NORWALK, Conn. — Two new schools got nods of approval Tuesday evening, one with financial support and the other with words of endorsement.
The Common Council green-lighted a $6 million-plus contract with an architectural firm to design a new Norwalk High School, on a 13-1-0 vote. Recognizing an equity issue, multiple Council members expressed a desire to build a South Norwalk school as soon as possible.
“Unfortunately, there were plans that were in place that turned out not to be feasible, and we had to pretty much start over again,” Mayor Harry Rilling said, reaffirming that City leaders are “absolutely committed to move forward with whatever plan is deemed appropriate for a South Norwalk school and to do so as quickly as possible.”
Kaestle Boos Associates Inc. will now begin designing a new Norwalk High School and it will consider building the school on the athletic fields. It’s possible the school will include a new pool; this depends on how the finances shake out.
The surprise plan for a high school – it wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen before mid-2019 and the City had already committed to building two new schools and renovating two old ones – was approved by the State for 80% reimbursement, but at a lower cost than City officials expected initially. That’s $189 million rather than the $225 million the original concepts were based on.
Architectural expenses are also subject to 80% reimbursement.
Council member Thomas Keegan (R-District D) cast the only no vote on the $5,954,083 contract, with $297,704 possible in additional expenses. Council member Kadeem Roberts (D-District A) was absent.
“I believe that at the end of the day, we’re going to be unpleasantly surprised at how expensive this project becomes,” Keegan said.
Also, “We talk about equity, we talk about fairness, the importance of being fair and I think that we must remind ourselves that the elementary school in South Norwalk was closed in the 70s. That was 40, plus years ago,” Keegan said. “And I believe all of our efforts to build new schools should include them. And I think an elementary school in South Norwalk should be our priority and I cannot support a new Norwalk high school because less than 18 months ago we didn’t know we needed it. We didn’t know we wanted it.”
The new school plan dates to January 2016, when consultants charged with doing a facilities feasibility study recommended that the Board of Education build a new school on the Nathaniel Ely site in South Norwalk and renovate Columbus Magnet School, also in South Norwalk. Renovating and expanding Naramake Elementary School and Ponus Ridge Middle School were also highly recommended.
Five years later, the Ponus plan has come to fruition but the Ely plan has not. South Norwalk leaders objected to the linchpin of that plan, using 4 acres of Springwood Ely Park in exchange for land elsewhere in the city, and the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) has not approved the necessary land swap.
Council member Darlene Young (D-District B) thanked Keegan for his sentiments, calling a South Norwalk school “long overdue.”
“I hope that it isn’t one or the other, that we can move forward with a plan that is equitable for South Norwalk,” she said.
Council member Diana Révolus (D-District B) echoed those thoughts.
“Actually, both schools will end up impacting those kids either way. But, you know, I appreciate you saying that,” Révolus said.
Norwalk allocated $70 million for the Columbus/Ely plan, so a South Norwalk school is “certainly something that has been in the works,” Council member Tom Livingston (D-District E) said. “While it’s taken longer than any of us would have liked, you know I’m not here to defend anybody, but I do think it is important and we are working towards it.”
Rilling said he and other Council members had just come from a District B Democrats community meeting where a South Norwalk a neighborhood school was discussed.
“It was clear that everybody supported a neighborhood school and that we are going to do everything we can to move it forward as quickly as possible,” he said. The Board of Education has a new facilities study underway, “so we need demographic information, but we are working very hard to make sure that we do end up with a South Norwalk school, because having to transport children from one end of town to the other certainly compromises their educational experience.”
Yes, a new Norwalk High School was not planned 18 months ago, Rilling said.
“However, when the state of Connecticut offered to reimburse the city of Norwalk, for 80% instead of the normal 30 or 32%, we felt that it was a good idea,” Rilling said. The Council and BoE voted for it, “because that school is also over 50 years old, and in need of tremendous repair and putting new money into the repairs of an old school was deemed not very wise.”
City leaders had promised it wouldn’t delay other projects and it hasn’t, Rilling said. “We’ve already moved forward with the Ponus Ridge. We’re now moving forward with Jefferson, we’re moving forward with design for Cranbury. And we are working diligently to try to have one, or perhaps even two, preferably two neighborhood schools in the South Norwalk area.”