NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Board of Education members have chosen “Option B” as their preferred plan for a new Norwalk High School. Two members voted against both plans.
The vote came Tuesday after an extensive conversation about how athletics would be handled as the school is built on what is now the football field, and a pronouncement from Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo that the pool is now in the budget, given support from Mayor Harry Rilling and Council President Tom Livingston (D-District E).
Board members also spent about an hour in executive session with Attorney Tom Mooney of Shipman & Goodwin. When they emerged, Mooney explained their legal responsibilities in choosing one of the two plans.
- Option A was estimated at $191 million and would have constructed the new buildings in the same general area the schools are now. (Lo said Tuesday the budget is $225 million.)
- Option B was described as $193 million and would put the new complex entirely along King Street. (Lo said Tuesday the budget is $225 million.)
The City owns the land and State Statute provides for joint responsibilities for school construction projects, with the Board of Education serving “as the agent of the state to implementing the educational interests of the state by educating the children of Norwalk,” Mooney said.
Multiple parents had spoken to the Board, asking that the plan be tabled.
“Find a better solution,” Meghan Hopkins said. “… The plans presented are both terrible options for the students and staff at Norwalk High School and the community that utilizes the facilities, having to spend their entire high school career at a construction site and compromise their athletic opportunities in high school and beyond, is unacceptable. Get ready for lots of transfers to McMahon.”
The City has asked the BoE for its preference, Mooney explained.
“The responsibility for the construction remains with the city. And it’s just out of consideration for the Board of Education that the city has presented these two options,” he said.
Board of Education member Erica DePalma restated his thoughts.
“The Board of Education is not deciding on whether or not the school moves forward, we are very simply deciding between options A and B as the city came for it, as a courtesy to us, to allow us to recommend our preference between A versus B,” she said.
Yes to a pool
Much of the controversy about the project has revolved around the pool. A petition titled, “Save the NHS Pool!!” garnered 879 signatures.
When State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) announced a surprise plan to build a new Norwalk High School, developed in consultation with then-Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski and City leaders, the big hinge making it possible was a promised 80% reimbursement from the State.
Ordinarily, the best Norwalk can hope for is 32.5% state reimbursement.
But the concept was designed with a $225 million budget in mind and the legislature approved $189 million. The pool was removed from the budget to bring the estimate down to the money authorized by the State, though the City funded a design to include the pool in the new complex.
Still, the Common Council authorized $50 million for the project, much more than the $38 million needed to meet the City’s 80% share of $189 million. Even if it were $225 million, the City’s share would be $45 million.
Duff has repeatedly said the pool will get 50% reimbursement from the State.
With the $50 million that’s been authorized for bonding, “the City funding is available to do the pool, but we need to go to State to see if we can seek the balance the funding to complete the funding package,” Lo said Tuesday.
“What he is saying is there is funding for the pool if we need it,” Norwalk Chief of Staff Laoise King said in an email to NancyOnNorwalk. “Our portion of the pool is only $4 million and there is an extra $12m already approved. As we have said many times, we also have a philanthropist who may be interested in paying for the City share, but the bottom line, as the mayor and council President confirmed last week – is that the pool will be funded.”
Rilling and Livingston released a statement last week, saying, “We want to be clear, the City and Board of Education have always expected to include a pool in the project. We all agree a community of our size, particularly a waterfront community, must have a swimming pool.”
The pool will cost $7.9 million, Lo and Jim Giuliano, the city’s project manager for new school construction, told NancyOnNorwalk after the vote. That includes the enclosure, lockers, mechanicals, and projections to factor in escalating costs.
The sports complex is $9.4 million, Giuliano said.
Concessions to neighbors, addressing concerns
King Street residents have objected to “Option B,” fearing bus traffic.
Lo said Tuesday that the new plan eliminates a driveway off King Street. A hidden-style of emergency egress is planned, with pavement under grass and a gate with a padlock, that first responders would cut off.
No neighbors spoke Tuesday. Lo said the City had met with them last week.
An additional row of trees has been added to the plan, providing more screening from the street, Lo said.
The design already had the lower buildings closest to the street.
“P-tech is a three-story building, Norwalk High School is four-story building, so we kept it more towards the middle of the property,” Lo said. “That will reduce the impact on the neighborhood.”
At least one critic, Diane Lauricella, has suggested there might be ledge where the City plans to build the school.
Lo said he was responsible for the football field project back in 2001 and, “we dug down out at least two to three feet” and found debris and trees, but no ledge. Pilings go down three feet six inches and “we were almost halfway there.”
The City found ledge when it built an addition onto Ponus Ridge Middle School, and “we will manage it,” Lo said, adding that he thinks it’s more likely that there’s ledge where Option A would be built.
“If anything, concerned about subgrade conditions is probably we may still find a soft spot,” Lo said.
Diana Carpio and Kara Nelson Baekey voted against both options.
Nelson Baekey asked Lo about disposal of the petroleum-based turf field. Lo said it’s possible the turf could be recycled and used on site. “The timing may not work. So again, there’s still a lot of things to be worked out in the next year and a half to two years as a design and construction strategy.”
“I will be concerned about the safety hazards around that, release of those chemicals into the air with students on campus. And I would want to understand that,” Nelson Baekey said.
Carpio asked if the air and water will be tested for chemicals during construction.
“I don’t know the specific answer. We would have to comply with all the regulations that’s in place in the industry,” Lo said.
The Board spent considerable time hearing about the plan for students to play sports at other facilities. Norwalk High School Athletic Director Doug Marchetti detailed extensive options. Lo said student transportation is included in the construction budget, it won’t be paid for from the schools funding.
Some new fields could potentially be built sooner than expected, Lo said. Staging is needed for construction materials but once the building envelop is done, grading might begin for fields, which might be ready four to nine months after the new building opens.
No one voted for Option A. Option B was chosen with a 7-2-0 vote. Again, Carpio and Nelson Baekey cast the no votes.
“I know it hasn’t been easy and the construction never is,” Board of Education Chairman Colin Hosten said. “But I do feel strongly that in the long run this will be in the best interest of Norwalk public schools.”