Updated, 11:21 a.m.: New headline, moved explanation for Jefferson delay nearer to top of story; Updated, 6:16 a.m.: Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk High School is requesting interior upgrades that are sorely overdue, according to Principal Reginald Roberts. The school’s cafeteria, library, courtyard, and auditorium all need work, he said.
“Part of what we are requesting is something to make ourselves look good, but to make our students feel better about themselves, and make people feel better about Norwalk High School,” Roberts said last week to the Common Council Finance Committee.
The committee agreed, and unanimously recommended reallocating $5 million of capital funds from Jefferson Elementary School work to improvements on Norwalk High School.
Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton stressed that Jefferson is still an important project, and NPS anticipates proceeding with that work. But with the Jefferson project delayed due to a lack of “swing space” to house students during the renovation, the $5 million would be better used to renovate the “tired obsolete” NHS building, which many people say has the look of a prison despite $40 million in work in 2006, he said.
“It’s a very dark and dreary place and what we are trying to do, our vision is to turn Norwalk High School into a modern learning environment, a college campus-like environment, with up-to-date educational spaces and up-to-date equipment and technology. A safe environment for the students and the staff and a school that Norwalk can be proud of,” Hamilton said.
Norwalk High School looks the same as it did in the early 1970s, when it was built, Roberts said. He passed out photographs to committee members to illustrate his concerns.
The auditorium “has been leaking for the past 10 years, and we have acoustics that are substandard,” he said. Roberts also noted that students have not been able to use the school’s courtyards because they are not handicapped accessible.
“Our library is still a library. It is not a media center, with movable furniture, with access to the internet, with plugs around the room,” he said.
“We want to have a college-designed cafeteria,” he said, explaining that students are “corralled into” the cafeteria twice a day, and, “they do not have what I would call the college experience, where you can … go when you will, (and) sign back into your classroom.”
A performance space is being turned into a black box theater, and students in the Media Pathway need to have a space to be able to produce video content “that is accessible, that is informative and professional,” he said.
Norwalk High School has the largest JROTC (Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) Air Force program in Connecticut, but, “even with that, we have one room. The government gives us some money to pay for supplies, but most of it comes from the (operating) budget,” he said. “…We do very much with very little.”
A senior told him six years ago that he was proud of never using the NHS bathrooms, and it took him a while to figure out that the issue wasn’t that students were fighting in the bathroom, but that they were ugly and stained, he said.
No one likes the “small” library, he said, explaining, “It is not a media center. There are no places to go quietly. There are no places to put on earphones and have a conference call.”
Norwalk High has award winning programs, including its newspaper, but the students are using antiquated equipment, including five-year-old computers, he said.
The school got new bleachers last summer for the first time, he said. He also thanked Council members for the new exterior paint job the school is receiving.
Teachers redesigned the Pat O’Shaughnessy Public Forum Room 10 years ago and raised the money to do the work themselves, he said, but it has an antiquated sound system and “you can barely hear.”
Hamilton explained that Norwalk in 2006 “spent $40 million on this building, when we were all said and done, people didn’t feel that the project was complete. People felt that the building still was not all that great and needed more work.”
“There really was a disparity, was and continues to be, a disparity between the two high schools in the city. So, with this additional $5 million, we expect to really be able to bring Norwalk High School up to where it needs to be brought up and make that building a building that the community can be proud of,” he said.
The city has already committed to spending $6.5 million on Norwalk High through the 2017-18 and 2018-19 capital budgets. Wood paneling is being removed but there are PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl) in the paneling and the doors, increasing the expense, Hamilton said.
State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) got legislation through to get Norwalk 100 percent reimbursement from the state for the remediation cost of the doors and paneling, Hamilton and Norwalk Finance Director Bob Barron said.
The work expected to be done with the $5 million “builds on projects under the 6.5 million but they really help us up the game in terms of making the building an attractive building that Norwalk can be proud of,” Hamilton said. Desired improvements include a redesigned food service, new courtyards, a learning commons and maker space, and repair to some bathrooms which are closed because they are unusable.
The expectation is that Norwalk will be reimbursed $2.3 million for the $11.5 million project, Hamilton said.
The Board of Estimate and Taxation has not approved the $5 million transfer, as they had unanswered questions at their meeting, which took place the Monday before the Thursday Finance Committee meeting, Barron said.
The BET is looking for a prioritization list and the list of reimbursements expected, and if it approves on Aug. 20 then the full Council can vote on Aug. 28 to green light the work.
Finance Committee Chairman Greg Burnett (D-At Large) pressed the officials on Jefferson’s status, and Barron explained that a 5-year capital plan has been approved, with a total allocation.
The 5-year plan funds the construction of two new schools and the renovation of Columbus Magnet School and Jefferson Elementary School, but Jefferson is delayed because the Ponus Ridge Middle School expansion is delayed.
“We don’t intend on giving Jefferson less money. Jefferson is a very integral part of the plan,” Barron said, but the district needs “swing space” to put children in while their schools are renovated, and “it is a puzzle. Jefferson will need to be done but we anticipate that the costs will be higher three years from now. We are going to have to ask for additional money.”
He added that the funding is “not necessarily guaranteed because when we get around to having the total cost identified, it is going to be approved along with long list of priorities in that year’s 5-yr capital plan, and its impact on the city.”
“Jefferson is still very much an important project for us,” Hamilton said. “We have not in any way shape or form backed away. It’s really only a question of timing. Funding was appropriated for Jefferson, but we don’t really need that funding now and it looks like it probably is going to be a couple of years out before we do need that money. So rather than have that money just sort of sit there, tied up in Jefferson, when we have this other important need, which is ready to move forward.”
There is still $18 million in the account, which is more than enough to do premilinary work on Jefferson for the next year and a half, he said.
Barron offered a clarification. “The money is not ‘sitting there,’” he said. “We are only talking about appropriating, and an appropriation is permission to spend. So, it’s just an authorization to spend but we haven’t borrowed the money yet. We will not borrow the money until it is indeed needed.”