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‘Overdue’ NHS upgrades considered due to Jefferson project delay

A crew of painters work on the Norwalk High School facade Wednesday.

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.

The Norwalk High School library. (Reginald Roberts)

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.

Norwalk High School staff has tried to improve the schools’ feel by doing things like hanging flags to represent all of Norwalk’s ethic groups, Principal Reginald Roberts said. (Reginald Roberts)

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 computers are five years old, Norwalk High School Principal Reginald Roberts said. (Reginald Roberts)

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.”

Work was being done Wednesday on Testa Field. The Common Council approved $542,000 in the 2018-19 capital budget for replacing the Testa Field turf.

23 comments

Sue Haynie August 17, 2018 at 6:30 am

Thank you Mr. Hamilton for your clarity! “There really was a disparity, was and continues to be, a disparity between the two high schools in the city. …..it needs to be brought up and make that building a building that the community can be proud of,” he said.

In addition to inadequate and inequitable items brought up in this article, NHS students have to use sports fields in 4 different city locations. Parents have to subsidize Internet data plans because WIFI doesn’t work, etc.

When my NHS band kid traveled to other high schools, including BMHS, she was always amazed at how much nicer most of the other schools were than NHS.

Norwalk High School’s decrepit appearance and facilities has a detrimental effect on students and teachers. These issues have affected property values in Norwalk High School’s 6 feeder-school neighborhoods. Real estate agents having to bring prospective buyers by Norwalk High School do not have an easy sell.

Pros & Cons August 17, 2018 at 7:39 am

Great plans for NHS. Sometimes school leadership and governance councils are not on top of school facility issues and maybe not as familiar as they need to be with capital budget process. Lots of volunteer sweat equity from McMahon’s team on their media center. Just sayin’

Overlooked Again August 17, 2018 at 10:05 am

It is no surprise that Jefferson is overlooked again. This is a school in disrepair. I encourage any member of our community to take a tour to truly see first hand how terrible it is. From leaky portables, to extreme mold issues, to a faulty divider in the cafeteria that won’t open, to now bats living in the ceiling, it blows my mind that this school is taking the back burner again. Disgraceful.

Kathy Gallagher August 17, 2018 at 11:06 am

I was hired at Jefferson in 1994 and long ago lost count of how many times this school has been pushed back on the renovation list. There are so many more things that could be added to Overlooked’s post.

Surely the students deserve better. Who will speak for them?

Brenda Wilcox Williams August 17, 2018 at 11:15 am

Nancy, thank you for covering this information. The title is a bit misleading — this does not mean tthat the NHS work is being done in place of sorely needed renovations at Jefferson. The explanation is farther down in the story from CFO Tom Hamilton: To fully renovate Jefferson, Ponus will be used as “swing space” for Jefferson while the school is being renovated, and that cannot happen until the Ponus K-8 project is completed. Rather than keeping those funds sitting unused, the change here makes the money available for current projects. Other renovation and repair projects under the School Facilities Master Plan, including Jefferson, are still expected to happen.

Rick August 17, 2018 at 11:54 am

this all sounds great ,we can expect the mall gets money first? Shame there wasn’t plans to use a small section off the mall to swing and do-si-do do into? There may be plenty of room.

This must make Colin happy his voters moved here for the schools.

Now lets talk housing a large responsibility to Norwalk to make existing buildings safe for housing the other elephant in the room .

Shame the city cant create a spreadsheet of expected expense the city needs to simply make to just be compliant and fill our public service rolls just to cover those living in Norwalk at the moment .

Expecting the truth and not counting on Duff to make what sounds clutch saves when other communities are doing the same by reading the fine print the State has written on PCBs in the schools in most cities and towns in Ct.

The city once again relies on stupidity by its taxpayers to make this all sound good.

Now its time to hear whats going to happen to our taxes and what is going to happen for the rest of the expected cities expense before the mall opens and the 200 or so residents that are seeking vouchers to live somewhere else while Washington Village is rebuilt.

Odd how Norwalk has plenty of money now as they are taken to and take others to court.

The city find buried gold on Raymond while chasing hazardous waste ?

Jlightfield August 17, 2018 at 12:05 pm

I’ve had enough of the BOE thinking it’s okay to keep raiding funding for fixing Jefferson. This practice dates back to 2006. Maybe if they spent less time micromanaging West Rocks they could spend time focusing on a long term capital plan that addresses all the facility needs.

Cindy August 17, 2018 at 3:35 pm

Has anybody else noticed that Wilcox-Williams is always sticking up for NPS and taking their side on things? Hmmm…she’s always posting only good things about Norwalk Public Schools.
Something’s fishy.

Patrick Cooper August 17, 2018 at 4:38 pm

@Cindy. Come on. {…} Brenda represents NPS in the communications office. Yep – she’s biased.

Brenda Wilcox Williams 
Chief Communications Officer 
203-854-4003
[email protected]

Once again – need to fact-check @Jackie. Read Brenda’s post again. Then once more. Then have someone read it to you. Reading is useless without “comprehension”.

