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Norwalk BoE eyes security as $500,000 expense in developing capital budget request

The Norwalk Board of Education Finance Committee meets Wednesday on Zoom.

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.”

A slide from a budget presentation.

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.”

FY 2022-23 Final Capital Budget Request – City Forms 12.17.21

15 comments

David Osler December 20, 2021 at 7:23 am

On the computer side you can definitely do longer than 4 years but I would do is every 9th grader I gets a new computer. And then when they cycle out put it in the middle schools as far as elementary School students unless they are on remote learning they don’t need one. The elementary schools should probably have an out of date computer lab preferably two different ones with separate operating systems that doesn’t even need to connect the internet that can be used for standalone technology would processing understanding computer interfaces. And basic technology operations as well as basic script technologies like python. One of the reasons for putting them on and out of date system if they haven’t seen it before as kids and it would be a shift in understanding of technology and then they would go through it again at Middle School when they’re put on current operating system. I would also strongly suggest that you have a lab and science for technology classes that utilize the pi 4 or 400 to teach them electronics coding and computer control obviously that is a higher level class than described earlier and that can easily be built around an entire curriculum that can last throughout their education something like that would give our kids a major leg up. As they would have training in multiple operating systems as well as different application of technologies.

As for school security put a camera on the doors cameras are cheap and believe they can get them under $300 a piece and then get a 32 channel system for under three grand and connected to category 6 cables which are nice and cheap.
As for other parts of school security hire a couple security guards not cops just security guards much cheaper more of a deterrent and the kids are safe

Mack December 20, 2021 at 7:55 am

Spend, spend, spend. Just continue to throw tax payer money at the problems, as it’s always the quick easy & lazy way out of a crisis and hope that it somehow works. Establish a committee to investigate. Spend a year meeting and talking about it in order to quiet the crowd and shift their attention onto something else. Never challenge yourselves to look within the organization in an effort to find solutions using what you already have, in perhaps a different manner, at little to no cost. Sorta like how things successfully work in the private sector, including private schools. But why take on unnecessary work and focus when all you need to do is grab more money from the taxpayers……they have deep pockets, and frankly can’t do a darn thing to stop it. Just another example of why & how our public schools are failing and if you think it’s going to get any better, under the existing systems, your being delusional.

Nora King December 20, 2021 at 10:50 am

Kids should not be on the computers full time and their should be text books. I say no more money until a parent is put on the safety committee (political BOE are not an unbiased parent ) DO NOT FUND BOE until they focus on educating our kids on math, science, grammar etc. THe BOE has lost their focus and our kids are not being educated. Why have they not published the recent standardized scores? They haven’t because they are dismal.

Piberman December 20, 2021 at 11:22 am

Lots of attention here to “security” in one of the safest sizable communities in CT by virtue of our high performing police force. Will installing A/C’s remediate the well documented problems our students have meeting CT Education Dept standards or preparing adequately to secure 4 yr college degrees ?

Surely a budget discussion ought focus on “student performance” improvements rather than security and A/C. Here there’s much to be concerned with reading the CT Education Department student achievements for Norwalk meeting CT Edu goals. Yet the budgets make no mention of measures of improvements. For a school system where most grads fail to meet CT Edu Dept science and math standards – key elements for success in our high tech world.

Looks like the “take away” is the large student performance differentials between Norwalk and the surrounding 5 towns will continue even though salaries are matched.
One would have hoped the BOE would have proposed measures/outlays to improve student performance. Aren’t parents more concerned about improving student performance than air conditioners ?

Some of us old timers remember when our City public schools had a strong reputation not much different from the surrounding towns and quite a number of City grads secured acceptances into the Ivies and top tier colleges. Indeed the list was made public in our newspaper each year for all to see. Those achievements made our City proud. It’s why many of us moved here – good schools preparing our kids for college. .
As long as student performance challenges are not mentioned during budget discussions when will it be mentioned ? The ones who are ultimately hurt here are the very students. And the ones who can light the fires to improve student outcomes are the members of our BOE. From US Census data half the City’s adults have 4 yr college degrees. Yet less than half our public school grads ever secure 4 yr college degrees.
That seems strange. Isn’t the purpose of public school to prepare students for college rather than just a high school degree which has little value in our high tech world ?

