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Norwalk BoE mulls options for NHS, as City offers reassurances on pool

An aerial schematic of Option B for Norwalk High School, presented in a recent community forum. Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo indicated Wednesday that this is preferred, but elected officials haven’t made a decision yet.

NORWALK, Conn. — As Board of Education members take some time to consider the two options for a new Norwalk High School, Mayor Harry Rilling and Council President Tom Livingston (D-District E) are attempting to reassure the community – a pool is in the plan.

“We want to be clear, the City and Board of Education have always expected to include a pool in the project. We all agree a community of our size, particularly a waterfront community, must have a swimming pool,” the pair said in a Thursday statement.

While the project is trumpeted as being subject to 80% reimbursement from the State through special legislation, Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo clarified Wednesday that he expects the total cost will be $225 million, even if the legislature authorized $189 million.

The pool was “kept aside” as part of adjusting to that lower dollar figure from the State, and, “We know we were always going to look for ways to pay for it,” he said, admitting that describing it as an “add/alternate” has created confusion.

“It is a construction and design term,” because it’s not in the budget, “but we have every intention to build it and find the money for it.”

Lo and company originally developed a new high school concept based on an expectation that the State would authorize a $225 plan for 80% reimbursement, based on conversations with Konstantinos (Kosta) Diamantis, then-Director of the Connecticut Office of School Construction Grants & Review, initiated by State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) and continued with then-Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski, Mayor Harry Rilling and other officials.

When the State shifted the estimate to $189 million, the City began talking about the pool as an “add/alternate.”

The FBI is investigating the school construction grants overseen by Diamantis before Gov. Ned Lamont prompted him to retire from his post in October. Rilling said last month that he didn’t foresee the investigation having any effect on the high school project proceeding. He said it had undergone oversight and approval by the State legislature, which approved its funding.

 

BoE takes more time to consider

Kaestle Boos Associates Inc. has developed two plans for a new Norwalk High School.

  • Option A is estimated at $191 million and would construct the new buildings in the same general area the schools are now.
  • Option B would be $193 million and put the new complex entirely along King Street.

 

BoE Facilities Committee members on Monday tabled a decision on which option they preferred: the phased in approach to building in the existing school location and its disruption to student learning activities and high school experience, or the proposal to change the King Street neighborhood with a four-story structure along the road instead of a football field.

The delaying tactic came after Jim Giuliano of Construction Solutions Group, the city’s project manager for new school construction, and Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo announced they’re working to keep school buses off King Street, in response to neighborhood objections.

Buses were only expected to be there to enter school property and would have exited along County Street, Giuliano said. But a plan is developing to have buses cross the path of parent drop off, with security staff control, as part of coming and going from Strawberry Hill Road. Seven or eight options are being considered, with a traffic consultant involved in the deliberations. There would still be a driveway on King Street but it would be for emergency access only, would feature a gate with a lock that firefighters could cut off, Lo said.

“We intend to meet with (neighbors) early next week on site to go over some of their concerns and … look at some of the plans that we have,” Lo said.

Plans to deal with athletic needs were also reviewed, in the event option B is chosen. Football games would be played at Brien McMahon High School and soccer programs would probably go to West Rocks. The City will reach out to All Saints to see if fields could be leased, Lo said.

“Once we figure out the strategy, we will start putting a price tag on how much it costs” for transportation, Lo said, clarifying that the transportation expenses will be paid for as a project expense, not an added expense for the school district’s operating budget.

Board of Education Chairman Colin Hosten said it was good that the public has been able to weigh in on the options, but, “This is still a really monumental decision… it’s a lot of moving parts to each one, you know, including our athletic plan and how that has implications for transportation costs, and so forth.”

He suggested moving the options forward to the next full Board of Education meeting, giving BoE members “a couple extra weeks to kind of nail down some of these still open questions” and also allow the public to continue offering feedback.

Kara Nelson Baekey, Sherelle Harris and Diana Carpio agreed.

“There’s a lot of unanswered questions, and we still need a lot of information. This is a big decision that we have to decide on,” Carpio said.

 

‘A dealbreaker’

“The pool really needs to be a no brainer as part of this project, by hook or by crook,” Norwalk High School Athletic Director Doug Marchetti said Monday, mentioning the swim programs both through the school and through the Recreation and Parks Department, and school lifeguarding and aquatic fundamentals classes.

Lo mentioned the pool’s longstanding mechanical issues and structural problems. In 2016, the pool was repaired with $150,000 of State money.

Under option A, the school would be without a pool for a year and a half and under option B, the new school would be built with the pool, Lo said, although as mentioned the funding for a pool construction has not been arranged.

Hosten commented that based on community feedback, not having a pool is “almost a deal breaker.”

