NORWALK, Conn. — The Norwalk Board of Education is looking at a sudden new option – moving Columbus Magnet School into the recently constructed Ponus STEAM Academy “lower” building, instead of continuing to search for property on which to build a new Columbus given that the plan to use the Nathaniel Ely site has fallen through.
The BoE would also ask the City to cancel the appropriations for new Columbus construction and for remodeling the existing Chestnut Street building. It would ask that the money instead be used to buy an unnamed parcel of South Norwalk property and build a K-8 neighborhood school there.
“It seems like this, you know, if anything, is a win-win-win,” Norwalk Board of Education Chairman Colin Hosten said at Wednesday’s BoE Finance Committee meeting, where the new plan was unveiled.
Ponus parents reached Thursday by NancyOnNorwalk seemed caught off guard at the proposed reversal from the plan for a K-8 STEAM Academy to a STEAM middle school instead.
Michelle Simoneau Robinson, a Ponus PTO member, told NancyOnNorwalk, “I am indifferent because I don’t know the reasons behind it.”
Ripples spread across Facebook after the plan became public.
“This proposal is so disappointing and so far from the little blue, yellow and green post it notes on poster boards proposed by hundreds of excited and enthusiastic K-5th graders who truly thought they were building their own school…” one parent wrote.
“I just found out about this about 40 minutes ago, and I’m wondering why Ponus families didn’t know about this sooner. All I have is a ton of questions,” a Ponus PTO member wrote.
Attempts to reach Columbus parents were unsuccessful.
Hosten called the idea a “very creative solution for a couple school projects in South Norwalk that have felt a little stuck in recent times,” and thanked Estrella and Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton for coming up with it.
The Ponus Ridge STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) Academy was created with an addition expected to turn Ponus Ridge Middle School into a K-8 facility, at about a $45.5 million cost. The City and the Norwalk Board of Education hoped to simultaneously build Columbus a new facility in land adjacent to Roodner Court on Ely Avenue, but some South Norwalk leaders objected to the 2015 plan to use a small section of Springwood Ely Park as part of the plan. The project sat in limbo for years as the City sought state and federal approval for the needed land swap, a creation of park land to replace what was being eliminated, and it recently became obvious the approval would never come.
“As we know, that original plan just couldn’t happen,” Hamilton said Wednesday.
Without a new home for Columbus, the City couldn’t move ahead with renovating the Chestnut Street building and cries for a new South Norwalk school have escalated. It was an issue in the last election, with Mayor Harry Rilling promising to get one built in his coming 2-year term.
The BoE can move Columbus to the new Ponus building without City approval. Common Council members would vote on reallocating the money so a new neighborhood school could be built.
“We have been committed to a South Norwalk school for quite some time,” Rilling said Friday. “It is a critical need. We will work with the Board of Education to ensure we move a plan forward whatever that plan may end up being.”
If BoE members approve, Columbus could move into Ponus next fall. Jefferson Elementary School students are in the space now, as their school is being renovated and that project is expected to be complete next summer.
Feedback at Wednesday’s BoE Committee meeting was overwhelmingly positive.
“It’s amazingly wonderful to see movement potentially happening” outgoing BoE member Sarah LeMiuex said.
“I am excited to hear that everything is moving forward for all the families in South Norwalk,” BoE member Diana Carpio said.
Estrella did not respond to a Thursday email asking if she planned to create a STEAM elementary school elsewhere in Norwalk or to beef up the elementary science curriculum at all the schools.
Specifically, the BoE would ask the City to close out two existing capital projects:
- New Columbus School at Ely, with an unspent project balance of $41,605,985
- Norwalk Global Academy, with an unspent project balance of $34,392,500
The City would then authorize $76 million “to acquire a new parcel of land in South Norwalk and to construct a new 682 student South Norwalk pre-K to 5 neighborhood school on such parcel.”
In May, Estrella said the City was going through a land acquisition process for a 12-acre plot in South Norwalk. The only parcel of that size shown on the City’s GIS system is an 11.74-acre parcel at 1 Meadow St. Extension, owned by Hatch & Bailey. It’s appraised at $8.1 million and is adjacent to two city-owned lots.
South Norwalk is home to 118 students that “have a significant impact in terms of the enrollment numbers across the district,” Estrella said Wednesday.
Most South Norwalk kids are bused to other areas, as there is no neighborhood school. Building one would “drastically impact” the school district’s “zoning,” Estrella said. Without a new school and given the current budget, “CMS could have run the risk of losing their middle school program by moving them to the to the Ponus campus.”
A demographer will explain the ramifications of moving Columbus to Ponus at next week’s BoE meeting, Estrella said.
“We had a really productive meeting with the CMS community this week, and the feedback overall was very positive. They’re very excited about this possibility,” Estrella said, commenting that the Ponus space is “well suited” for the Columbus educational approach.
“I know that (Ponus Ridge Middle School Principal Damon Lewis) spoke to the Ponus community about the fact that they will remain as a 6-to-8 school, and there was no issue raised about that possibility. So we’re really excited about the fact that so far, the community has well received this plan.”
But Norwalk Parents for Education Facebook group administrator Jessica Garnett wrote, “In the end this is all about money. How was NPS going to afford to staff this new STEAM school? The city would barely pass the operating budget this year and that was dependent on using Federal Cares funds. This saves the city money so instead of building a new Columbus and a new SoNo School they only have to build the new SoNo school.”
Garnett told NancyOnNorwalk, “I’m sure I speak for many parents who sat through endless meetings about the strategic plan, got excited about this STEAM option and are now left with more questions than answers. I think there is frustration that the Columbus Community was advised off this change before the Ponus Community. I assumed that a change this big would require BoE debate and a vote.”
Updated, 10:48 p.m.: More information.