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Norwalk struggles with ‘disappointing’ budget cut for new high school

The new Norwalk High School will likely be built where the softball field is now, project manager Jim Guiliano said.

NORWALK, Conn. — The 80 percent reimbursement to build a new Norwalk High School comes with a caveat: the total cost authorized is $189 million, not the $225 million the Board of Education had used in its original computations.

So, in immediately taking “a good hard look at the square foot area, the estimates,” a decision was made to keep the shell of the science wing, built in 2008, Jim Giuliano, the city’s project manager for new school construction said last week. The building’s exterior is being reconsidered, and may be block and brick, “a little bit more architecturally pleasing than what you have now.”

A pool would cost $8 million and “there’s no question that we’re struggling with the funding,” Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo said to the Council Land Use Committee. “… The pool does create, within the existing budget, financial difficulties to figure out how we can include it in the project.”

“We are in a very preliminary stage in the design,” Lo said. Architects aren’t involved yet, but the application needs to be submitted to the state by Dec. 31.

“This reduction from 225 to 189 has really put our city and the school district in a really very difficult place, and I’m really disappointed by it,” Common Council President Barbara Smyth (D-At Large) said. While it was “tossed around” that a high school could easily be built for $189 million, “the reality is that we are building three high schools in one.”

Norwalk qualified for 80 percent reimbursement, in a deal shepherded by State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25), by increasing the regional component of its existing P-Tech (Pathways in Technology Early College High School) program and by planning an arts academy, to include 100 students from surrounding communities. The “third” school within a school is the actual high school.

“When you’re building three schools at once, you know, obviously, you need more money to do that,” Smyth said. “And, and so I really, I’m just so disappointed in that in the state, and then the reduction of the funding.”

“Our community needs that pool,” she said. “…In my opinion, we can’t afford to lose it. So, you know, I just I don’t know, can we, you know, continue meeting with the state to, to push for more funding?”

That question wasn’t answered. Land Use and Building Management Committee Chairman Thomas Livingston (D-District E) stressed that it’s very early in the process.

Norwalk approved $45 million as its share of construction costs but 20 percent of the total cost now works out to $38 million, Council Finance Committee Chairman Greg Burnett (D-At Large) observed. He asked if the City could spend the $7 million difference on the high school.

“They’ll probably push that you make the design work at 189,” Giuliano said. But it’s up to the City, with the knowledge that going over the $189 million means all of that cost would be born by local taxpayer funds.

The Council is in the first steps of making the Dec. 31 deadline, set to approve the grant application at Tuesday’s meeting. It will also vote on making the Land Use Committee the building committee for the new high school.

“Approving this tonight does not obligate us to actually build a school for 189 if we don’t think that works,” Livingston said Thursday, as the Committee advanced those technical considerations.

Smyth asked if bathrooms would be installed in the science wing. It’s too early for that detail, Giuliano said.

“We’re going to put in new science cabinets, new flooring, new ceilings, new lighting, new plumbing fixtures,” he said. “So we reduced our costs significantly there by not having to one, demo it and not having to build a new shell. We have the infrastructure there in place.”

They considered keeping the existing gymnasium, but it doesn’t work logistically, Giuliano said.

“I’m going to try to place the locker room for the gym and adjacent to the swimming pool so that we got one locker room to service both uses,” Lo said.

Giuliano called it “a budget-based design” but also said Norwalk Public Schools might have to reduce its programming options to use less square footage.

“I think we do have enough money to build the school,” Giuliano said. “We’re just going to have to be prudent in how we move forward and challenge the designers to come up with creative ways to, you know, achieve the goals that we want to achieve.”

18 comments

John Levin November 10, 2020 at 8:30 am

I trust Norwalk’s new Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Alexandra Estrella to make the best decisions for Norwalk’s students and its schools.

DrewT November 10, 2020 at 8:47 am

Funny how more lies and cuts that Bob Duff doesn’t tell you about. And now the City could be on the hook for an additional $7 Million on too if the $50 Million already they committed . One day people in Norwalk will wake up. You all had the chance! But lying Bob keeps chugging along. How many more lies, cuts and tax increases will we need until people understand and realize he isn’t standing up for anyone but himself.

John O'Neill November 10, 2020 at 12:18 pm

First thought: Jim Giuliano is a well respected professional. His comments and judgement should be trusted and listened to.
Second thought: Bob Duff the up and coming used car salesman sold us a Porsche but forgot to tell us there are no wheels on the car. Oh and the brakes are faulty. Next time we’ll get a video of the car before buying it
Third: So we are getting “X” from the state and anything above that will come directly from our pockets. Shouldn’t there be some type of referendum before moving forward. Especially when you consider 15-20% of students using that building will be out of town residents
Fourth: While we are on the subject of students it has come to my attention that our new administration seems to prefer social workers rather than teachers. Did you know that 50% of teacher’s evaluation is Social and Emotional Well being? That’s right if you’re good with emotional support, BUT a poor teacher you are considered a better teacher than if your weren’t so terrific with touchy/feely stuff but are a great teacher…Are teachers allowed to challenge students? If not, why not?? I’m not a teacher, but I think I’d be a little upset with this educational shift. What our children need is core basics. Our children need to be challenged and held accountable. Holy cow, this is not rocket science. It shocks me that we haven’t heard from the teacher’s union on this? That’s kind of scary.
Fifth: As long as I’m on a rant — It seems like utopia is right around the corner. We’ll have social workers instead of cops. We’ll have social workers instead of teachers. What’s next? Social workers telling us what shirt to wear? Mind boggling. No offense but I’ve had one experience with a social worker when my Mother died. My Mother still died. Social worker was trained to tell us how to grieve. We politely threw her out of the room. It’s a family thing. Maybe our new educators haven’t figured that out yet. It’s a family thing.

