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New Norwalk High School details emerge, are scrutinized

From left, Jim Giuliano of Construction Solutions Group, Norwalk’s project manager for new school construction, speaks to Norwalk Board of Education members Wednesday while Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton reviews information.

NORWALK, Conn. – The new Norwalk High School concept has been fleshed out: it’s thought it would feature a new swimming pool and a band rehearsal space large enough to fit the entire marching band.

Or rather: the concept of three schools in one building has been fleshed out. They would share a library media center, cafeteria and auditorium. The P-Tech Academy would be pretty much segregated and the Visual and Performing Arts Academy would feature a black box theater.

Norwalk Board of Education members were presented Wednesday with draft Education Specifications (Ed Specs) for the school idea, a surprise announced in December. It’s thought that the state will provide 80 percent reimbursement on construction costs because the P-Tech (Pathways in Technology Early College High School) Academy and the Arts Academy would admit 100 students each from other districts.

This will require new legislation; Board of Education Chairwoman Sarah LeMieux stressed that the Norwalk High plan will not bump other school construction projects off the schedule and BoE Finance Committee Chairwoman Barbara Meyer-Mitchell stressed that Norwalk could put the brakes on the high school proposal if it isn’t shaping up.

 

Why a new school?

Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton first rehashed the reasons State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25), Mayor Harry Rilling and Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski agreed to recommend Norwalk build a new high school on the grounds of the existing high school.

The school district had been trying to live within the City’s financial constraints, with funding for two new schools authorized and two school renovations expected, but the cost of renovating Norwalk High School had ballooned from $6.5 million to $11.5 million and this still was “nowhere near the amount of work that the district and the Norwalk High School SGC (School Governance Council) felt needed to be done,” Hamilton explained.

No one thought a new high school was possible given the state’s standard 32 percent reimbursement rate but then the possibility of a pilot program, which would provide 80 percent funding, came along, according to Hamilton, who linked this to the state’s moratorium on inter district magnet funding. Magnet schools get 80 percent reimbursement on construction, he said.

But they also get operating support from the state, and the new pilot high school would not, Hamilton said. So the idea is to exchange students with other districts and balance the costs.

The existing “P-Tech” – the Norwalk Early College Academy (NECA) – would be expanded to accommodate 500 students instead of its current 400, and those students would come from Bridgeport and Stamford to provide those students with the economic opportunity NECA offers, an unparalleled chance to start a high-paying career just as they start adulthood.

The Visual and Performing Arts Academy would accept 100 students from contiguous districts – Darien, New Canaan, Western Westport and Wilton – “to address some of the economic segregation that that those communities face,” Hamilton said. Total enrollment would be 500, and a feeder program would be established, starting at Wolfpit Elementary and continuing to Nathan Hale Middle School.

Norwalk would spend about $40 million for a new Norwalk High School rather than $11 million to renovate the current 48-year-old building, Duff said in December. The city will take advantage of low bonding rates and spreading the interest out over 30 years instead of 15, Rilling said.

Enrollment would jump to 2,000, up from the 1,600 it is now, in a 337,000 square foot building. It’s hoped that the school would be open in 2023.

 

Ed Specs

Jim Giuliano of Construction Solutions Group, the city’s project manager for new school construction, told the Committee that he had developed the Ed Specs according to input from P-Tech Director Karen Amaker, Norwalk High School Principal Reginald Roberts and other top administrators.

As LeMieux put it, “all of the departmental people who will be overseeing programs in these spaces if it comes to fruition” have been consulted on the Ed Specs, according to Giuliano.

Board of Education Facilities Committee members were unprepared to question Giuliano and Hamilton extensively on the Ed Specs – they didn’t have them until the meeting began. So Giuliano outlined highlights.

The Arts Academy is proposed to have a digital photo lab dark room and a 5,850 square foot and rehearsal room, he said. There’s “a lot of music instrument storage space,” individual practice rooms and dance floors, “typically what they call a sprung floor.” The visual arts and the performing arts will share one space, as a textile classroom for the former and a costume shop for the latter.

The P-Tech space is planned to include a lecture hall for 125 students, to mimic the college experience, Giuliano said. Other than that, “it’s pretty similar to a regular comprehensive high school.”

Each of the three schools will have their own administrative space.

“We’ve also been asked to create three separate entrances for each of the programs,” he said. “That might be a challenge. We are considering it right now, but really won’t know how it’s all going to work out as until we further develop the design.”

 

 

Questioning the continuing costs

“It doesn’t seem fair” that Norwalk will cover the operating costs and other school districts will not provide funding, Board member Colin Hosten said.

LeMieux countered that Norwalk is “were taking on the operating costs of educating more kids, regardless of from where.”

