Updated, 5:11 p.m.: Mosby and Harris abstained on $118 million capital budget vote.
NORWALK, Conn. — Four Norwalk Board of Education members had no luck Tuesday in slowing down two critical education choices as Norwalk moves to build new schools, even if they were parroting comments made by Mayor Harry Rilling.
Their five compatriots instead went with the proposal outlined by Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski, approving it without any amendments. That vote set up a subsequent vote, sending this proposal forward through the city’s capital budget process:
- A request for $45 million in the 2017-18 capital budget to build a new school at the Nathaniel Ely School site, to be the new home of Columbus Magnet School and its Banks Street program
- A request for $70.1 million in the 2017-18 capital budget to build onto the Ponus Ridge Middle School site, making it a K-8 STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) magnet school
- A request for $2.2 million in the 2018-19 capital budget and $34.4 million in the 2019-20 capital budget to renovate Columbus Magnet School and offer an International Baccalaureate (IB) program there
- A request for $1.9 million in the 2018-19 capital budget and $30.1 million in the 2019-20 capital budget to renovate Jefferson Elementary School and make it a neighborhood school once again
Rilling was not present, as he is in Washington DC for the U.S. Conference of Mayors get together, but Assistant to the Mayor Laoise King read a statement from him at the beginning of the meeting.
“The price tag for building new schools is not cheap but the mayor believes it is a smart investment in the future of our city. However, he believes that is imperative that parents in the community have an opportunity to fully participate in the process. This is a significant investment and one that should be taken very thoughtfully,” King said.
Although there have been public meetings and a survey, there needs to be more public input, Rilling said through King.
“The recommendation of the type of school has been rushed and lacked significant public engagement,” King said, reading Rilling’s statement. “There’s also been too little public discussion on plans for student relocation and the schedule. A deeper and more robust engagement must be undertaken to insure parent and community voice has an opportunity to shape the direction of these new schools. The mayor supports the Board of Education proposal to build the new schools and he will include the requested funding in capital budget but asks that the vote on the themes and corresponding building needs be delayed.”
State Rep. Bruce Morris (D-140) went on to again urge a delay, as the idea of a magnet school only came forward in “like the last 30 days”
“This is a $180 million investment, local taxpayer dollars, that you the Board have been given to make a decision on,” Morris said, although the schools would be funded at least 30 percent by the state, and Morris said in a previous meeting that the South Norwalk school could get 80 percent reimbursement under a state diversity grant.
“I challenge whether you have got adequate information because the plan that you have has evolved since many of us have started asking questions, as early as October,” Morris said.
Former Common Council member Amanda Brown, Diane Lauricella and former BoE member Migdalia Rivas also asked for more time.
Rev. Lindsay Curtis said he is “absolutely in favor of new schools” but questioned how the plan changed “all of a sudden” from the South Norwalk neighborhood school that was originally suggested to moving Columbus to the Ely site.
“I think what that does is create division within the community. I think that the way we resolve all of this is to involve the community to allow input collectively to find out what is best for South Norwalk and for these two schools specifically,” Curtis said. “… It almost feels punitive because of the resistance that was initially felt with the school in South Norwalk. So all of a sudden, that process was taken off the docket and all of a sudden we are going to move Columbus into that school.”
Adamowski later recounted how many people were involved in the recommendations and said the plan addresses multiple long term issues.
“The school district and its leaders have stared at this problem without action for the past decade,” Adamowski said. “All of the adults will never agree on every last detail, this will never be a perfect solution. Every last person will never feel they were sufficiently involved. These issues cannot be decided by plebiscite. When we try to do that the community becomes divided and immobilized. This is why we have a representative, elected Board of Education, charged with doing the best it can for all students.”
Moving Columbus into Ely saves money, as if it moved out of the Concord Street building and then back in again, that would be double the cost, Adamowski said. It’s also not possible to wait for an IB program, as the time is now, he said.