Nearly 800 people have signed a petition posted three days ago to “Save the NHS Pool!

Rilling said last week that a pool is not subject to State reimbursement. Speaking Wednesday, Giuliano said the pool is estimated to cost $8 million, with 40% reimbursement from the State.

Thursday’s joint statement from Rilling and Livingston said:

“A pool has been designed for both proposed locations for the new school. Funding for the new Norwalk High pool will be decided as the project progresses. This appears to have created the impression that there is a question as to whether the pool will happen. We can assure the community that it will. We are thankful that the state has committed to a 50% reimbursement for the pool, something our state delegation achieved specifically because of the importance of a pool to our community. The reimbursement for a pool is extremely rare, and something we fully intend to take advantage of. We are exploring multiple funding streams and are committed to including it in the project.”

 

 

Explaining the dollar figures

The “40% reimbursement” reference was part of a confusing conversation prompted Wednesday by questioning from Council member Thomas Keegan (R-District D), in which Lo said he really thinks the project will cost $225 million.

The calculation includes 80% reimbursement for most costs but athletic facilities get 40% reimbursement, and there are “hard costs” and “soft costs,” he said. There are contingency costs and architectural fees.

The State approved “40% reimbursement” for a pool but that was part of a $189 million overall budget, Lo said.

“Whatever amount above $189 million, that does not get reimbursement. So if you add … the pool (it) does not get any reimbursement under those circumstances,” he said.

Keegan asked why then would the City expect reimbursement for a pool, since the construction is estimated to use the entire $189 million budget.

“Additional money would be needed,” Lo said, indicating that another request might be made to the State.

Lo reminded everyone that typically Norwalk gets 32.3% reimbursement for renovation costs and 22.3% for new construction. If you say the project is roughly $200 million and you get 80% reimbursement, then that’s $120 million, he said.

“I just wanted to give you the information, the dollar amount that we’re talking about,” Lo said. “And also one number you want to think about is that every year we came in 5% contingency for increases. So for one year, we are talking about …$10 million a year increase in pricing.”

Lo allowed that option A is “very, very burdensome” and “we prefer” option B even if it’s $2 million more because “we are better positioned to control change orders and financial risks.”

9 comments

John O'Neill March 4, 2022 at 6:56 am

If I didn’t have so much respect for NON I would think the writer of this article was stoned. It seems like a script from Abbott and Costello who’s on first. Possibly a three card monte game. If the players involved in above actually read their comments they might be embarrassed. The one thing that IS crystal clear is NO ONE has any idea what the true cost of this project will be. In fact, no one above even discussed the dollars being tossed around were generated before Biden’s “transitory” inflation. Shouldn’t someone give us revised numbers using current commodity/labor prices? On another point the yearly escalator clause of $10 million? That alone adds somewhere between $20 to $40 million to the project if I understand the numbers. Maybe the city would be wise to hire an INDEPENDENT construction consultant to walk us thru these numbers as it seems no one truly has a grasp of them.
Any member would be a fool to sign off on this deal as currently structured.

Bruce Kimmel March 4, 2022 at 9:03 am

Thank heavens the Common Council is moving carefully on this project. Good work. But, unfortunately, the unanswered questions about the high school project keep increasing:

1. The former Hartford building official who proposed the 80% reimbursement did so while acknowledging that the state had moved away from those types of high-reimbursement projects. The rationale for the 80% reimbursement was that the school would attract 200 students from other districts, at least 100 from nearby suburban districts who would attend the new high school’s arts academy. The Darien BOE’s recent refusal to accept 16 kindergarten kids from Norwalk raises questions about the likelihood of the projected seat exchange being successful. Thus the question: If the high school is not a multi-district magnet, does the city still get the 80%?

2, The new high school was first publicly discussed in December 2019. More than two years later, the costs of the school are still up in the air. The state has indicated the city will receive a reimbursement rate based on the school costing no more than $189 million. The city believes the project will cost $225 million. A difference of $36 million!! Which is so unheard of, I feel like saying it’s impossible. There are clearly two visions at work here; problem is, the only one that counts vis-a-vis reimbursement is the state’s. Thus the question: The city’s finance director has clearly indicated that Norwalk is moving into uncharted territory when it comes to debt service. He even raised the possibility that we could lose our AAA credit rating. One wonders whether his pessimistic projections included a possible $36 million of un-reimbursement school construction costs.

3. I have not seen any recent discussions about projected school capacity. The new high school is meant to house 2,000 students. Going forward ten or even twenty years, will Norwalk be able to fill the McMahon and Norwalk facilities? It is important to note that the school facilities plan adopted by the BOE and city in 2015 was based on enrollment numbers; at the time, Norwalk was about 109% capacity, but the consultants felt that there was no impending space problem with our high schools. Thus the question: Is there a more recent demographic study that indicates we will definitely need the very-much-enlarged new Norwalk High School?

