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Norwalk High School project still within $239M budget, manager says

NFT President says plans were set before NHS teachers could weigh in

Scott Mangiagli of Kaestle Boos Associates Inc. reviews Norwalk High School plans at the Common Council Land Use and Building Committee meeting Wednesday. The rendering does not show the solar carport concept both because it would obscure the view of the planned school and because a final carport choice is years away, he said.

An assertion Wednesday that the new Norwalk High School construction budget has surely escalated $80 or $90 million since it was first presented was denied by construction managers. But lone Council Republican Bryan Meek’s allegation that teachers will not have homerooms turned out to be on target.

In late 2019, State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) announced that the State would pay 80% of the cost of a new Norwalk High School, on the condition that 100 out-of-town students attend the P-Tech (Pathways in Technology) Middle College and 100 out-of-town students attend a new Visual and Performing Arts Academy, thus making it a pilot program facility.

Last year, the State budget passed by the legislature authorized a $239 million construction cost.

Meek has been against the project from its inception, calling it “Bob Duff High” and predicting that Norwalk will not get the promised 80% reimbursement.

The finalized high school campus design is going to the State for review in a few weeks, Scott Mangiagli of Kaestle Boos Associates Inc. told the Common Council Land Use and Building Committee at its Wednesday meeting. It should go out for bids within three months and construction should start next year, with students expected to move into the finished building in 2027.

Mangiagli’s presentation resulted in a 3-1 Committee vote to approve the plans and submit them to the State. The Committee is authorized as the city’s school building committee and the full Council vote is not required.

Mangiagli reviewed the basic history of the design, to flip the locations of the school building and playing fields. Access to the school will remain from County Street and Strawberry Hill Road but a prolonged bus loop will keep the buses from stacking on the streets and traffic improvements should alleviate the “orchestrated mess” that parent drop off is now.

As for the school’s exterior, “we wanted to keep the material simple, just due to cost, and functionality, really,” he said. The base is generally brick and metal wall panels are planned for the upper areas, to give it “a little bit of corrugated look” and “break down the scale slightly more.”

Long ribbon windows “allow natural light to come into the building” and “taller curtain walls” highlight some building sections, he said. There’s “a bit of a clerestory for the auxiliary gymnasium.”

Land Use and Building Management Committee Chairwoman Barbara Smyth (D-At Large) called the design “very bright, not prison-like, like the old Norwalk High School.” A retired teacher, Smyth said, “I know you spent a lot of time with the staff, really taking their feedback.” She  really liked “the collaborative workspace for the students.”

Meek, representing District D, questioned the $239 million budget mentioned in the materials as dating to 2019 and suggested, “inflation adjusted that’s probably another 80 or 90 million higher.” He asked, “do we get a real estimate of the cost?”

Dan Phillips of Construction Solutions Group (CGS), project manager, said the final documents are going to the State and then out to bid.

“At this point, we received an estimate back from Gilbane (Construction Company),” he said. “…We’ve reconciled any discrepancies with the design team, we’re backed into our soft costs, we’re still within that $239 million budget that was originally approved by the state.” Once bids come in, that “would be the final construction costs for the construction.”

Meek alleged that Mangiagli had said they were using cheaper materials. Mangiali and Meek worked toward the phrase “cost-effective.”

“For example, curtain walls a lot more expensive than then storefront,” Mangiali said. “So you would only want to use a certain amount of curtain wall versus trying to go to the more cost effective curtain wall. Same thing with brick. If you use an insulated metal wall panel, you can be doubling the price of brick, when brick is a bit more cost effective … and a little bit more durable over the life of the building.”

Meek asked if borings had been done given that “this property is primarily composed of ledge that will require blasting and significant excavation.”

Mangiali said a “significant amount” of borings were done and none “showed ledge that were attainable. There is suspected ledge possibly underneath the existing building, which the construction manager is possibly anticipating and would be within their number.”

Meek said he’d heard that there are fewer classrooms than teachers, and teachers will be assigned carts.

“The understanding is that the model for teaching is going to be slightly different than what it is now where each teacher has a home room, the actual number of classrooms and learning facilities has not decreased,” Mangiali said. “As I mentioned, it’s really the same size as the existing facility. They’ve been reorganized to provide future flexibility in the anticipation is that teachers would have to migrate from various rooms to room. And we have discussed that with the current administration, and believe we address their needs, but there was not a diminishing of the number of classrooms. I think it was just a parity of understanding of, of how classrooms and learning rooms are counted.”

Smyth said she understood that teachers will have office space where they can work at a desk to grade papers and other things.

Mangiali had explained that a central core of the wings provides teacher space on each wing, where “they’re accessible to the students if need be.”

“It’s not like teachers are wandering around with no place to work. … I have seen that model in other high schools,” Smyth said.

On Thursday, Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon said in an email, “While we celebrate a new building, NFT members at NHS had little opportunity to provide input until after plans were already set. We are eager to work in a more modern building, for example with appropriate PA systems, connectivity and wiring. However, we expressed concerns about the model where all work spaces are temporarily assigned. No one has a dedicated classroom, workspace or even a desk assigned to them.  In addition to the lack of initial input, the presentation of updates has not been made yet to the teachers, so it is hard to comment on the current impact of updated to teachers.”

