Norwalk BoE greenlights NHS ‘Ed Specs’

Norwalk High School would be rebuilt, if a proposal made by State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) comes to fruition.

NORWALK, Conn. – The proposal to build a new Norwalk High School moved forward Tuesday as the Board of Education approved “Ed Specs” on an eight to one vote.

Again, they expressly hinged their approval on assurances that other Norwalk Public Schools capital budget priorities are restored for funding, against Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz’s recommendation.

“The Board is very, very happy and very optimistic to have this opportunity,” BoE Chairwoman Sarah LeMieux said. “We are continuing to do the work that we need to do to move it forward. And also reserving the right to revoke our approval if anything in the process does not all out the way that we have been assured that it will.”

Former BoE Chairman Mike Barbis cast the lone opposing vote.

“The fact is there are $10 million worth of items that are very important that have been removed because we’re being given so much money,” Barbis said. “And you know some of these are really important, furniture for Ponus, our whole technology budget. And so I just think until that gets resolved, I personally will not be voting in favor of this.”

The new school proposal was popped on everyone in December, with State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) announcing that a new school could be built with 80 percent reimbursement from the state because it would be a pilot program. Konstantinos (Kosta) Diamantis, Director of the Connecticut Office of School Construction Grants & Review, and Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney (D-11) were on hand to express support.

The school would expand the P-Tech Academy to include 100 students from Bridgeport or Stamford and a new Arts Academy would be created, to include 100 students from Norwalk’s wealthy neighboring communities in its student body.

Diamantis specifically highlighted the expense of building a black box theater and said the state is looking to regionalize the opportunity, to avoid building such a theater in every community.

“It is hard to look at what has been presented and not see a potentially amazing opportunity,” Board member Colin Hosten said Tuesday. “I think that there are concerns among the Board, among the community about whether these opportunities will actually come to fruition. But it’s not really our place to say. I’m not the governor. I’m not on the state legislature. And so I don’t want to make a decision based on what’s not my purview.”

Board member Sherelle Harris emphasized that the Ed Specs (Education Specifications) approval comes with the caveat that the NHS project “doesn’t interfere with the funding of projects that we have.”

“I actually agree with you, that I want to make sure that that was added,” Board member Heidi Keyes replied. “I know that publicly it was said that that would not affect that. So I just want to make sure we have assurances that that will not happen.”

But, “I feel as if it wasn’t as properly vetted as it could have been for all stakeholders involved,” Keyes said.

“There were Board members who were left out,” Harris agreed.

Barbis said “the fact is” that other projects were taken out of the capital budget.

While Dachowitz did not recommend them for funding, the Planning Commission has not made its recommendation and neither has Mayor Harry Rilling, Harris countered.

The Planning Commission’s deadline is March 5. Rilling has until March 13 to make his recommendation. The Board of Estimate and Taxation then tackles the issue and, finally, the Common Council finishes the process by April 15.

“I take the Mayor for his word that things will not be swapped out for this, that anything that needs to be restored will be restored,” LeMieux said. “This is what I heard. And I trust that this process will work as it should and in the event that things go awry, we will put the brakes on.”

Harris clarified her comments to specify that the Board doesn’t “distrust” Rilling, but that the caveat is a “reminder.”


Ed Specs?

Some members of the community are confused about “Ed Specs,” LeMieux said.

“It is essentially a list of rooms that will happen and things that would be good to have in those rooms,” she explained. “And that it is not actual design, that it is not any kind of architectural study or planning that it is not curriculum that it is not staffing that it is just rooms that would be good to have and things that would be good to have in those rooms.”

Ed Specs are a necessary part of the approval process, as an architect will use them to make a conceptual design for the school. This design will be submitted to the state as part of the funding request. It’s necessary for the Common Council to approve the entire expenditure before the application is put in for reimbursement. Given the unique situation, Norwalk needs to get the application in by June 30 to qualify for the 80 percent reimbursement, according to Duff.