4. I have read in the local media that option A could be dangerous (because of asbestos) and disruptive (because of construction) to students, and that option B could be dangerous (because of traffic) and disruptive (because of traffic) to students (especially athletes who would lose their playing fields for several years) and families along King Street (who might not be able to get out of their driveways in the morning). Perhaps it’s time to return to the drawing board.

Mack March 4, 2022 at 9:47 am

Sorry, but these folks that support the construction of a new NHS on this existing site have lost touch with reality. While It does seem to fit the general thought process that drives our political leadership team these days, it lacks any degree of practicality and common sense. Tax, borrow and spend. Tell me what I want to hear and make me feel good please. Let’s try to stuff a 5 pound school onto a 2 pound site. And in the process end up with an overpriced and inferior product due to all the restrictions, limitations and obstacles imposed. Bad, bad, bad!

Piberman March 4, 2022 at 11:03 am

Who would be surprised Norwalk well known for its failing public school system would continue to ignore efforts for improvement but focus attention to a new “pool”. Our BOE is adding to its reputation. Aren’t their any leaders in our One Party City Hall or in our Common Council that understand there are far more pressing problems for our deeply troubled public school system ? Maybe our Supt – paid $300k + tops in CT – needs a salary raise and contract extension. When push comes to shove our City leaders don’t seem anxious to tackle why most City public school students fail to meet CT Edu graduation requirements. Don’t they care about our students ?

Lisa Brinton March 4, 2022 at 11:49 am

If only the mayor’s administration spent as much time advocating for Norwalk, as they did taking down the new moms in the Democrat District E primary.

Aside from insufficient ECS funds needed for operating expenses or a high school we don’t need, we’re faced with looking to a philanthropist to fund a pool, while the state tears down the current one!?? It takes nerve to suggest a philanthropist, considering the city’s 7 year tax credits for the apartments built with pools 🤣 or the lame fact that we don’t have a YMCA with a pool!! To all the elected officials, sitting in their living rooms on Zoom, who’ve gone along with this political train-wreck, when we don’t have enough money to 1) run the current schools, 2) enough air conditioning in the current schools or 3) a South Norwalk elementary. It is insane. Our high needs students need a longer school year without melting in the classroom or a local elementary, so they aren’t bussed all over town. This mess is coming from a group of politicians in the Democrat Party that claim to be for ‘the people.’ What a very sad joke.

Piberman March 4, 2022 at 3:06 pm

As long as City homeowners who fund most of our “renter’s City” demand change from our One Party City governance we’ll continue to have high taxes funding a failing public school system, embarrassingly overpaid public school Administrators and a City that discourages major firms from bringing good jobs. Failing public schools is only one of the major costs paid by our City under our One Party Democratic governance.

The contrast with our surrounding towns with their superb admired public schools and well regarded local governance keeps on growing. Our surrounding towns encourage well qualified citizens with business backgrounds to manage their public schools. Earning the praise of local residents. While Norwalk elects a poorly qualified BOE relying on its school administrators to manage its failing public schools.

With its well known failing public schools receiving more attention and renters replacing homeowners Norwalk is in danger of passing the point of no return. A transient mostly renters high tax City with its shabby Downtown and failing public schools may well be heading to a point of no return. An unneeded new high school will just advertise we’re still the “hole in the middle of the donut”. One surrounded by some of the best governed towns in the entire nation where their citizens are proud of their superb good schools.

Piberman March 6, 2022 at 2:49 pm

Assurances on the “pool” as a crucial component of our City’s failing public school system remind us of the City Hall promises about how a Downtown Mall would bring vitality and new critical mass to our shabby Downtown. Sadly Mall visitors report its a nice place to visit because they have it all to themselves. If City Hall leaders can’t properly manage our public schools or oversee a new Mall or bring major new jobs into our City then just what can we hope for that they’ll “do right” ? Other than raise our property taxes to help well paid City employees overcome rising prices ?

Piberman March 6, 2022 at 7:01 pm

Good for Bruce Kimmel. Two years later our BOE/Council still doesn’t know numbers of students nor cost to taxpayers. How embarrassing for our elected officials. Especially the ones claiming we’re the best managed City in CT.

But we can be confident. After the new high school is built as apples fall from trees the majority of City school grads will still fail to meet CT Edu Dept graduation standards. And its only because our BOE/School Administrators just don’t care enough to make certain our students meet CT Edu guidelines. If only they would focus as much attention on school administrator salaries as our students we’d make progress. But our City leaders have other interests. Our students pay the piper. Sadly.

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