NORWALK, Conn. – Board of Education members appear poised to choose which of two options they prefer for a new Norwalk High School/P-TECH Academy. With many Norwalkers asking questions about the uncertainty of a pool in the facility, Mayor Harry Rilling said he’s confident one will be built, it’s just a matter of when.
The BoE Facilities Committee is meeting Monday to vote on the options, after listening to public input last week. King Street residents spoke in passionate opposition to the option featuring a new high school where the football field is now, given this would create school bus traffic on their street, where they say the traffic is already dangerous. Parents said option A, the other plan, would deprive their children of a high school experience as the construction disrupts the campus for years, possibly exposing them to hazardous materials in the air.
“I just think it’s a really bad idea. Both of the options are terrible. I don’t like that they were developed without any input from the community in the first place and I think it would be wise to reconsider entirely in going back to the drawing board,” Adriana Nassi said.
The surprise plan for a high school – it wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen before mid-2019 – was approved by the State for 80% reimbursement, but at a lower cost than City officials expected initially. That’s $189 million rather than the $225 million the original concepts were based on.
Kaestle Boos Associates Inc. has developed two plans; Option A is estimated at $193 million and Option B would be $191 million.
Option A would construct the new buildings in the same general area the schools are now, while Option B would put the new complex entirely along King Street.
What about the NHS pool?
A pool is included in each of the layouts but its construction isn’t in the budget. Given the reduction from the expected $225 million to $189 million, in 2020 it was made an “add alternate.”
The City funded its design. Project manager Jim Giuliano called the design a “contingency,” and said, “If it looks like we are going to be able to afford the pool, we’re going to move forward with building the pool.”
Rilling began Thursday’s NPS community feedback session by saying, “I know there’s a lot of concern about the possibility of a swimming pool. I just want to let people know that I have reached out to a potential foundation that might be willing to do some fundraising in the event that the pool cannot be done with the funds available.”
Afterwards, he explained to NancyOnNorwalk, “Basically I reached out to a person who has a foundation that might be interested in doing a capital fundraising for the pool at Norwalk High School. Many places take the sponsorships and name their facility after the major investor. I have someone who is very interested.”
A Common Council member had suggested a Fairfield County resident who might be help fund the pool, and, within the last two weeks, he spoke to that person, who “expressed interest” and promised to look into it, he said in a follow-up phone call.
If naming rights were involved, it would need to be appropriate for public property, he said.
“You’d have to be a little bit restrictive. There have to be some requirements,” Rilling said.
A pool wouldn’t be built right away, it could be five years, but “the intention is to eventually build a pool,” Rilling said.
It’s estimated that a pool would cost $12 million, according to Rilling. In 2020, Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo said a new pool would cost $8 million.
The State will not reimburse the City on the cost of a pool, Rilling said.
“I’m pretty confident that the pool will get built,” Rilling said Friday. “Because everybody wants it.”
Why a new school?
Rilling said Norwalk would spend about $40 million for a new school rather than $11 million to renovating its current 48-year-old building, taking advantage of low bonding rates and spreading the interest out over 30 years instead of 15.
The school had been under renovation, Duff and the Norwalk High School Governance Council were frustrated that the cost of repairs and renovations kept escalating, then-Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski said. First, it was $7 million, and then it became $11 million. Which then became insufficient.
While some ask why the renovation of current buildings can’t continue, NPS needs a new Norwalk High School facility, Assistant Superintendent of Business and Operations Sandra Faioes said during Thursday’s feedback session.
Faioes said, “the current concrete structure poses serious challenges to when we’re doing upgrades.” An Information Technology (IT) project took “only two weeks at Brian McMahon to do” but similar work took two months at Norwalk High School and P-TECH.
Two recent public meetings have detailed the challenges in building a new school on the current site, while education continues for students.
Under Option A, construction of a four-story Norwalk High School building would begin in mid-2023 and last 18 months, said Amar Shamas of Gilbane Construction Company, construction manager for the project. Then 16 months of work would begin to convert the existing science wing into a new three-story P-TECH building; simultaneously, the B, C, D and E wings would be demolished, which will take four to six months.
“It is a concrete structure, we have to go through an abatement process because it does contain asbestos-containing materials,” he said. As school will be in session, “we will have barricades and separations between the existing occupied areas and the construction areas” and noise will be an issue, as well as it being “somewhat disruptive to the air.”
The school will have a temporary cafeteria for three years somewhere in the existing building and the culinary arts program will be affected, Shamas explained. “The existing media center is going to have to be reduced probably in half size.”
As the P-TECH building nears completion, construction on the auditorium, the gym and the music wing will begin, an 18-month process, he said. Complications include interfacing the existing mechanical and electrical systems.
In phase four, the remaining buildings would be demolished and then the cafeteria, media center and maybe a pool would be built, Shamas said.
Over all, this would take 55 months.
Option B would take 51 months and be much simpler. “It’s effectively two phases, constructing the new building in one phase, which is about a three-year duration. And then once that’s completed, the school will swing into the new building,” and demolition of the old buildings would begin, Shamas said.
None of the citizens who spoke were happy.
Nassi, a King Street resident, said the road is small and doesn’t have the traffic control measures it needs.
“You’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars, you’re telling me there’s nowhere in Norwalk that we could relocate the school entirely?” she said.
Zehra Kuz, another neighbor, said she’s an architect and an educator and criticized the design.
“The buildings look like a shopping mall rather than a school building. As a matter of fact, the existing school has very sensitive layout. Yes, I understand it is concrete, but it has virtues that can be enhanced,” she said.
The planned King Street driveway is an “utterly horrific idea,” Tyler Fairbairn said.
As is now, cars line up on King Street to go to Naramake Elementary School and other drivers can’t see, making it risky for his children to cross the street, he said.
“My kid almost got hit again,” he said.
“I’ve seen that happen not only to Tyler’s children, but to other people walking on the street multiple times,” another man said.
But a representative of condominium owners said they’re concerned about traffic and other quality of life issues if Option A gets built, because they’re right across County Street.
Gloria Neiderer said her child will be a P-TECH freshman this fall and, “I do not want him to be near the hazardous materials when wings, B, C, D and E are going to be demolished.”
She said, “You’re asking these kids to sacrifice their high school years after and during a pandemic for the last two. So I don’t understand how Option A can even be considered.”
The meeting ended with Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella thanking participants and promising another community forum on the topic.
Monday’s BoE Facilities Committee meeting agenda includes, “Final Discussion and Approval of the Proposed Recommended Option for the Construction of the New Norwalk High School.”
The full Board is meeting Tuesday but a vote on the high school isn’t mentioned on the agenda.
An email seeking clarification from Board of Education Chairman Colin Hosten, NPS Chief of Staff and Communications Brenda Wilcox Williams and Estrella went unanswered.