Oh boy….I need a new hobby.

Edited to remove an insult.

Mike Lyons August 17, 2018 at 5:49 pm

Cindy, Ms. Wilcox-Williams is the Communications officer for NPS. It’s her job to explain NPS’s position.

Cindy August 17, 2018 at 8:03 pm

Thanks. That explains everything. So, she’s getting paid to post on positive things (only) on blogs..and we taxpayers are robably paying her a 6-figure salary?
Why is there even a need for that position? It just seems like it’s a good “Public Relations.”

Mike Lyons August 17, 2018 at 8:12 pm

As for having a long-term capital plan addressing Norwalk’s school needs, the BoE is in the midst of carrying out the first such plan developed in decades (including the first new school since 1971), as has been discussed in dozens of NON articles in the last two years. It is funded at a total of about $170 million, fully baked into the City’s long-term capital budget, and many of its improvement projects are already complete or moving ahead at various schools. See, among MANY others:

https://www.norwalkps.org/cms/One.aspx?portalId=71681&pageId=29438228

https://www.norwalkps.org/common/pages/DisplayFile.aspx?itemId=33491520

https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/2018/05/funding-for-norwalk-school-projects-boosted-with-state-approvals-for-reimbursements/

Jlightfield August 17, 2018 at 9:25 pm

@patrickcooper, fact check what? Jefferson was allocated funds in 2002/3 to renovate. It hasn’t happened. People can spin all they want, Jefferson is still untouched. Oh wait, they added more temporary trailers after 2008, guess some would call that a capital allocation. I call it a disgrace.

Jalna Jaeger August 18, 2018 at 4:50 am

I worked at Jefferson, they have classrooms in the closets!!!!
It is ridiculous how overcrowded that school is!
PLEASE remedy that first Norwalk!

Lisa Brinton Thomson August 18, 2018 at 9:43 am

Folks, Norwalk doesn’t have the money to renovate all the schools at the same time. Why? Because 1) our income tax dollars go to bail out cities like Hartford and New Haven, 2) we’re repeatedly short changed on ECS funding, 3) the grand list isn’t keeping pace with the BOE budget. Then, when the opportunity presents itself like compensation for the Walk Bridge, our administration hands over the keys to city and asks for nothing in return. This is what status quo, single party rule gets you.

Rick August 18, 2018 at 12:00 pm

odd how some schools were shut down until the pcbs were cleaned up some actually went after the manufacturer . Its who is informed when these things happen why not inform when they are found.Norwalk has always had their head in the sand , of course Im not finger pointing deduction works for anyone reading fact.

http://www.courant.com/community/hartford/hc-hartford-pcb-monsanto-lawsuit-1024-20151023-story.html

Now we all know when names of politicians appear they go and check on comments..

Hey Bobby MGM is opening and the Dropkick Murphys from BASTON are the first act opening, Ct lost the casino war whats next? A Bridgeport after thought? That’s where Norwalks hotel is going, looks like Norwalk lost as well.

enough August 18, 2018 at 9:16 pm

You cannot compare equity between NHS or BMHS. NHS would need to be completely gutted and rebuilt before you could attempt to compare the two. Painting the exterior of this building isn’t going to make a difference. As long as I can recall Jefferson has needed the updates, it shouldn’t take for Ponus to be built for the school to get its repairs. McMahon operated under half of a building while it was being renovated and that was a constant flow of 1,700 kids between an old and new building. I think Jefferson could handle moving a few hundred kids around at most to compensate for the construction, or renovations.

Sue Haynie August 18, 2018 at 11:05 pm

@Enough, “You cannot compare equity between NHS or BMHS. NHS would need to be completely gutted and rebuilt before you could attempt to compare the two. Painting the exterior of this building isn’t going to make a difference.”

In a round-about way, you agree that there is no equity between the facilities at BMHS and those at NHS.

To Norwalk’s 8 neighborhoods that feed into NHS, do you say too bad, can’t fix it, go to school, pay your inflated taxes on your stagnating property and shut up? Maybe NHS should be torn down and rebuilt.

Al Bore August 19, 2018 at 8:44 am

Stop building so many apartment buildings and we won’t need all these schools, our city government has no clue. High taxes low property values should be our new Norwalk slogan, Rilling should use it for his re-election campaign which will be paid for by the out of town developers.

Rick August 20, 2018 at 11:29 pm

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.

Can someone clarify the work and is it going on right now?

The EPA hasn’t got this work on the radar last time they had anything was 2013 two other schools but not the high school .

Cara August 22, 2018 at 12:06 am

We are districted for Norwalk High. I would never send my kids to that school. As an alumni, I would rather spend the money for a private High School. Even though the tuition is a stretch for us, I feel it is the better choice for my kids to have the resources found at many other public schools. in Fairfield County.

While Norwalk High definitely needs to be updated , I feel Jefferson should be the priority. That is the worst school in Norwalk and not fair to those families districted there.

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