“It’s not that we would be opposed to a situation where we are charging tuition,” Hamilton responded. “The problem is it’s unlikely that neighboring districts who are experiencing enrollment declines are going to agree to send their children here and pay us tuition for them.”

The “student exchange” is felt to be “a more saleable proposal for our neighboring districts to partake in,” he said.

School enrollment is going up in any event, Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo said.

“I understand that,” Hosten replied. “But I think I do also understand that …the kind of decision was made to, quote-unquote, appease other districts, not necessarily prioritizing our best interests.”
“That’s the perception out there,” Board member Sherelle Harris said. “…basically, ‘Why are we doing this for other districts?’”

Other school districts are going to need to discuss the opportunity and define their boundaries on getting involved, Hamilton said.

Meyer-Mitchell asked if Norwalk would get more lottery seats at AITE, the Academy of Information Technology & Engineering in Stamford, and Fairchild Wheeler Interdistrict Multi-Magnet High School in Bridgeport.

That would be Norwalk’s hope, but details need to be worked out, Hamilton said.

Parents in Darien and Stamford send their kids to Trumbull for half days at The Regional Center for the Arts, and Norwalk would be an appealing alternative, Meyer-Mitchell said. Plus, other districts have declining enrollment, but Norwalk’s per-pupil costs are lower, and those districts could actually save money by paying tuition to Norwalk.

“I’m just saying there are ways to make it a win-win for everyone involved,” she advised.

 

 

 

Moving the proposal along

There’s a sense of urgency in approving a request for state funding but the thought that Ed Specs would be approved Wednesday was dashed, given that BoE members had just received them. A special Committee meeting may be needed.

The Ed Specs drive the development of the conceptual design, which the architects need to produce the detailed cost estimate that Common Council members require to determine what Norwalk’s share of the construction costs will be, Hamilton said.

“Obviously, the project is contingent upon the approval of the special legislation that would allow for the 80 percent reimbursement. If for some reason that doesn’t happen, then I think, you know, we’re not expecting the project to go forward,” Hamilton said. “… and the city has to decide, you know, is this a project they want to go forward with and are they willing to come up with the 20 percent required match.”

23 comments

M murray January 30, 2020 at 6:30 am

It would be foolish to allow out of district students to come here without their home district paying for them to be here. In the end, the cost of Norwalk taxpayers supporting their education will overcome the extra 47% of state funding received to build the school. Wouldn’t it make more sense to open those slots to districts or parents that will pay for their students to attend, thereby not costing Norwalk taxpayers any additional funding?

The Norwalker January 30, 2020 at 6:32 am

Did they answer the question of how is all of this going to fit on the present site and with the present building being still in use?

I would like to see a simple graphic showing the old building and new building footprints on the site…

John ONeill January 30, 2020 at 7:26 am

The one lesson I’ve learned in the private sector over the years is when a project is rushed thru (even a small one) things quickly go down hill. I can’t imagine how screwed up a govt project would be if rushed thru. That seems to be the case here. We need to slow down and truly study this thing. Norwalk is making a 30 YEAR commitment. You don’t just ram that thru. Holy Cow! Will the adults in the room please take control.

Kathleen Marsh January 30, 2020 at 10:25 am

Please explain the the term “economic segregation” that Wilton,Weston,Western Westport and New Canaan are experiencing.

Karl M Deering January 30, 2020 at 4:19 pm

With out a question this has to be one of the stupidest ideas I have ever heard of in my 62 years on this planet !!!!!!!

carol January 30, 2020 at 6:18 pm

other towns must pay there share or else norwalk will be picking up the costs and we thepeople will be paying higher taxes to accommodate other towns
VOTE THIS DOWN!!!!!

Snoopy January 30, 2020 at 8:14 pm

Alan Lo’s projected enrollment forecasts can not be trusted. Just ask the teachers at Rowayton School. He said a few years ago Rowayton attendance will be decreasing. So they built a tiny addition, rather than a bigger one.
What happened? The school attendance did the opposite…it skyrocketed. Now, they might have to cut the music room in half and share music with a regular classroom! Or have art on a cart…even though the 2015 addition included a brand new art room! Or they might get another portable.
He finally sees the truth that attendance is going UP UP UP.
So, to recap….not only have enrollment numners in Norwalk Public Schools skyrocketed due to all these ELL students, but now NPS is going to invite kids from other towns???!!
You just can’t make this stuff up!

Isabelle Hargrove January 31, 2020 at 10:06 am

Senator Duff has created a phony sense of urgency for a project that is not approved by the state contrary to what he announced. As a result, our Mayor, Common Council, and BOE are rushing the process and committing Norwalk to large expenditures on both the capital and the operational side of our budgets for the next decades. This is at a time where we are struggling to fund the astronomical increases required for our existing strategic plan. Further, most of the project seems to be predicated on assumptions about how neighboring communities will use the programs with no assurance that outside $ will flow towards Norwalk.

