NORWALK, Conn. – Common Council members have had their chance to get their information straight from Norwalk Public Schools, in a joint Finance meeting designed to avoid tension in the yearly budget cycle by continually putting things out in the open.
Questions were few at Thursday’s event, prompting Board of Education Chairman Colin Hosten to say, “no news is good news,” after the executive summary of the developing strategic operating plan, described by consultant Richard Lemons as “98% complete.”
The facilities plan got a bit more pushback, with Council Finance Committee Chairman Greg Burnett (D-At Large) prying out a dollar figure for repairs and renovations.
“I think the recommendation is somewhere in the magnitude of, really something like $25 million a year, ongoing for the next 20 years… in order to do everything that’s been recommended,” NPS Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton said. “…And that’s in current dollars.”
Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella had begun the facilities discussion by saying, “I think this week was quite an example of some of the capital projects that we really need to prioritize, particularly either central air conditioning, or providing air conditioners throughout the classrooms, because we had six buildings that we had to have early releases, because the buildings were so hot that they were not healthy for children.”
Also, with COVID-19 there are safety parameters that have to be in place and school buildings need ventilation upgrades, she said.
“Given what we learned from COVID, there are certain components or elements that we need to prioritize as a result of some of the great learning we’ve done, despite the challenges … that we had to engage or confront this year,” she said.
“This facilities plan is really grounded in, if you will, the community. I think it was also grounded in return on investment, both for making sure that the buildings enable education, your vision of education, that is really based on a lot of the research that we’ve done,” consultant Pam Loeffelman said.
Indoor environment and air quality were a “big deal” in the conversations DLR had with the community, she said.
The data on air quality and “how it affects students, especially in their ability to learn is lightyears ahead of where we were five or 10 years ago,” Rachel Pampel said. “…We really focused on the upgrades to the HVAC systems that are needed to hit the level of indoor air quality that is the standard set of expectations for what is quality for students, they will learn well.
Bathrooms might seem like they’re in good shape but “many of the fixtures are past the end of their useful life and have issues like clogs that can continue to worsen and, and cause closures if they’re left untreated,” Pampel said. “…Many of them, even if they’re working well are inefficient, which is called which causes excess water and sewer costs. So items like this are the examples of what I mean by deferred capital maintenance, larger scale projects that require capital investment and have to be planned in advance.”
The end result of the study was a “tiered approach to our recommendations that’s broken down over the next 20 years, each school was tiered as a whole,” Pampel said. “… what we’re looking at is a 20-year plan that is nearly three quarters deferred capital maintenance.”
Many school districts nationwide are having a similar wake up call, are “realizing that schools require continuous investment to not fall behind,” she said. “And you know, the school building boom of the late 50s to early 70s is coming calling at this point. It’s going to be important to get ahead of your buildings needs before you have breakages that cause shutdowns, which is a huge factor for … learning loss, like your recent shutdown that we mentioned due to the heatwave.”
Although the facilities study results have been made public, “We thought that was important to share with our colleagues on the Council,” Hosten said. “Because, you know, we think it’s important as I know you do that when we make capital funding decisions, that they are one based on a data driven plan, and to connected to a larger capital plan.”
Pampel promised to share the cost analysis with Council members.
While the numbers are “a little scary,” they don’t represent a physical plant that is falling apart but a physical plant that is aging, Hosten said. “This is actually a phenomenon that is now widespread, among many school systems, particularly here in the northeast. Where buildings were built in the 50s, 60s and 70s.”
Burnett asked what the numbers represent. Do they bring the structures up to a pristine level or a functional state?
“There’s always a percentage of variation. But that is the intent of the tiering,” Pampel replied, giving an explanation that mentioned HVAC systems that either don’t work or do not exist. DLR isn’t recommending the buildings be pristine, “It’s very much just about being strategic and investing where you can to improve educational outcomes, as well as getting your buildings to a place where they are fully functional.”
Burnet went back to the strategic plan, which included a promise to be “future ready.” He asked how that would weave into the “good work” NPS is already doing.
“Is it a major shift of… throwing out what we’re doing now and starting all over again? Or do we have a large percentage of elements of the work that we’re doing now that fall very well or align with the strategic plan going forward?” he asked.
“There are many elements of the work that already exists. And it’s a matter of refining and continuing to strengthen the work,” Estrella said. She emphasized the need to target young students, making sure the K-3 crowd is “engaging in learning to read” and “in order to set our students in the path for to be future ready, it starts as early as kindergarten, and making sure that students stay on track.”
“I would say definitely not characterize this as ‘Let’s start over with a new, you know, with a new plan from the ground up,’” Hosten said.
“This is a basically scaffold, or … addition to the previous plan, and a continuation of work, the great work that has been done,” Estrella said.
Burnett also asked how NPS would measure success.
“Those are the components that we’re working at and looking at right now,” Estrella replied. “And we’re looking at multiple metrics, because one of the things that we heard from the community is that we there is a need for alternative programming… we’re talking about vocational programs, depending on certain students’ needs, it might be high-school-to-workforce experience as well. So the definition of success is going to vary depending on the type of program and pathway that the student engages in.”
Council member Diana Révolus (D-District B) asked if brick and mortar education would continue into the future.
“One of the conversations that we’re currently having is the feasibility of a virtual school within our district,” Estrella replied. “…The remote option wasn’t something that was viable for most students. There were many students that also thrived in that environment. And we want to make sure that we provide that option to our families.”
The report also discusses “opportunities of redesigning spaces to better equip our schools, to provide the learning environment and experiences that students are going to need as they prepare themselves for the future ahead,” Estrella said.
Elementary students really need the brick and mortar environment, she said.
One last thing, the study discusses outdoor learning spaces, “at length, especially because of a lot of what we learned this year,” she said. “…I’m really happy to say that by the full of next of this upcoming academic school year, we will have a number of outdoor classroom spaces for our students so that they have the opportunity to learn within the natural environment as well as within their classrooms.”
“On that note, which is a very positive note, I guess we can begin to bring this very informative presentation and information to a close. Again, this is just the beginning of several joint meetings,” Burnett said. “I know the number of the number that’s engraved in my mind is 25 million per year for the next 20 years. Wow, that that’s a number that’s not going to escape.”
“You’re the one who asked, Greg,” Hosten replied, laughing a bit as Burnett was doing.
“That’s why we’re having this conversation, right?” Estrella said. “Because knowledge is power, it helps us plan ahead.”