Lori Jydes November 10, 2020 at 1:16 pm

Well that ends any aquatics era in Norwalk. The YMCA and The Pat Soinola Natatorium (the Norwalk High School Pool. Thousands learned to swim regardless of ability to pay based on the school lunch program. Jobs as lifeguards and instructors I guess these things are outdated now. It actually grieves me as someone who was a deck supervisor for the after school for 10 years. It was a big part of the heart of what I guess I’d call ‘Old Norwalk’and honestly seems to be going the same way of the paper route culturally if the pool is eliminated.

Curious November 10, 2020 at 1:19 pm

So why are we taking the $45 MM hit and the risk of over runs to build a school which will be used to educate 100 students from surrounding towns – the leafy suburbs of New Canaan, Wilton, Westport, Fairfield, Darien, Stamford??

Lets see that’s ….. $450,000 per student from the those leafy suburbs. Good deal for them.

What about the other costs like who pays for the added staff? What about increased maintenance given the larger size? Building operating expense increases? Who covers the bussing costs for those 100 out of town students?

So many questions – so little answers

Bryan Meek November 10, 2020 at 4:09 pm

Here’s my recommendation To Bob Duff. Cut bait On this vanity project of yours and instead worry about getting state funding to finally connect the Merritt to I95 properly. Widen Route 1 to more than a 2 lane road throughout Norwalk. Finish the last mile. Push for the one thing you seemed To have an interest in before he became part of the Hartford swamp and get Super 7 built.

We are drowning in traffic as the powers that be continue to pack every last square inch of the city with cheaply built apartments with no concern or consideration of traffic issues. It takes 40 minutes on a good day to get from Cranbury to Rowayton and the quality of life from traffic is in steady decline to the point we won’t need schools as no one will want to raise kids here any longer.

Call your buddy Himes who has done exactly nothing about it in 12 years while presiding over the worst stretch of highway in the entire country to stop investigating RUssian hoaxes and get us a real project with real funding. Replacing obsolete bridges and widening shoulders isn’t cutting it. This region needs a big dig before it chokes itself to death.

Highland Avenue November 10, 2020 at 4:46 pm

New Norwalk HS recap:

During 2019 mayoral election Rilling and Duff fail to mention the new school to Norwalk residents or members of board of education. It does seem strange that during an election that they would not mention this positive development?

Immediately following the election Rilling/Duff announce that after secret meetings with selective hand picked participants a brand new shiny new high school will replace the current Norwalk HS. This announcement comes with many important details left out.

Fast forward to 2020 where details emerge and Norwalk taxpayers find out that in order to get this new high school we have to jump through Hartford hoops regarding funding AND regardless of our needs the new high school has to be re-jiggered into a regional magnet school. Despite concerns about the increased potential financial risks and long term operating costs, Norwalk’s elected officials plow straight ahead and rubber stamp the project.

Immediately prior to the 2020 election Duff, Rilling and crew triumphantly announce Hartford’s funding.

Immediately following the 2020 election reality hits. We find out that Duff and Hartford are not coming through.

Based on the current sequence of events, I would guarantee that the promised funding for the project will get cut more in Hartford and Norwalk taxpayers will be on the hook for $$millions more to fund the original budget for the project, plus $$millions to cover cost overruns, and $$millions to cover the massive overhead of running a regional magnet school vs traditional city high school.

John ONeill November 10, 2020 at 11:20 pm

@ Highland Ave..IF I’m reading between the lines on Jim Giuliano’s comments you are right on. I find it sad that our “transparency” comes from reading between the lines.

Christopher Powers November 11, 2020 at 4:24 am

As a former resident of Norwalk and someone who has a degree in education, if what John Oneill says is accurate I sure hope the people who make decisions with schools and how they evaluate the teaching staff, rethink this. Teachers are not; psychologist, counselors, therapist or social workers. The teachers have enough on their plates. I hope the bosses at Town Hall investigate the veracity of this and if true, ax the idea. No way any teachers should be evaluated as a JO puports, outside of what the BOE entrusted them to teach. Chris Powers Nantucket Ma

Bryan Meek November 11, 2020 at 6:45 am

Unfortunately, and as predicted, this pig will never fly.

A few questions need to be answered.