If we’re collectively goin to finance a public school budget of $200 million or so why not insist we secure student outcomes that will prepare them for college and meaningful lives ?

Audrey Cozzarin December 20, 2021 at 12:51 pm

Perhaps we as a society need to “do” school differently. Having to make school buildings fortresses, having to provide facilities and technology at this level of expense/expectation that most likely will continue and continue… Is this sustainable?

I don’t have children, but if I did, I would opt to home school them along with enrolling them in a community center for socializing, learning life skills, and to learn how to behave in a civilized world. I wonder if there is such a center? In my dreams, neighborhoods and churches could provide this type of support again as they used to.

“School” today is becoming a horror show. We need to create a different system for our kids than this current model that is falling into a rabbit hole.

John O'Neill December 20, 2021 at 3:59 pm

Kids are smart and resilient. Adults not so much apparently…How about something simple like discipline and consequences for misbehavior? Is that too difficult a concept to grasp? If students know there’s consequences for their actions 95% of above issues would evaporate. Tough love is accepted by kids if they respect where it’s coming from. C’Mon Man!
Geez, give me a building, half the budget of a school. Give me the worst students in the system and let me find teachers myself. This is not as complicated as some are making it out to be.

Sarah LeMieux December 20, 2021 at 10:03 pm

Popping in to say being a parent or a taxpayer does not automatically ground one’s opinion in any expertise. Being a parent or a taxpayer (as I am, both) does not suddenly make you know things about education or security, or systems management, or budgeting. All of these are complex, multi-factor problems with solutions that require study, and people with experience to guide that study.

As you were, armchair quarterbacks.

M Murray December 21, 2021 at 6:21 am

Look at the credentials of our “Head of security”. Five years in the education system in NYC and prior to that he ran a Gym. Great hire.

Seriously? December 21, 2021 at 6:32 am

Sarah LeMieux,

Surely you aren’t saying that board of education members have expertise in education, security, systems management and budgeting. I think you know better. I know many of the people on that committee, and they also have none of those skills. We already know that the superintendent lacks any budget discipline. (And, by the way, I really do know that.) So what’s your point?

Using your argument, ordinary citizens shouldn’t vote because they lack said expertise. Your comments are wrong-headed and insulting. Given information by experts in the areas you mentioned, Norwalk has plenty of parents who are very capable of using that information to inform their thinking — and to include parents’ perspectives.

I do thank you for one thing. Now I understand why the board of education hasn’t properly evaluated the superintendent and hasn’t provided fiscal oversight and fiscal management. The other members are like you, and they defer to the superintendent as the expert who shouldn’t be questioned. Why have a board of education?

John O'Neill December 21, 2021 at 7:07 am

Why do I get the sense that some out there think the rest of us are unable to think for ourselves? While I admire someone coming to the defense of their ex-colleagues the condescending overtone is a little much. But what do I know? I’m just a schlep who pays taxes.

Mack December 21, 2021 at 8:38 am

Sarah LeMieux,
I respect your opinion, as I hope you do mine and the others that are contrary to yours. I’m happy that we share the same belief that parents and taxpayers, amount others, have the right to openly & freely voice their opinion on these types of topics. Regardless of any “expertise”. Regardless of how many things those outside your opinion circle may, or may not know about education, security, or systems management, or budgeting. Regardless of your opinion on the level of complexity they might be, (or not) regardless of your defining them as multi-factor problems, with solutions that you claim require study, and people with experience to quite that study. Like many that have come before you, and will continue thereafter, I am of the opinion that you have underestimated the knowledge and expertise of what you refer to the opposition as “arm chair quarterbacks “ and find this characterization as offensive and demeaning. But regardless that is your opinion and thankfully for the time being we continue to possess that right.

I

DryAsABone December 21, 2021 at 9:46 am

Could be worse…the state is only funding 20% of planned school construction in Scamford while Norwalk received 80% from the state.
As useless as Bob Duff is, he is less useless than the fake legislator and new mayor of Scamford, Caroline Simmons. She is going to drive the town into bankruptcy.

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