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.
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.”