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.”