Norwalk Council questions school bathroom needs

District Common Council members Tom Livingston and Lisa Shanahan (both Democrats) at a 2020 Council meeting.

NORWALK, Conn. — Two Norwalk Common Council members are pushing back on parental perceptions that middle school bathrooms need to be gutted and replaced.

District E Democrats Tom Livingston and Lisa Shanahan say they visited all four Norwalk middle schools and the bathrooms are not as bad as they’re described. In response to their thoughts, the Council Planning Committee voted to remove $38,000 from the planned $1.5 million for bathroom renovations and instead fund the Norwalk Public Library’s newspaper digitization project. This is slated for a full Council vote Tuesday.

Mayor Harry Rilling said Wednesday that even if the Council makes that deduction there is still plenty of money to address the bathroom complaints, carefully, with his facilities team inspecting each facility and making appropriate changes. He expects the work to begin in July.


A ‘maintenance problem’

“Many of our schools are operating with bathrooms that really are original to the building,” so “literally from, you know, 1960, and they look like it,” Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton said Thursday. Parents complain that doors don’t shut and the children say the bathrooms smell.

“We walked into every single bathroom and every single stall in each of the four middle schools. And really there isn’t a renovation problem here. There really is a maintenance problem here,” Shanahan said.

“I think there’s a misconception with some parents,” Livingston said. There have been “heavy measures” taken because of COVID-19, “like covering up sinks and they look like they don’t work. There have been faucets removed for the same reason.” He added that they’re being cleaned twice a day.

Rilling has recommended $1.5 million for school bathroom renovations.

“I think it’s too much money,” Livingston said Thursday, advocating for the schools, the parents and the City to “collectively work together to make sure we’re all on the same page of these items” because “a lot of this is cosmetic. A lot of it is quite frankly maintenance.”

“We can debate that and different people may have different opinions,” Hamilton said. “I know that the renovation work that was done at Ponus was, you know, not the complete gut renovation, but I think was a renovation that worked well.”

“I think it depends on the school,” Council member Barbara Smyth (D-At Large), a former teacher. “I spent nine years at Ponus prior to the renovation and those bathrooms were pretty bad at the time. And so I’m glad to hear that they have been much improved with the renovation. I haven’t seen the other middle schools. But I can tell you the bathrooms at Norwalk High are very bad, you know, some some sinks that are, you know, pulled away from the wall, some sinks that are you know, there’s there’s no running water in some of the things…. I think it just depends on which school you’re talking about.”

Planning Committee Chairman John Kydes (D-District C) made a motion to amend the capital budget to shift $38,000 from the bathroom project to the newspaper digitization. That passed unanimously.

Norwalk Public Library Board of Trustees Chairman Alex Knopp had made a pitch for the funding. The money will digitize newspapers from 1954 to 1970 and “many, many important events in Norwalk happened in that period,” he said. “Obviously, the impact of the hurricane in 1955, the start of large-scale developments throughout the city, the construction of new schools and so on. This is a period where people in that age group, who will start to look for their ancestors, will start to be thinking about their memorial services, will be looking to follow older friends. And this is a very, very active period in use, according to the librarians who monitor people coming into the library.”


‘Scratching my head’

Livingston said Wednesday that he’s tried to arrange a joint meeting of his Land Use and Building Management Committee and the BoE Facilities Committee but the changing leadership on the BoE side has made that challenging. But Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella has promised to set one up soon.

“We weren’t saying that we didn’t support addressing parental issues what we’ve been saying is we’re looking for the most cost effective way of doing it,” he said.

“I guess I was just scratching my head,” Council member Greg Burnett (D-At Large) said, asking why the Planning Committee chose to subtract money from the bathroom project when there are so many capital budget items to choose from.

If the bathrooms aren’t gutted, the expense will be much lower and $38,000 is “not a lot of money,” Livingston said.

“I certainly spent a lot of years at Ponus where there were very, you know, pretty profound maintenance problems … if things had been maintained better, it would not have gotten to the point that there were,” Smyth said.

“I think a number of these parental concerns could have been dealt with before,” Livingston said. “I mean for example, we were in the bathroom where the light bulbs are out, you know, that’s, in fact, one bathroom stall at Roton was missing a stall, that’s apparently been missing for over a year, why didn’t they fix it? That’s not really something for the capital budget.”

Not to say all problems are minor, and “we need to fix what needs to be fixed. But I think we can do it in a more cost-effective way,” he said.

Livingston said he asked Nathan Hale Interim Principal Jennifer Masone what her number one priority for the school is. “She said, you know, the bathrooms are really important, they are what people see when they go to school but her bigger priority was air conditioning…. the point is that, you know if we can do things like this and we can do it in a more cost effective way. We may have more money for that type of stuff.”

The $1.5 million might be enough or “we might not need it all,” Rilling said to NancyOnNorwalk. “We need to determine what’s needed before we start allocating the money and fixing up the bathrooms. But I want to start sooner rather than later.”


10 responses to “Norwalk Council questions school bathroom needs”

  1. Milly

    But NHS needs to be torn down and a new high school built for millions of $?

  2. Bryan Meek

    $38,000. Isn’t that, according to our newly promoted PR chief grantless coordinator, cherry picking the details?

    $38000 or about what it costs to keep this city running (while shut down) for an hour.

    I hope they spent more than an hour making sure kids don’t have a pot to …..

  3. Sarah Waters

    “There have been “heavy measures” taken because of COVID-19, “like covering up sinks and they look like they don’t work. There have been faucets removed for the same reason.”” This does not make sense to me. Is this really what was stated? What is the COVID rationale for this? I don’t buy that, or it sounds like a very poor COVID based decision. The sinks aren’t six feet apart so they had to cover some of them? First, that’s ridiculous to think that is an effective intervention. If you are worried about multiple kids in a bathroom at once, they are more likely to pile up in a line behind the available sinks, share a sink, or just not wash their hands at all. Further I know for a fact from my son that some of the sinks don’t work, and this was pre-COVID.