BoE member Shirley Mosby also used the “all of a sudden” phrase to describe the switch away from a neighborhood school at Ely to a magnet school, which was done after a racial balancing study. The community feels shortchanged, she said, asking for more input.
“Interestingly enough,” the people who were against Ely becoming the site of a school are now for it, Adamowski said.
“I think we have had a lot of community involvement,” Adamowski said. “I know there are people who disagree with that, I think the most frustrating aspect of this is that after all of these meetings, and the survey, you run into people that say ‘I didn’t know.”… I think at some point we have to rely on the member of this board as the elected representatives of all the constituents to make judgments on their behalf, which is what you were elected to do.”
BoE member Yvel Crevecoeur asked if the votes could be separated, so the Board could move the request for building schools forward as a concept, and delay the choice of a school theme for South Norwalk.
The problem is a need to appoint an Ed Specs Committee, which cannot be done without the choice of a theme, Adamowski said. The committee needs about four months, which is about the same amount of time that the city needs to go through its capital budget process, he said, describing a process that has a deadline: the need to get a grant application to the state by the end of June.
“I don’t know how the city does that if you don’t take action tonight. You remember in the original timeline we had hoped you would take action in December so the city would have another month to go through that process,” Adamowski said, expressing doubt that Rilling could speak for the other governmental bodies involved.
Crevecoeur mentioned Rilling’s statement.
“I would be able to get this done within two to three weeks, that’s how I would operate if I had control over this,” Crevecoeur said. “There is no reason why we couldn’t get collaboration and consensus within two or three weeks for us to come back at our next Board meeting, or if not our next Board meeting in four weeks, to vote on a theme. I don’t see why we couldn’t do that. We have already started the conversations on this.”
If Ponus were a STEM and Ely were a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) schools the Board would have twice the purchasing power and there would be cross pollination of teachers, Crevecoeur said.
STEAM isn’t possible because Norwalk has the shortest education day in Fairfield County and cost-prohibitive negotiations with the Norwalk Federation of Teachers would be needed, Adamowski said.
“My concern is promising something that we cannot deliver on,” Adamowski said.
Crevecoeur cited his experience working as an art teacher, but eventually admitted that he thought a STEAM school would not be approved.
BoE Chairman Mike Lyons said that separating the concepts would effectively push off construction for a year; there was a recess, and then a vote on Crevecoeur’s motion.
Artie Kassimis, Sherelle Harris, Crevecoeur and Mosby voted to separate the issues. Voting not to were Bryan Meek, Erik Anderson, Heidi Keyes, Lyons and Barbis.
Lyons went on to laud the “tireless” Barbis, who worked countless volunteer hours to shepherd a facilities plan home to a vote.
The plan has “changed substantially” over the course of a year, Lyons said.
“We started out with just the idea of a local neighborhood school in South Norwalk. It was pointed out to us by Rep. Morris that the racial balance calculations simply wouldn’t work with that kind of model so we went back to the drawing board,” Lyons said.
The IB idea is brilliant and provides for two very robust magnet programs in South Norwalk, Lyons said, going on to quote an educator: “Norwalk culture is to stare and not make a move until every single special interest is happy, which is never.”
As an example, Lyons cited the intersection of Interstate 95 and West Avenue, which “sat as a hole for 30 years” as people asked for “one more year.”
“I am very much against the idea of delaying this and having that be the Norwalk Schools’ hole in the ground,” Lyons said. “As I said, I don’t expect everybody to like everything that we do. There is no way you can put together a proposal this complicated and this expensive and not have a lot of people that are going to disagree with it. That is the nature of democracy. I think it is a fruitless endeavor to try to do anything with the objective to get 100 percent agreement on anything.”
Crevecoeur, Mosby, Harris and Kassimis abstained on approving the facilities plan. Harris and Mosby abstained on the subsequent vote to approve the $118 million capital budget request, with everyone else voting for it, a 7-0-2 vote.