to have discussion on this, because we are so far out from this happening. It is shooting a horse before it ever breaks its legs.”
Ernie Dumas of A Better South Norwalk downplayed the level of concern.
“I have not really given it any thought whatsoever right now. There is some conversation going on in South Norwalk about the school, but it has not really gotten off the leg yet,” he said.
“I think it makes sense however there should be sufficient public input as to where in South Norwalk it would be and who it would serve,” Councilwoman Phaedrel “Faye” Bowman (D-District B) wrote in a Saturday email. “Alternatively, we can give South Norwalk residents access to Columbus just as Jefferson still serves neighborhood kids.”
“I am very sympathetic to concerns that can arise,” Anderson said. “I think if it’s not handled properly it could potentially go down a negative path. However, I do have faith that there are a number of people on this Board, including myself, that are committed to having a full stake from the community, having full open and public sessions and pushing the superintendent and his team to do so, and making sure we are holding ourselves accountable as well.”
Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski said, when this idea was brought forward, that there is a law that mandates that a school be integrated. Making the new school a magnet school would entice parents in other districts to send their children to South Norwalk, he said.
Ely is next to the Roodner Court housing project, which gets some negative press.
Anderson said a magnet school would get extra money in the schools’ budget, which should help alleviate fears.
“I presently support having a neighborhood school in South Norwalk,” Harris said in a Sunday email. “While I was a children’s librarian, prior to being talked into running for the Board of Ed, I was incensed when I learned about what is called ‘District 99’. I studied the desegregation situation. I studied the Sheff v. O’Neill case. I understood the cause, but I thought it so unfair that young children in South Norwalk have to attend school wherever there is an opening. They have to wake earlier to be bused to seven or eight schools across town, instead of walking to school with their neighbors, getting exercise, and having crossing guards in various places to help them.”
Adamowski’s offer to South Norwalk parents the first crack at a school choice was a “nice gesture,” she said, but she had been hoping that a new school could be built where Columbus Magnet School is now.
“At present I don’t know of any plans for redistricting,” Harris wrote. “No matter where the South Norwalk school is housed, there are quite a few questions floating around. Will the school be primarily minority? Will the school be properly funded? Will it be a separate, but equal type of deal? Who will be the teachers; will they be representative of the student population? What will be the school model? What will happen to private preschools of good quality, many of which have School Readiness slots, when preschools are put into the public schools? These are important questions.”
She wrote, “The Board of Education has scheduled five sessions in different parts of Norwalk to discuss the three-year strategic operating plan, starting with the South Norwalk Branch Library on Saturday, April 2, from 9 10:30 a.m., Norwalk High School on Monday, April 4, from 6:30 to 8 p.m., and at Brien McMahon High School, Nathaniel Ely School and the South Norwalk Community Center. It appears that most of the sessions are concentrated in the South Norwalk area, which is great. I just thought they would be spread out a bit more. Nevertheless, it is very considerate of the Board of Education to bring the plans to the community. It is important to explain the plans to the community and for the community to ask questions and make suggestions.”
“I definitely want it to be a really robust conversation happening from this,” Anderson said. “I would hope that the rumblings that I have heard as we move forward with this process are brought into a more public discussion, and that emails are sent.”
The Board is very responsive to the public and “I have seen a great deal of communication from the board when it comes to answering questions,” Anderson said.
“I’m not too far removed from Norwalk Public Schools, and I had an amazing experience, because we had a great mix of children from all walks of life,” Sead wrote. “I would be against anything that jeopardizes the wonderful diversity, or the quality of education for all children here in Norwalk.”