    If it is “simply” a maintenance issue, then who is responsible for the neglect? The administrative staff (principal/vice principal) at the middle schools? Or is it an unresponsive Facilities Dept? Or is it city officials who over the years have shown time and time again a distaste for funding BOE, resulting in administrative and other NPS staff to be overly cautious what maintenance/facilities projects, for fear their will be repercussions to asking for “too much”? Perhaps they are all culpable together?

    Further if the bathrooms are neglected, what else is neglected? (Anyone who goes to the Roton school, say on Election Day, or when adult Basketball leagues are allowed to return, look up at the ceiling, and wonder if whatever is happening up there doesn’t have some possible impact on the respiratory system of the people/students who play sports in that gym.)If they want to leave that process that is happening, and the peeling paint like that, have they at least tested it for dangerous contaminants?

    Also it would be nice if the officials could use more accurate words in their statements. They are saying “parental” concerns about the bathrooms, which to me are terms that attempt to diminish/undermine the complaints. They don’t even say “VALID parental concerns”, from what I can see, which would validate all the hard work these student advocates have put into the request. In fact, the bathroom concerns are student concerns, and parents are their vocal advocates. There are children at middle schools who run home or beg to be picked up pronto because they need to use the bathroom, as they are so disgusted by the MS bathrooms. It’s a difficult fight with your child to get them to use the bathrooms at middle school, especially once you know the condition they are in. Next time, maybe the officials could talk to the students, or ask a student to give them a tour, or ask the students for a presentation. Have the children shark tank their bathroom proposals. I’ll ask my son to finish/re-record his video documentary of the bathrooms, if he’s willing. Apparently the evidence on the inside, from the student perspective is possibly what matters?

    Or perhaps if Shanahan & Livingston had used the bathrooms rather than inspected them, and on an unannounced visit, which is clearly not possible during COVID. Or have a public health official/regulator do a surprise visit, like they do for restaurants, hospitals, child care centers, etc.

    None of our kids need fancy bathrooms. But they need better than what they have. Perhaps maintenance will be a sufficient band aid; but will it be adequate to fix the problem? What specifically are they offering to fix with 38K? Where is this number coming from? The toilet?

  4. Nora King

    I love how Harry Rilling now wants to take credit for this. It was Fran DiMeglio and her planning commission that fought to keep these bathrooms in the budget. The mayor due to his forcing of BOE members out and stacking the BOE with his pet Collin as chair managed to give the BOE nothing this year. The bathrooms came about because the planning commission fought to keep it in. The planning commission has been the group that has kept a lot of the school projects and fields being developed and moving forward. Harry and his ego have created this pissing contest with the BOE. It is honestly pretty unprofessional. But then City Hall not being reopened is pretty unprofessional. Now with the warm weather coming and the fact that Harry has a new boat – hopes of city hall opening are slim for the summer months. Also how is the Council credentialed on the health and safety of restrooms now? Perhaps if the Council did their job they could get city hall to reopen? That doesn’t seem to be a priority for anyone. But spending hours debating the disgusting condition of the bathrooms for kids is more relevant to these elected officials?

  5. Barbara Meyer-Mitchell

    Regarding repairs, it is important to note that the City has reduced the cqpital funding available to do mid year repairs in our schools. The Board of Education requested $250k for repairs in the Capital Budget this year and last year. Last year the City granted no repair funds, and this year the Mayor has recommended $100k. That is the repair capacity available to maintain 18 buildings that house 11,630 children. I am sure the Board of Education would be delighted to right-size their maintenance budget both in terms of operating and capital budgets to have the funding to properly maintain these buildings. During the great recession a number of maintenance positions were reduced, leaving NPD with a skeleton crew. Perhaps the Council could put their sleuthing skills to look at what the best practice might be in terms of how much funding is needed to maintain 18 high traffic/use buildings. I suspect it may be more than $100k for two years. You get what you pay for, but in this case it is our children who get what the city won’t pay for. Unlike the City, the Board of Education does not have a Contingency Fund in their operating budget….

  6. Nora King

    All valid points Barbara. They certainly found the money for a six million dollar consulting bill on NHS. Perhaps the mayor should stop building all those crappy apartments that don’t pay the taxes and stop letting Norwalk turn a blind eye on all the illegal apartments and start focusing on the neglect of our schools. Or how about all his legal fees that he spends money on. What a mess!

  7. Mike Barbis

    Nora and Barbara — you both are spot on

    What is happening on the City-side? We have the Mayor, who can’t seem to re-open City Hall, and the Council, many of whom are either lawyers or are not even college graduates. Yet this team just wants to get in a pissing match with the BOE and seem to be experts on school building maintenance. They are the ones that are charged with making these decisions? Election Day is not that far away — November 2, 2021.

    And the City just approved $6 mm for a trophy project we don’t even need? Really??

  8. Lisa Brinton

    Bottom line. Seven years of non-stop development and we still don’t have enough money to fund our schools, but we can afford to forfeit years of property tax credits to developers? Crony capitalism, incompetence or corruption?

  9. Michael McGuire

    This is what I you get with one party rule.

  10. John Miller

    Kudos to Mr. Livingston and Ms. Shanahan for taking the time to actually inspect the bathrooms in question and explain the reality that although the bathrooms may be old they are completely functional. The building that is now All Saints Catholic School was opened in 1959 as Central Catholic High School and all of the bathrooms in that building are original. Let’s stop spending taxpayer money that doesn’t need to be spent for a change.

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