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.”
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.”