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Norwalk BoE hopes new facilities feasibility study will chart ‘equitable’ path

Wednesday’s Norwalk Board of Education Facility Committee meeting on Zoom.

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.”

12 comments

Susan Wallerstein January 29, 2021 at 8:12 am

More than 30 years ago our children spent the day at a Greenwich middle school where their Dad taught. Over dinner that night I asked about the experience. The response: the bathrooms are so clean, the stall doors close, and there’s plenty of toilet paper. Plus ca change…

Mike Barbis January 29, 2021 at 8:41 am

I wonder why it has been 7 years … favoritism? I would love to know who benefited from no school being built … Its so easy to make these grand statements but where are the facts? What do these quotes mean?

Bryan Meek January 29, 2021 at 8:58 am

This city spends an inordinate amount of time and money on planning things that never happen.

How was the plan to build new schools in SoNo not equitable?

This quote is the most puzzling of all.

“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.

The community surveys overwhelmingly showed that citizens wanted the new schools. Maybe this word “community” refers to Duff and Simms who aren’t really interested in helping SoNo.

John O'Neill January 29, 2021 at 10:41 am

Some Friday thoughts:
1) South Norwalk should have a school. I know he’s a lightning rod, but didn’t Mike Barbis get into trouble when he complained about that very same fact a couple of years ago. Had some listened to him maybe it would already be built and operational. I realize many don’t care for him and his sometimes incendiary tone. If he can help solve a problem why not listen to him. As stated by all above this shouldn’t be political, right?
2) Regarding bathroom stalls. The issue to me is not necessarily the stalls themselves (although it’s a travesty that they’re not fixed) It really is an example of the “broken windows” policy that’s not in effect at our schools. Because our schools don’t discipline small offenses that lack of discipline leads to bigger issues. In this case destroying bathroom stalls and getting away with it! So by not discipling rowdy students those with the means leave for greener pastures. You can fix all the stalls you want, but lack of student accountability leads to an environment where those looking for stability will leave. Repeat – It’s not the broken stalls it’s the path that leads to the broken stalls. This is not rocket science.
3) Back to Basics should be the theme about educating students. That doesn’t mean going back to a bygone era of intolerance. It means teaching and expecting our children to know and understand the basic concepts to springboard into the future. That includes Respect and accountability. Guess what — We don’t need to spend a dime to instill that in kids.
4) In closing — Fix the darn stalls

Alexandrea Kemeny January 29, 2021 at 11:25 am

As Superintendent Estrella said we need “to create an environment that’s more suitable ” for each individual student. I love Estrella’s idea about Briggs becoming a welcome center! But I would include an orientation center in the same facility where non-English students are grouped for intensive English language learning before they are thrust into the classroom. This will “create an environment” that is less stressful for them and help them become more successful after they have a rudimentary grasp of our language.This will benefit them in the long run because they will be placed in a proper classroom setting after their individual strengths are identified and will benefit other students because there will be less distractions in the classroom. That’s how to become more successful!

We need to support the teachers and help them have more suitable classrooms by not making each classroom so academically diverse. I’m talking elementary level where foundational learning takes place. This is already happening in the secondary level. How can you fulfill the needs of the highest students while addressing the needs of the lowest in a seven hour day? Let’s not chase out our highest students to private schools or Bob Duff’s “Open Choice Program”. (see yesterday’s article from NON) to other school districts!Let’s make up our classrooms in such a way that support the needs of each student by flexible groupings!(ex.) Students with high math aptitude are grouped with high and middle high math groups! Students will reading difficulties grouped together so a teacher can give them her/his undivided attention.Let’s get more School Choice in Norwalk and not “Open Choice” out of Norwalk.
I don’t quite understand the situation of South Norwalk not wanting a neighborhood school but if they don’t want it- Let it go!I’m guessing the Board wants it because it’ll save in busing costs. (I for one loved going to a neighborhood school not having to endure the awful bus ride) But if they don’t want it find an alternative! Perhaps expanding Tracey school’s wonderful Character Program! Buy St. Philips school from the Catholic Diocese! The properties are connected and you can have two facilities (a K-2 and 3-5)on one campus!
However this doesn’t alleviate the cost of busing. Now, there’s an issue to be reckoned with.The average taxpayer needs to know that the cost of running one bus a year is $90,000 with with maintenance costs, gas, bus driver and insurance. Am I wrong?
We need create, innovative ideas to make Norwalk the school system for successful students it once was. I know because I’m a product of that school system and I’ve taught 31 years in the Norwalk Public Schools.

Bryan. . . How about a P.S.? January 29, 2021 at 7:59 pm

How about planning things that never happen, but also pushing through an enormous “thing” that was never planned, i.e., building a new Norwalk High School? This was not the BOE’s plan because the BOE recognized the true priorities in the district; in fact, Mr. Duff demonstrated against the BOE’s plan, when he opposed the school in South Norwalk.

Now, despite the warnings that the City has reached its bonding limit, now there is a need for a $7 million renovation of a building that the BOE couldn’t wait to close not so many years ago. The promise at the time was that the property would surely sell to someone interested in developing the parcel, thereby adding to the city’s tax base. Arguably, it might also have provided additional employment. I wonder whatever happened to that plan, too?

I surely don’t oppose a center for the district’s new arrivals because the space that is currently in use is inadequate and the location is inappropriate, but couldn’t this new center be an add-on to the South Norwalk school?

Barbara Meyer-Mitchell January 29, 2021 at 9:06 pm

I think there is a fundamental disconnect in the understanding of why the South Norwalk school has not been built. The site that was proposed and designed would have removed open space from South Norwalk. If you look at a satellite view of Norwalk, you will see how little preserved open space there is in South Norwalk, and how the residential areas are right up against industrial uses. The new school in South Norwalk does not have the capacity to serve all the children who are “District 99”, but it would move us in the right direction of providing an option for families who would like to attend school in their neighborhood. Families answered the survey that they wanted a new school. They just didn’t want it built on their protected park land. I would feel the same way if some suggested building city hall in the Cranbury Park woods.

Thank you Susan and John for supporting the common sense notion that we should have functional bathrooms.

Mike Barbis January 29, 2021 at 11:57 pm

Barbara — I love your revisionist history. The 2016 survey very clearly stated that residents in South Norwalk wanted a school at Ely. And let’s not go crazy about that Open Space — the first time I ever visited the site, it was a dumping ground with old appliances, garbage and even a car! I’ll be sure to forward you the survey results. You and Sherelle are trying to twist the history to suit your narrative and your allies — but those aren’t the facts!

Taxpayer February 3, 2021 at 8:39 pm

There is a difference between “equity” and “equality.” Norwalk BOE should do their best to remember that when making policies. Be clear about what you mean and don’t use vague words.

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