NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk High School “Ed Specs” will be up for a vote at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting.
Although Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski said he would move them to the full Board regardless, the BoE’s Facilities Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to do it, with a caveat.
They’re up for approval provided that the Board is “assured that the rest of our capital projects will go forward as planned, especially the ones that are critical to our delivery of education and for the safety and well-being of our students, and our group, as was publicly promised,” Finance Committee Chairwoman Barbara Meyer-Mitchell said.
Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz has recommended “ridiculous” cuts to the Board’s five-year capital plan, Adamowski said, mentioning technology, the Naramake Elementary cafeteria and the Tracey Elementary playground.
“I think it’s worth a conversation with … the with the mayor. But my, my sense is I would be fairly confident that he would be willing to work with you, you know, the most important of those priorities,” Adamowski said.
Capital budgetary process for high school
Norwalk High School would be rebuilt into a facility to accommodate a comprehensive high school, an arts academy and the P-Tech (Pathways to Technology) Academy, under a pilot program that would qualify the project for 80 percent reimbursement from the state, State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) announced in December.
Dachowitz included Norwalk’s share of that, a proposed $50 million expenditure, on his capital budget recommendation, ahead of the BoE’s approval. This has stirred controversy.
Although Dachowitz alleged Monday that the BoE hadn’t requested funding for the surprise high school plan because “they want it to be seen as the Mayor’s request only,” Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton said Wednesday that Mayor Harry Rilling had previously agreed that the request would be premature.
“I believe that the City Finance Director has violated the City Charter, or the City Code, in this provision,” Hamilton said.
NPS did not have a solid budget estimate because the Ed Specs (Education Specifications) have not been developed, he said. It will be appropriate for Rilling to add the request in March because the conceptual design will be complete and therefore there will be a construction estimate.
The City has hired an architect for the project, to get a general idea of how it will fit and do some preliminary phasing of how we would construct the building because the buildings were so large, it wouldn’t fit in one particular area without us having to demo the existing building as we’re building new,” Jim Giuliano of Construction Solutions Group, the city’s project manager for new school construction, said.
That information as gone to a professional cost estimator who is expected to come up with an estimate by Feb. 28, Giuliano reported. The appropriation request needs to be submitted to the state by June 30 to get on next year’s priority list, Adamowski said.
The Common Council will need to approve the Ed Specs as part of that process.
“What do we say to the people who feel that this has not been fully vetted?” Board of Education member Sherelle Harris asked.
“There are people saying that?” Adamowski replied.
Told there are, he advised, “I think you say it’s been vetted. I mean, we’ve developed these in the same way that we’ve developed all the other Ed Specs, it’s going through the same process.”
He had been very clear with Duff and Rilling that governmental process needs to be followed, he said, then touched on Dachowitz claim that the request wasn’t made because for “purely political” reasons.
“Don’t ask me what our political gain is here. We have been nothing but a lot of work and taking advantage of a wonderful opportunity for the for the city,” Adamowski said.
Rilling had, in a statement read by BoE member Erica DePalma in December, promised that other capital priorities wouldn’t be neglected, Adamowski reminded everyone.
“I would recommend that… you have to, at this point, ignore the recommendations of the Finance Director and work directly with the Mayor and I would have every confidence that he will be good for his word,” Adamowski said. “… This kind of behavior that’s been introduced lately is just, you know, very disruptive and, you know, serves to distance our relationship, so we certainly don’t want to participate in it or to meet it in kind.”
“No other school project identified by the Board of Education is going on the back burner” because of the high school construction opportunity, Rilling said in the December statement.
Dachowitz “essentially ended our one-to-one (Chromebooks) and our cyber security programs,” with this capital budget recommendation, Meyer-Mitchell observed.
The Planning Commission will transmit its own capital budget recommendation by March 5 and then Rilling will submit his version to the Board of Estimate and Taxation by March 13. Finally, the Common Council will vote on the budget on April 14.
The Tracey playground is in very bad condition, Adamowski said. It’s the same age as Rowayton Elementary which “has had a number of projects” and Tracey “with the exception of the cafeteria has not.”
“We have a school there where most of the students walk to school. And you know, the playground will be an asset to the community,” he said.
The Board of Education requested $2.1 million for the Naramake cafeteria. That project has been on the capital budget list “for a while” and is “ready to go,” Adamowski said.
Dachowitz has also recommended denying a $1 million request for new furniture to go in the renovated Ponus “upper school,” deferring it to 2021-22 and 2022-23. He recommends not funding the $200,000 requested for Brien McMahon High School air quality measures this year.
“I have to hope that the Mayor will see the reason behind the other projects and that we can have an authentic conversation about, you know, what can we afford?” Meyer-Mitchell said.
Norwalk High would be ‘an incredible return on investment’
Bonding for Norwalk High School would affect the Norwalk operating budget “to the tune starting at about 2.4 million and over 30 years tapering out to 1.7,” Meyer-Mitchell said.
“So it’s actually not a huge impact on a $323 million budget,” she asserted. “And the return on investment for our $50 million is another $175 (million) approximately, which is an incredible return on investment and an opportunity for us to not only improve our education, but also improve our property values and position within the ecosystem of Fairfield County as a Center for the Arts.”
It’s thought that 100 students from Bridgeport or Stamford will attend P-Tech and 100 students from neighboring towns will attend the arts academy.
Adamowski emphasized that the plan is for a seat swap with other districts, although he explained details won’t be nailed down “about a year before the school is scheduled to open” because “you have to have a very precise idea of the program.”
“You have to be way beyond the Ed Specs,” he said. “We have to have approved design specifications from the arts committee that’s working now, those are going to come to you next October.”
Interest from Norwalk’s wealthy neighbors will hinge on how highly developed the arts programs are in their own districts, he said.
“The way I look at this, this is this is a game changer for our city and our students, because we don’t offer an Arts Academy now. And it is it is going to be good for the region. And as Miss Meyer-Mitchell said, it also establishes Norwalk as the Center for Educational Excellence in this metropolitan area,” Adamowski said. “So I think it’s a it’s a win-win all around. And again, I’ve been very grateful to our Senator and our Mayor. I think this is just an opportunity that it’s hard to hard to say no to, right? It’s it would be short sighted to do so. It will involve change, and it will involve doing things differently. But I think that that’s all good.”