She said, “Every teacher has a different approach, but most do not prefer having to travel from classroom to classroom. There is an efficiency in having to share desks, works spaces and classrooms, but this is not a feature we are looking forward to.”

On Wednesday, Meek also asked if Kaestle Boos Associates Inc. also designs prisons.

Mangiali said, “Our firm has never done a prison to my knowledge.”

Duff has compared the existing high school to a prison.

That building’s architect “designed prisons along with schools, firehouses, courthouses,” Meek said. “I know it gets thrown out there that the old building looks like a prison. I find that insulting being an alumni. And I’ll miss it, but I’m tired of hearing that as an argument.”

Meek voted against the plans.

Smyth said she appreciated the prison comments. “A school is what you make of it, it’s the people within it, and the teachers that, you know, teach our kids every day and make a family of it… It is a great, great building in that regard.”

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7 responses to “Norwalk High School project still within $239M budget, manager says”

  1. Bryan Meek

    We’re told there are renderings of the multi-acre + solar car port that is going to stare down the neighbors, but they were not part of the package. They won’t be able to hide them forever.

    And failing to actually get 80% is not a prediction. It is 100% truth which has already been laid out before. New Lebanon school in Greenwich was an 80% project that ended up with 49% reimbursement. This project guarantees to cannibalize other much more needed projects.

    ICYMI, we also just spent a quarter of a million dollars on replacing boilers that didn’t last as long as they should have and showers at NPD a building only 18 years old.

    And here we are taking shortcuts on this design just to keep this imaginary number hatched by a photo op seeking politician who was working with someone under investigation by the FBI. What could possibly go wrong?

    1. Thomas Jankovic

      I agree!

  2. Bryan Meek

    The boilers are at Ben Franklin, which we can’t afford or simply don’t want to landscape properly.

  3. Bryan Meek

    “ Every teacher has a different approach, but most do not prefer having to travel from classroom to classroom. There is an efficiency in having to share desks, works spaces and classrooms, but this is not a feature we are looking forward to.”

    What a great recruiting tool

  4. Drew Todd

    And we thought the COVID stupidty took so much from our High School Students!?!? Just wait until Bob Duff’s High Nightmare begins. You know the school we didn’t need and no one wanted. And in the meantime our other schools will suffer from LACK of AC, upgrades and upkeeps because of the funding that is about to be way behind schedule and we know WAY WAY over Budget as it currently is now! Let’s be real! But thanks once again Bob for SCREWING our City!

  5. Thomas Jankovic

    I think that this whole project is a mistake. We should never have given the go for it, and believe that we could and should stop it before it begins.

    We don’t need a new high school. This one is completely adequate. Although the building overall was completed in 1971, there are many parts that are much newer that have been added on or re-done in the last 10 – 15 years.

    The orchestra room, the culinary department, and the entire science wing. Extensive renovation has been done throughout much of the rest of this building ( P-Tech, for example) . All what I just mentioned here is within the last 15 years or less. These add-ons, and renovations costed several millions (even 10s of millions) of dollars.

    We could easily make due with this building for another 20 – 30 years (or more). It’s not the building that’s most important, it’s the people in it.

    Then there was this big funding incentive by the State, and that they will be flipping the tab for most of this, not the Norwalk taxpayer. OK, maybe Norwalk alone does not have to pay for all of this, but all of Connecticut residents will, including us, when you buy anything, and when they take it out of your paycheck for the State Income Tax!

    Nothing is for free, and this certainly is not. I hereby ask everyone to hurry up and call a special meeting to stop this unnecessary, wasteful project!

  6. Bryan Meek

    Good points Thomas.

    When you add it all up, things you mention, athletic turf fields, cogeneration plant, pool air handling system, pool reinforcement, new gymnasium bleachers, auditorium stage and seats, and to mention it again the science wing that is newer than 80% of our other schools……and it adds up to about $40 million that we are still paying debt service on that is about to be bulldozed.

    About that, the cost estimates for abatement and demolition look very suspicious based on standard school buildings, not monolithic concrete structures loaded with asbestos and God knows what underneath and we will be spending 10s of millions more on environmental cleanup.

    But wait, there’s more.

    The city will not be reimbursed for the cost of money. That is we get to pay the debt service while the state dithers on reimbursement like it has on every single reimbursement project since ever. In a 2% inflationary environment this was largely moot, but at 8% we’re looking at an additional 5 million $ a year in debt service until we are made whole which can take years after project completion. The state will be going over our applications for reimbursement with a fine tooth comb and rejecting the slightest departure from what is approved which happens quite frequently on these types of projects (see New Lebanon School in Greenwich).

    The worst par of the whole thing are the intangibles. The cohort that will have to endure this project is the same ones who’s near entire middle school careers were under lockdown from covid. They will not have athletic facilities for the duration of the construction and instead will have to hop on busses every day to travel to whatever limited field space is available across the county. If someone was really standing up for us this regional high school scheme would have come with funds to rehabilitate Vets park or some other spaces for the kids.

    And back to one of my original beefs here, they are hiding the architectural renderings of what the property will look like with acres of solar covered parking spaces. This is in front of the same neighbors who decried the stupid 4×6 electronic billboard about 7 years ago when about 50 people came to a BOE meeting mostly against the sign because it was going to “destroy” the quality of life in the neighborhood. Wait until they get a load of these plans for the parking lot.

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