It is unethical from Senator Duff and irresponsible from our local elected officials.

Norwalkers should urge everyone to slow down and refuse to approve any concept until we have had the chance to thoroughly review its benefits for Norwalk students and its long term financial repercussions on local taxpayers.

Finally, the notion that this new very large project will not impact everything else our school system is trying to accomplish is ludicrous. There are only so many hours in the day, so many people working, and so many dollars to attribute from the State. I am sure our elected officials are keenly aware of that and so should the public.

Claire Schoen January 31, 2020 at 11:11 am

This is a huge opportunity that we cannot turn a blind eye to, in my opinion. Questions are being asked, not all the answers are in yet, but the BOE and other adults in the room are taking a look at this from all angles. Who pays what, etc. –
Was it rushed? Yeah, maybe, but it’s where we are and sometimes you gotta grab it when you can. Was the announcement premature? Yeah, maybe, but we’re here now.

Bonus: We could get a new community pool out of this. Let’s figure it out.

Kathleen, I think what was meant by “economic segregation” is simply that the surrounding towns are far less diverse in socio-economically, and could benefit from having students of different economic backgrounds, not just cultural.
(Also, FYI, if this doesn’t happen, get ready for much higher costs for the planned renovations to NHS – building is so old that the costs which were originally pegged at $6 million are now at least $11 million and counting,)

Bryan Meek January 31, 2020 at 2:46 pm

I’m all for new schools wherever we need them and wherever we can afford them.

Costs are exploding because of our environmental regulations that are multiple times more strict than even Obama era EPA policies.

Duff could easily fix this part of it, but I think everyone gets it by now that fiscal responsibility is for others.

We’ve sunk over $30 million into NHS that we are still paying for and now it will be bulldozed, while we desperately need other schools in other areas of town.

John Miller January 31, 2020 at 5:12 pm

Let me see if I have this correct. The taxpayers of Norwalk, where the median household income is $89,047, are supposed to absorb the operating costs for students from Darien (median household income $210,511); Westport (median household income $187,988); New Canaan (median household income $192,428); and Wilton (median household income $187,903) to attend the “new” Norwalk High School? Mr. Hosten is correct about this being unfair. I hope that Ms. LeMieux, Ms. Meyer-Mitchell, and Mr. Hamilton take a long, hard look at this proposal. Are any of those other districts going to offer their support for the ELL program which is eating our school budget alive? I seriously doubt it and,frankly,find the BOE’s rather cavallier attitude regarding spending other people’s money (meaning the taxpayers of Norwalk)by stating, “we’re taking on the operating costs of educating more kids, regardless of from where” to be rather arrogant and deeply disturbing.

Al Bore January 31, 2020 at 8:55 pm

Claire FYI, that is 29 million less that we the home owning tax payers of Norwalk will will have to fund if we renovate.

Sarah LeMieux February 1, 2020 at 9:34 am

Mr. Miller, to clarify, what my quote means is that Norwalk’s middle school enrollment is high, so more kids are on the way to our high schools. Provided this proposed high school is built, rather than doing a tuition exchange, surrounding districts would send us their students – and we would send them ours. In equal numbers. So, we will be taking on the costs of educating the number of students that we have coming down the pipeline, as we are legally obligated to do regardless, but in the new Norwalk High project, some of those students would be coming from surrounding districts – and those districts would be taking on the cost of educating the number of students that they have coming, but some of those students would be coming from Norwalk. I hope that makes my statement clearer.

Bryan Kerschner February 1, 2020 at 1:17 pm

I have to agree with Bryan Meek here, I’d much prefer we devote our funds to completing the Cranbury, Jefferson, and two South Norwalk school projects. There are simply too many questions about the new NHS program and the ambiguity is very concerning.

Jim McGuire February 1, 2020 at 4:29 pm

I’m doing some simple math and I see a problem. Using two articles from Nancy on Norwalk we see this:

Adamowksi issues enrollment update 1/23/2020
“NPS has 273 more students than it had a year ago, he said.”

and

New Norwalk High School details emerge, are scrutinized 1/30/2020
“…P-Tech (Pathways in Technology Early College High School) Academy and the Arts Academy would admit 100 students each from other districts.”
“Enrollment would jump to 2,000, up from the 1,600 it is now, It’s hoped that the school would be open in 2023.”

According to these articles, 400 additional slots are being created at the new school. Adding 200 students from other districts leaves 200 “new” spaces remaining. In 2019/2020 alone 273 students have been added, and we are not publicly talking about how many more will arrive in the next 2-3 years. By the time the doors open, some of these new 273 will be headed to high school, other new kids will have arrived.

By the time the doors open, there is a very good chance that this school will be over capacity. Add to this the lack if discussion about the chances that ELL students are P-Tech or Arts Program candidates.