How far down the rathole are we? What’s the current amount spent so far? Have we dug cores where the new structure will go to see how much rock will need to be blasted? Have any of the neighbors been engaged? Specifically, the neighbors who mounted tremendous vocal opposition to the small electronic billboard on the corner? Where will the new building be sited that incorporates the old science wing to make up for this first of massive shortfalls? Why can’t the existing pool we just dumped millions into be incorporated as long as we are incorporating the science wing? Can any of the other $30 odd million in capital improvements we are still paying for over the next 20 years be incorporated into a “new” building? Or would that violate the back room deal? So many questions.

This is starting to feel more like Bob’s promise to bury the high voltage power lines in Norwalk. You know the one’s 80 feet in the air from Broad River to the Wilton line where they managed to put them underground from the Wilton line on up.

Just my two cents, but engineering costs can run 2 to 3% of any project. Before we spend $5 million on something that will never happen, let’s spend the money on putting a/c in our schools that don’t have them and fix the air quality issues, or since the election is over we no longer care about respiratory health?

I know Bob Duff has no issue squandering $5 million in taxpayer money alla the PoKo fiasco, but hopefully some sanity comes back to our local government and buries this pig before it buries our finances and ruins any chance of building the schools we actually needed and needed a few years ago.

Katherine Perez November 11, 2020 at 9:49 am

CT is one of the wealthiest states. Norwalk is boarded by New Caanan and other neighbors who I’m sure wouldn’t mind supporting Norwalk’s high school students. Perhaps a fundraiser would help us fill in the gap.

stuart garrelick November 11, 2020 at 9:51 am

WOW! How disappointing.
My first thought is that if we can’t do it right, lets not do it. Thers’s not going to be another NHS anytime soon so this has to be a project for the ages. So it comes down to money, as usual. $36,000 over the original estimate, of which Norwalk has already approved $7,000 leaving a shortage of $29,000. Why can’t we request/demand that the neighboring towns that will be benefiting kick in the rest. Yes the State is picking up thde tab to make it a regional school but Norwalk wil;l still be paying its share. Let them do the same.
Also, when it comes to continuing costs, will not any town sending students to this regional school still be responsible for paying the costs of their education? IF NOT, WHY NOT?

Norwalker November 11, 2020 at 10:33 am

It’s starting already where this project is going to be piecemeal. I am against spending the money state and local level to build something we don’t need. If it is built, and they spend millions more on a pool and not a sports field house and it is an egregious misuse of funds. The sports field house should’ve been included in one of the two high schools during the last renovations. One good size field house can service all of the schools in Norwalk all year round.

We Can't Afford All of This Free Money November 11, 2020 at 1:01 pm

The Common Council and Planning Committee have recommended/voted to pursue up to 1200 new apartments on/around a 1-mile stretch of East Avenue from I-95 to Cemetary street in East Norwalk (that residents have explicitly said they DON’T WANT, and on top of the 189 already being built at the train station), in part, because the state will give Norwalk a grant to build a Transit-oriented District, and because developers have said they need that kind of density to build/make money.

Now we’re looking to build a new high school in large part because we can get a grant from the state, but we will now also need to spend a lot more than anticipated — we hadn’t agreed to build the HS until the grant was made available — it was too good to be true/too good to pass up!

But things have changed, and now we’re looking at how much we’ll have to charge Norwalk taxpayers to build something we couldn’t afford (and hadn’t pursued) without the grant — in part, we need to come up with taxpayer dollars so we can accommodate children from other towns with already-better/newer schools — towns that won’t even let our kids use the pools in their schools, won’t let us enjoy an afternoon on their beaches, won’t give us permits to visit their beautiful parks and public facilities — so they can send some of their kids to use the new facility our taxes will need to support, and that we now can’t afford (even with the grant).

We seem to make a lot of decisions that serve interests and have us spend beyond our means because, if we don’t, we’ll lose out on grants.

But these “free money” grants cost Norwalk taxpayers more than we can afford.

With that, we literally can’t afford all of this “free money” because it comes at a VERY HIGH cost to Norwalk taxpyers.

Perhaps we should live within our means and spend upon known needs and priorities, rather than lose focus and shift dollars and resources toward things that serve developers, builders, and other towns disproportionately relative to the price Norwalk residents have to pay year after year after year…

Just a thought.

Makes Me Want to Cry November 11, 2020 at 2:38 pm

that the details of this are released a week after the election. I am so disheartened by the fact that people fail to see the dishonesty and contempt Bob Duff has for many of the citizens of Norwalk.

Disturbance November 11, 2020 at 3:15 pm

Wait a minute. Teachers are now judged on how their students grow or don’t grow in terms of their personal wellbeing and mental wellness? What? This can’t be accurate. That might be the most absurd thing I’ve heard other than Chris Perone getting re-elected while being MIA!
How about having teachers try to help but not make that endeavor one that impacts their reputation and ability to teach science, math, language arts and history. I’m all for teachers helping needy students but to have the teacher’s write up of performance hinged on a student’s emotional issues seems preposterous!

John O'Neill November 11, 2020 at 4:16 pm

@Disturbance — My info is accurate and it is my hope that teacher’s union steps up. We shall see..

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