NORWALK, Conn. — It’s not just deletions in the plans for a new Norwalk High School – revisions include the addition of a 6,500 square foot gymnasium, not in the original concept.
But the planned 79 classrooms for the core “regular” program have been cut to 55 classrooms, and P-Tech (Pathways in Technology Early College High School) leaders charge that revisions were made without their input.
The Board of Education is set to vote on the revised Ed Specs (Education Specifications) for the school Tuesday, with the goal of making the Dec. 31 deadline for a grant application to the state. Changes are needed because while the much-ballyhooed 80 percent State reimbursement came through, the legislature authorized a $189 million total cost rather than the $225 million originally expected and planned for.
“We’ve had to make some difficult decisions,” Chief of School Operations Frank Costanzo said at Thursday’s BoE Facilities Committee meeting.
A pool is included in the revised plans, but as an “add alternate.” Meaning, it will be designed and if the $8 million needed is available, it will be built.
“There’s a real desire to have a swimming pool in the city of Norwalk for our kids,” Costanzo said. “And, while we say that, we also realized that there are some significant, you know, costs that come with building the pool.”
Costanzo said designers worked to reduce the overall facility by 20,000 square feet and had cut 7-8,000 square feet, much of it from the arts area. New school construction project manager Jim Giuliano said they had discovered the estimator and contractor were double counting some space so reductions were made there.
It’s a “fine balance” and they’re “trying to realize as much of the vision of the school as was the case back in October when we first conceived of it,” Costanzo said.
Giuliano said Costanzo had cut 9,000 square feet without taking out any programs.
“I want to be clear on that,” Giuliano said. “We did not remove a whole, you know, wholly remove any rooms, specific to any programs, we reduced some of the sizes of these rooms.”
Savings made from cutting the size of the rooms went into adding the 6,500-square foot gym, Giuliano said.
While there was correspondence indicating a “misunderstanding” among P-Tech leaders, the Ed Specs “are really exactly the same as they were in February when they were approved by the Board, except for the reductions in square foot area,” Giuliano said. “Again, we did not take out any program area, just reduce some of the square footage. And we added the auxiliary gym.”
The chat session shown with the You-Tube video revealed objections.
“we PTECH parents ask that you delay approval of the design specs as PTECH has not been able to weigh in on the specs,” BethAnn Karlehag wrote. “You reduced the PTECH classroom and DID NOT include PTECH in the discussion. Do not approve the specs.”
“On behalf of P-TECH administration, we disagree with the revised plans and our partners, IBM and NCC, are opposed to the revisions as well,” P-Tech Curriculum and Instruction Site Director Renita Crawford wrote.
NancyOnNorwalk’s efforts to reach P-Tech parents after the meeting, asking for specifics, were not successful. An email to P-Tech Director Karen Amaker netted this reply: “All requests for NPS employees to engage with the press must be approved by the district’s Director of Communication.” NPS Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams was copied, and has not replied.
BoE Chairwoman Sarah LeMieux, during Thursday’s meeting, spoke of Norwalk communities and programs feeling that they need to compete for resources.
“It’s important, I think, to get to the root of what the perception is that’s driving be like the objections that we were hearing today,” LeMieux said. “… Just upon reading the thread of emails, a cursory read, it would seem as if things were being taken away from this discussion, it does not sound like things are being taken away.”
“I think we could have done a better job communicating some of the late reductions that had to be made,” Costanzo said.
The State has a specific formula for square footage per student, Giuliano said. “You’re allowed so much square footage for a school and that has to accommodate gymnasiums, auditoriums, bathrooms, hallways, stairwells, elevators, all that has to be incorporated.”
The team looked at overall enrollment and considered not only the number of classrooms but “some of the science rooms, for instance, a biology lab, chemistry lab, physics lab, and applied science labs, because those are being used throughout the day as well, and also can be used as home rooms,” Giuliano said.
If you consider the 500 students without factoring in the other rooms, you’d need to have 20-21 classrooms but “it’s safe to get down to 16,” even if it’s “tighter than they wanted,” he said.
There’s also a 150-student lecture hall, which will mean that students won’t be traveling to Norwalk Community College for lectures anymore, Giuliano said.
“We tried to be equitable in reducing the overall square footage of the building, without losing the spirit of each of those three independent locations in the building,” Costanzo said. “I think P- Tech has really laid out a clear vision for what that part of the building will look like. And it doesn’t look ordinary, as a high school would, you know, the classrooms, ultimately, the furniture, the lecture hall, the Community College space, we will have more of a university feel.”
“There will probably feel different for the users, especially those who experienced the current school relative to the new school, because it will be designed differently, laid out differently, more open, you know, more natural light and more open space,” Giuliano said.
Costanzo said much non-traditional spaces take up a lot of square footage. That includes:
- A black box theater for the arts academy.
- A 5,000 square-foot band rehearsal room
- A “large” choral space
- The 150-student lecture hall
“You can have fewer 900-square foot classrooms, or 850-square foot classrooms, when you build in these other specialized large spaces,” Costanzo said. “They’ll be beautiful, they’ll be purposeful for the particular programs. But at the end of the day that the total square footage for the school needs to equate to the 2,000 students that we’re going to have on campus.”
He also said a specialized ceramics room, a multimedia room and dark room for traditional photography are part of the mix for the arts academy.
“It has the components to be a really spectacular place for artists to really find themselves,” Costanzo said. “I’m proud of that still being in the design spec, this far into this process for when we’ve had to make the square footage reductions that we’ve had to make.”
The Committee voted to provisionally approve the design specs while reaching out for feedback from the building leadership.
“We want to make sure that, that all the relevant voices are included in the conversation,” Board member Colin Hosten said.
Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella brought Norwalk High and P-Tech leadership together to create a building council, “which was commonplace in her district in New York City, where you had two or three schools or four schools, living in one structure and needing to share resources, cafeteria, gymnasium, bell schedules, etc.,” Costanzo said.
Hosten pointed out that the City approved a $45 million expenditure for the project, as its 20 percent share of the cost, but that share is now $38 million. He suggested the money could be spent on a pool.
Having the pool as an “add alternate” in the project “sounds dangerous to me,” Hosten said. “We were happy spending $45 million dollars in the beginning of this project and sad to see the state value it now at 189. But, you know, it’s important for us to have that pool and I think it is, just it to me, it makes sense.”