Duff needs to write special legislation for a pilot program, to get the funding.

Le Mieux said, “Hypothetically, if the legislation that needs to pass for us to get the reimbursement rate does not pass, we will not move forward with the project.”


Bryan Meek February 19, 2020 at 9:57 am

Why hasn’t the Senate bill even been written? If it has, where is it? Many others have almost 50, including legalizing pot and sports betting, taxing insulin and taxing the internet more. Was Duff too busy campaigning in New Hampshire? If he hadn’t lied to the Superintendent already about the placement on the priority list, I’d give a little more rope here, but this whole thing stinks from head to tail. I don’t think the current board had any other choice, but I hope they realize all of their “caveats” are non binding and they are dealing with someone who has never gotten equity for Norwalk in his 20 years of self promotion.

Bryan Meek February 19, 2020 at 10:02 am

In full transparency, to help satisfy the City’s Finance Director who is out hunting down lattes and scone expenses, the BOE should disclose the man hours poured into these Ed Specs and at what cost. Are these costs going against the stalled renovations against NHS? Which pot of money is this coming from? For the labor expensed on this, what would those resources have done otherwise?

Concerned Taxpayer February 19, 2020 at 10:16 am

It’s hard to imagine the State would offer an additional $120 mill for a new school without ulterior motive, clearly regionalization is the motive. Sadly, other than the Superintendent, the key players don’t make much mention of regionalization impacts. We’re all led to look at the extra $$ and relish the offer as too good to pass up.

The 80 percent reimbursement was offered because regionalization increases efficiencies for the State, which is one of the Governor’s goals (this has been stated). This move impacts the scope of the BOE, as new regional players get introduced with a large buy-in from Hartford. Unfortunately, the City’s ambitions for improving reading and math within NPS takes a back seat to new expenses, discussion & personnel time needed to roll out a regional school. This school was not a priority before, but the allure of money made it a focal point. The impulsive push to sell the state a majority stake in the school will add another layer of bureaucracy. Rilling & Duff may be under-serving the community with their silence on regionalization, but will have to make sure the legislation provides opportunity for the State to achieve savings in administration. While ultimately a cheaper model, we may be voting to eliminate local jobs down the line, and if administration authority shifts outside the community, it carries risks.

In the meantime taxpayers are spending $50k on architect drawings (sans state legislation), and one could only imagine the developers and contractors seeking preferences on construction.

John ONeill February 19, 2020 at 10:29 am

Has anyone else given thought to the fact that this all started 30 days after the last election? Coincidence? The Board of Ed doesn’t seem to have a full grasp of the situation, but is moving the ball forward anyway. Per Sherelle Harris: “As long as this project doesn’t interfere with other projects we have” — What about the $ 10 Million being pulled per Barbis? Per Heidi Keyes: “It was not as properly vetted as it could have been for all stakeholders” Are you kidding me?? Per Sarah Lemieux: “We can put the brakes on at any time” Really? Last time I checked it is very difficult to stop a speeding locomotive….The Board seems to be pushing this thru without enough “vetting” Everyone seems to be taking Rilling at “his word” – This is no way to run an airline. Has common sense been left outside these discussions? Why in the world does this have to be rushed thru? It doesn’t make any sense. There’s so much about this that doesn’t add up. Even the biggest proponents of this project should understand this..

Steve February 19, 2020 at 3:06 pm

One lesson that clear from Norwalk is strike when the iron is hot. Puttering around leads to circular firing squads. The people who witch and complain that things move too fast or too slow, too little discipline or too much, placating minorities or attacking, too long a school day but more English, Math, Art etc..should be added to the curriculum. Ironically its often the same people who say these things, depending on who they want to criticize or attack.
As for regionalization, that boat has sailed…the Wiltons, Westports, Dariens and New Canaans have served notice of that. The little regionalization we’ve had like CGS in Norwalk and AITE in Stamford have been overwhelming successes.

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