NORWALK, Conn. — The Board of Education’s facilities feasibility study, now underway, will do more than focus on wear and tear in Norwalk Public Schools’ buildings – in a “real exciting, innovative component,” it will “go beyond boilers and roof” and “take a very close look at what our classrooms are like and what they could potentially look like in the next five to 10 years,” NPS Chief of School Operations Frank Costanzo said.
There’s also an emotional component.
“If I think about what I’d like the Board’s legacy to be, it would be to create the infrastructure such that facility decisions are very fact-driven and less political. Because (the Board) thinks that is the way to make the best decisions to benefit our community long term and to create a template for future Boards to live into,” Board of Education Facilities Committee Chairwoman Barbara Meyer-Mitchell said Wednesday.
“We don’t want to have winners and losers, but to have a community that feels as though this was a fair process, and that we’re doing things in a way that’s that makes sense,” Costanzo said.
“I’m hoping that through this study, we eradicate some of those challenges that might be creating a disproportionate distribution of resources across the system,” Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella said.
Looking back to look forward
The Board in December approved a $204,591 contract with “Newman + DLR Group” to conduct a facilities feasibility study. This comes after an extensive facilities feasibility study done by Milone & MacBroom in 2015, which in 2017 resulted in approval for a plan for two new schools and two renovated schools to be done in five years.
Half of that plan is coming to fruition, but the South Norwalk component is stalled – community leaders objected to the land swap built into the new school plan, which would in effect trade heavily forested park space for recreational fields under school jurisdiction, and challenged it at the State level. The issue is unresolved, leaving the plan to build a new Columbus Magnet School facility in limbo, which then holds up any effort to renovate the existing Columbus building.
“The last time we had a facility study, we created a ton of controversy with the community regarding what to do first. And it really tore people apart. And it was really harmful. And those resentments are still here with us,” Meyer-Mitchell said, during the discussion at Wednesday’s Board of Education Facilities Committee meeting.
Columbus is “something that we’re actively looking at, and I’m hoping that we can reach a solution around that soon,” Estrella said.
“I’m trying to think of how to put this nicely…I just hope so because sometimes it seems like it keeps getting kicked down the road,” Board member Sherelle Harris said. “Maybe it’s because you know, different people have conflicting interests as far as what should be done. But I just hope we don’t lose sight of that.”
“It’s been seven years since I first engaged in that conversation with the new school in South Norwalk, and I find that that should be, on a moral basis, of high priority for our district,” Meyer-Mitchell said.
Study on a tight timeline
Newman and DLR began school walk-throughs Tuesday, NPS Director of Facilities Bill Hodel said. The consultants are poised to present “preliminary scenarios” at the March 2 BoE meeting, and a brief sneak peek during Saturday’s Board retreat, according to Costanzo.
Community conversations are planned where “they’ll ask specific questions about the ways in which our different stakeholders hope that classrooms might function in the future,” Costanzo said. “They’ll take a close review of the district’s current and future capacity, and so that means district enrollment, looking at the school portfolio in relation to our enrollment and projected enrollment will look like over the next five to 10 years.”
Newman and DLR are talking to Milone & MacBroom and sharing data, he said.
Investing in keeping people in Norwalk?
The goal is to “really develop a district-wide facilities study that addresses current and future capital needs, looking at the levels of funding, that we’ve prioritized, looking at the current standards that the district has around its buildings, what we can modernize or replace what we can expand within the confines of the city and the capital budget,” Costanzo said.
The Board’s aspirations come in tight financial times – Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz in December warned that some previously approved capital budget projects ought to get the ax, given the high debt ratio.
“These aren’t going to be easy decisions,” he said. “The problem is it’s not just financial. It’s financial, operational and political. It’s sort of it’s an investment in the city. When we invest in education …we get a return on education. Our schools are better: We attract families, we attract businesses, all those good things. So it’s an investment decision.”
Estrella hopes for $7 million this year for a welcome center at the former Briggs High School, a plan that wasn’t on the books a year ago. Dachowitz is scheduled to issue his 2021-22 capital budget recommendation today, Friday Jan. 29.
“I think the Board is eager to be a happy partner with the City in setting this plan (via the facilities study) so that we don’t create hardships for taxpayers, but that we are providing resources that attract people to our city and retain them,” Meyer-Mitchell said Wednesday.
Meyer-Mitchell mentioned Monday that she’s heard people leave Norwalk because of school bathrooms.
“I have had so many parents call me to say that their children will not go to the bathroom at school, their stalls are lacking doors, they’re missing sinks, it smells bad,” she told the Democratic Town Committee. She said a middle school governance council leader “told me that she had a number of acquaintances who had chosen to opt to move or to go to a private school rather than attend (public) school, and the bathroom was the deciding factor.”
On Wednesday, she pointed out that much of the current need can be traced to “the Great Recession in 2010, to 2012, (when) our budget was cut to the bone. And the decision was made to preserve teachers, which is the right decision at the time, and that we scaled back on some of this maintenance work.”
“We’ve had really decades of deferred maintenance and that recessionary period which put us back and so there will be Some decisions that we’ll have to get made where we can’t do, you know, everything all at once,” Costanzo said.
Consultants can help build “accountability parameters around the maintenance and care of our learning environment… almost like in a rubric fashion allow us to kind of rate and assess the current state of the learning environments within our building,” Estrella said.
She gave an example of 20% of school buildings’ interior getting an annual paint job, a practice in her former school district.
“If that is a consistent practice, then then there really aren’t winners and losers, because there’s a plan,” Costanzo said.
Studying educational needs
But it’s more than “cycles of improvement” for infrastructure, it’s “what are the shifts in the current structures that need to be made so that we can create an environment that’s more suitable for the learning environment that we’re trying to create,” Estrella said. That could be features like flexible seating or learning labs, whatever becomes popular.
It’s a question of “how do we work with what we have” and “as we are thinking about future renovations, keeping these pieces at the forefront of our conversation,” Estrella said.
The consultants’ “education environment walkthrough” is done in a separate visit from the “maintenance and mechanical walkthrough,” Costanzo said. In the former, “an instructional point person takes them through most of the learning spaces in the building.” In the latter, “they really do an inventory of the building from basement right on up to the roof of the school, looking at everything that a Board should be considering when it’s thinking about maintaining its infrastructure.”
Estrella learned during her listening and learning conversations this summer “that school choice is really important,” she said. NPS has important offerings like P-Tech, the Center for Global Studies and Columbus, and “We want to make sure that we have the infrastructure, in terms of the classroom spaces and other common spaces in the building that allow the feasibility of these programs to be successful in the buildings or infrastructures that they’re in.”
“It’s such a breath of fresh air to elevate the discussion beyond the mechanics into the educational needs,” Meyer-Mitchell said.
Hoping to ‘evaluate correctly’
Board member Diana Carpio said she looks forward to a data-driven discussion. As a parent, before getting elected to the Board in 2019, “you only hear one side,” she continued. “I am actually looking forward to statistics, and what those studies will bring out, to be able to evaluate correctly and discuss with older board members the ideas that they have had in the past. And at the same time, keeping in mind that we may have to rearrange a few things, just because of the way the study might bring it out or things that are going to be a priority, that were not a priority before.”
“I agree with Diana, I just want to make sure everything is equitable,” Harris said. “And to your point, Barbara, that is not political or one sided, because one interest group has this interest … (and) things just don’t sort of disappear either because, you know, a certain group is not vocal or not robust enough, you know, to speak out for themselves.”