Nancy Chapman February 1, 2020 at 6:44 pm

The plan for the new high school is to exchange students with surrounding districts. There would be 100 students coming in and 100 students going out, according to this idea.

Eric Niederer February 1, 2020 at 8:40 pm

I need more data admittedly so this is only a partially educated comment, and will dig in more when I have time.

Norwalk promoted the Norwalk Dyslexia Clinic as paying for itself by attracting out of town schools who need the services. The few Norwalk parents I know with students with dyslexia are unimpressed with the clinic and are either seeking to out-place, get out of district services or move out of Norwalk. I am unaware of any significant attraction of out of town students to this clinic. This is a relevant example because I do not believe Norwalk will attract enough out of town students to pay long term operating costs, have a significant swap or later rehab costs; the swap only works with willing students on both sides with transportation and other considerations. Another example is Wilton’s significant opposition to regional education, which fits this proposed model. My wife was on one of the parent chat groups and the statements made by many Wilton parents against Norwalk were not pretty. There is still much work to do on the existing schools and present buildouts. I am concerned this will be a less than efficient and effective use of money and choices of allocation of resources and efforts (but still have not completed my analysis). I question a new pool; is the old one beyond repair or inefficient to update if that is even needed. I understand the attraction to new and shiny, but I like to use things as long as possible and feasible considering cost vs utility and keeping up with modernization. I do have a 16 year old car and only on my fourth phone since cell phones were commercially available a couple of decades ago- always use them until they don’t function as needed or more expensive to fix than buy new. Let’s upgrade schools with AC, electrical, roofs, get rid of portables, new buildouts, etc and see what money is left before this endeavor. If I’m missing something please advise. I understand the state’s initial contribution which is great, but we have to pay the remainder, operation costs, upkeep and further rehab. Just my preliminary point of view. I do need more info.

John Miller February 2, 2020 at 11:38 am

Ms. LeMeiux:

I appreciate your clarification. However, the “back room” like manner in which this plan was conceived; the uncertainty regarding what the actual cost will be; the failure of e State to properly fund the ELL program, which is essentially an unfunded mandate that they imposed on us as a policy matter; the need to close the per pupil ECS cost sharing gap between Norwalk and other cities with similar student population demographics; the lack of any definitive buy in from the surrounding school districts to commit to supporting this project; and the need to complete the school construction projects that are planned or currently underway before proceeding with a project where there are so many unknowns are sufficient reasons not to proceed with the “new” Norwalk High School. We simply don’t need a shrine dedicated to a politician on the corner of County Street and Strawberry Hill Avenue.

Isabelle Hargrove February 3, 2020 at 9:42 am

Sarah LeMieux:

What happens if the number of students coming from other communities falls short of your projections? Is this not a voluntary program?

Also, with regard to Bridgeport and Stamford, am I wrong that this is not an exchange program? So, what happens if they fail to reimburse us?
Norwalk is fronting 100% of the costs and might be left begging for reimbursement…

Bryan Meek February 3, 2020 at 12:27 pm

@Eric. Yes, you missed the cost of capital considerations. This is a reimbursement project where the state makes milestone payments months, sometimes years after the work has been completed and paid for. For example, we still haven’t closed out reimbursement for Rowayton even though the project was completed almost 10 years ago.

The cost of capital can be considerable on $200 million. Our current debt issues yield 3 to 5 percent. Let’s assume 4% here. That’s $8 million alone in the first year. If it takes 4 years to build we would need to pick up the debt service or $200mm in the first year. $150 in the 2nd. $100mm in the third, $50mm in the 4th….and if we magically get the full 80%…it will only have cost the city $20 million to finance this on top of the $40 million that we’ll finance for 20 years.

Thats if everything goes perfectly. 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.

Your points about the dyslexia clinic are well taken. Real or perceived, if the enrollment isn’t there that will also fall on the taxpayers of Norwalk to maintain the operations. 400 students at $18k a year for 50 the next years assuming only inflation in today’s dollars is $360 million. If we don’t realize full operational capacity, that can add up to a lot of money.

It also needs to be repeated that of the $11 million currently authorized for NHS, we’ve already spent several million of that and much of it after these back room conversations started in May..

Last, to answer your question about the pool, we just spent millions on shoring up the reinforced concrete and also put in new air handlers that were a lot of money. Maybe we can get some scrap money for the upgraded air system, but the concrete will have to be demolished.

The saddest part about all of this is Duff couldn’t even get state money up front to architect this fantastic proposal. Norwalk had to pay the $50,000 to get it going. This amount is practically a retainer for this size of project. Duff had no problems, seemingly, when it came to getting $5 million for the failed POKO. The whole thing is mind boggling, unless you see it for what it is. Nothing more than Bob Duff’s taxpayer funded campaign kickoff.

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