NORWALK, Conn. — Security cameras, door surveillance mechanisms and mobile metal detectors are on the Norwalk Board of Education’s radar screen as members prepare to send their capital budget requests to the City.
A last minute $500,000 addition to the proposed 2022-23 capital budget would be a placeholder for security concerns as the newly formed Safety and Security Task Force begins developing recommendations, that would be finalized before the beginning of the next school year.
The proposed $3.4 million budget request also seeks to continue putting air conditioning in schools with a $500,000 allocation and replace student computers with $1.4 million.
The air conditioning and security expenses are planned to continue for three years while the computer “refresh” would be an annual part of the budget. But the Common Council would only be concretely agreeing to the 2022-23 expenses as the rest of the budget is a projection, a plan, a possibility. Conditions change.
The Board of Education will vote on its capital and operating budget requests Tuesday. It’s a big jump forward, as this has always been done in January. Moving it up allows more time for conversations with the City and Common Council members, who set a budget cap in mid-February, said Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella.
Security wasn’t in the proposed budget when Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton presented it Dec. 14. Estrella had asked the staff to look at it and “that is still being worked out,” he said.
The next day, at a Finance Committee meeting, he said the staff “had quite an extensive discussion.”
While the district has security cameras, some need to be repaired or adjusted and “we think there should be some additional cameras,” he said, explaining that would probably cost about $2,000 each.
The district’s radio infrastructure is an “old analog system that does not allow for communication directly with the police department,” Hamilton said. “It doesn’t allow people to communicate on multiple different channels.”
While all of the dollar figures are preliminary, it’s thought that updating the radios “is a six-figure project,” he said.
Doors, locks and access to buildings were also discussed, Hamilton said. Much of that is already in the capital budget but although there’s an intrusion system there are no alarms that go off when doors are opened from within. So if students are runners looking to escape school or if a staff member is propping open a door inappropriately or if people are just using a door as an exit when it’s not supposed to be, there are “some security concerns in all of those situations.”
Battery powered alarms would probably cost between $300 and $400 each, and there are 372 doors in that category, he said. Staff are also “looking at what it would cost if we were to look to put in a more comprehensive system that was tied in and linked to a central notification system.”
Metal detectors are a popular talking point in social media groups, particularly after the recent threats to Norwalk High School, he said.
“We are not necessarily supportive of putting in permanent metal detectors at our schools, because doing so has a pretty significant and negative impact on the culture and dynamic of that school,” Hamilton said. “It’s almost in a certain sense, creating a situation where, you know, we’re making an assumption about our students, that is not necessarily a very positive assumption.”
A random, “more robust security checkpoint service” could potentially be made available for special circumstances such as an active threat “or even as just a really almost a deterrent,” maybe a “mobile metal detector system that could move from school to school, that wouldn’t be deployed every day,” but might keep someone with bad intentions off guard because it wouldn’t be predictable, he said.
NPS might contract with a security company that handles big events because it would have metal detectors, Hamilton said.
“At this point, it’s sort of a still very much in a initial early talking stage. But we wanted to raise it with the Finance Committee tonight to see what you thought of the idea,” he said.
However, “the equipment itself is not terribly expensive, it looks like you can buy these sorts of units, walkthrough units, for somewhere in $4-5,000 range,” Hamilton continued. New York City took out most of its school metal detectors but has retained a mobile ability to bring them in and “so you’d have to figure out how many of these units you actually need, and then presumably contract with a security company to staff it.”
Board member Diana Carpio said she liked the mobile metal detector idea, as it would be a good deterrent.
“I think we can agree that, you know, the safety and security of our students or staff or entire community is one of our top priorities,” Board Chairman Colin Hosten said. “…You can’t really get into any kind of academic investment if the school isn’t safe.”
“I’m really, very heartened by the serious approach to this matter,” Board member Mary Ellen Flaherty-Ludwig said. She’s gone through metal detectors in New York because her daughter teaches there and, “it really does delay, how a school gets entered. Instead of minutes, it could be a half hour or so for hundreds of kids to get into the school. I am definitely in favor of looking at the different options.”
Hamilton also mentioned security fencing, as “many of our schools do not have full perimeter security fencing,” and the possibility of hiring additional security agents.
“We specifically spoke about in doing more frequent sweeps through the bathrooms at the high schools as an area that could use security, more security attention than we’re able to provide currently with the number of security guards we have,” Hamilton said.
The recently formed security task force is “probably going to take a little while to get all of their recommendations together,” Hamilton said. “So we may have to make some assumptions for financial reasons, you know, for budget reasons … the plan could be modified, based on the recommendations coming out of the security committee.”
Air conditioning, computers
It’s “rather expensive to install central air,” so as an interim solution portable air conditioners have been put into multiple buildings, Hamilton said Dec. 14.
The $500,000 in this capital budget request would go to Wolfpit Elementary School.
Last year, instructional technology was removed from the capital budget as federal COVID-19 relief funding was used for the expense, but “it’s a bigger need than ever before. Because the district is now fully one-to-one,” Hamilton said.
“We went from a high school one-to-one to K-12 one-to-one,” Assistant Superintendent of Digital Learning and Innovation Ralph Valenzisi said. “When you think about that, it’s tripled the amount of computers we have. So we have to replace about 3,000 machines a year, on average, to be able to keep up with a four year refresh.”
Estrella likened this to “consumable textbooks.”
“Even when we had those resources that were the main source of instruction as the instructional tool, we had to replace those right over time because they became obsolete,” she said. “And I think if you use that analogy, as we think about technology and the need to replenish, because technology becomes obsolete after a particular time, it kind of helps you better understand why we have to engage in this cycle.”