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.
“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.”