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Norwalk/Stamford to get 60% State reimbursement on school construction projects

State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) leads a Wednesday news conference at Westhill High School in Stamford. (Harold F. Cobin)

NORWALK, Conn. – In what Bob Duff calls a “generational game changer,” Norwalk and Stamford will now get 60% State reimbursement for all school construction projects, for the next 25 years.

Compare that to the 22.5% reimbursement for new school construction Norwalk has been getting, and the 32.5% to renovate schools into a new condition.

Video by Harold F. Cobin at end of story

“If you had told me about two months ago, that Bob Duff, Senator Looney and Senator Miller would be delivering this package to us, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy. It’s never going to happen,’” Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling said.

“It allows us to really invest in our schools like it should have happened a long time ago,” said Duff, State Senate Majority Leader.

The announcement in Stamford, at Westhill High School, came two days after Gov. Ned Lamont signed the revised, one-year $24.2 billion state budget into law.

Duff said that he and State Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney (D-New Haven) were “there to make sure that the pen worked.”

Norwalk has been eyeing the hurdles it faces in attempting to reverse decades of neglect of school buildings, prompting Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz to issue dour warnings about the City losing its Triple A bond rating.

“No community, especially urban communities in this state, can build new schools or renovate new schools as new with a reimbursement rate that is so low without damaging its triple A bond rating, without not being able to do other priorities or without being able to, without having to raise taxes to an unreasonable amount of money that people cannot afford,” Duff said.

Duff said he began working on the higher reimbursement rate in November and December, deciding to team with Stamford “because I thought that it would bolster the argument” and get Stamford the help it deserves.

Stamford’s reimbursement rate is even lower than Norwalk’s, at 20% for new schools and 30% to renovate as new, Duff said. He began the project by suggesting to State Sen. Patricia Billie Miller (D-27) that Stamford shoot for 80% reimbursement for its new Westhill High School, because Norwalk got 80% for a new Norwalk High School. Stamford got it, too.

Both the higher reimbursement rate for a quarter century and the 80% for Westhill High School were “Bob’s brainchild,” Miller said.

Duff and Miller “were keeping up a drumbeat about this policy change from the very beginning of the session, right to the signing of the bill,” Looney said.

Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons called the partnership a “a really excellent model for our towns and cities to work together on a regional approach.”

She said, “I think we’re stronger together. We really are the economic engine of the state, we might be biased, but we are. And I think this is this is such a great model that we can take when we’re seeking federal infrastructure funding and, and other bills up in Hartford.”

“Budgets show you what societies value,” Looney said. If children go to school in “decrepit buildings, worn down buildings, buildings that have lasted long before their usable life,” they get the message that “their education and their futures are not all that important.”

Key to getting the funding was a long-range plan, Duff said.

“Norwalk will announce a detailed 25 Year Plan soon,” Duff said. “…This is more than just fixing the furnace in schools. This is more than just replacing windows, we’re talking about a comprehensive plan to renovate schools as new, and build schools, for our kids, for our teachers and students for the 21st century, to meet the needs and expectations of a global economy.”

The Board of Education in late 2020 approved a $204,591 contract with Newman + DLR Group to conduct a facilities feasibility study, with then-BoE Facilities Committee Chairwoman Barbara Meyer-Mitchell saying she hoped it would “create the infrastructure such that facility decisions are very fact-driven and less political.” It built on a 2015 facilities feasibility study shepherded by the late Mike Barbis, then-BoE Facilities Committee Chairman.

Consultants said in June that Norwalk would ideally spend $20-30 million a year for two decades to update its schools, but up to $35 million in year one, to address “critical maintenance” and “critical multi-school projects.”

“Our children deserve a work world class education,” Rilling said. “There has not been a school built in Norwalk in 50 years. And the past seven or eight years, we put together a plan.”

The crowd at Wednesday’s news conference at Westhill High School in Stamford. (Harold F. Cobin)

Norwalk has built an addition to Ponus Ridge Middle School, now the Ponus STEAM Academy, and is completing renovations to Jefferson Elementary School. Repairs are also underway at other facilities, along with upgrades including air conditioning.

“We have a 25-year plan like Stamford does, and it’s going to cost us about $500 million to get it all done, or perhaps even more by that time,” Rilling said.

Any Norwalk or Stamford projects approved by the legislature from now and 25 years into the future will get 60% reimbursement, Duff said.

The City is working to build a new South Norwalk neighborhood school; “back of the envelope figuring” shows that Norwalk taxpayers will save $24 million with the higher rate, Duff said, commenting, “That’s huge.”

“Every school is going to get done,” he said. “The savings to the city is going to be amazing.”

Duff became Majority Leader in 2014.

“The position that I’m in gives me a louder voice and a stronger voice for our community, to be able to address some of the things that have been harder to address in the past,” Duff said Wednesday.

He also spoke of changes to the Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) formula that increased Norwalk’s funding, beginning four years ago and continuing to increase annually for another six years.

“You’ve got a new formula now that helps on the operating side of things. And the school construction helps on the capital side of things. So it is, you know, these things go hand in glove to improve student outcomes,” Duff said.

He said, “This will impact generations of students, and give them the schools that they deserve. And taxpayers will save hundreds of millions of dollars in each community. And they will see their property values rise at the same time.”

The time was now because there’s an “opening,” he said.

“We have a Mayor and a Council who support investing in our in our schools and our fiscal plan of our schools. Which wasn’t always the case,” Duff said. “We have a superintendent and a Board who want to do it too, and do it in a way of in partnership. And we have a State that is willing to make long term investments as well for Norwalk, and Stamford.”

“People look at us as the Gold Coast, rich in property. So we seem to always get shortchanged,” Rilling said. “But now this is a game changer.”

13 comments

DryAsABone May 12, 2022 at 8:49 am

Stamford’s newest school flooded in a recent storm.
Westover, a relatively new school, has cost untold millions with mold issues. One wonders if being built on wetlands had anything to do with that?
Westhill is relatively new but its condition, as with most schools in Stamford, is the result of neglect, not age.
Why stop at 60%? The spending spree will result in a massive tax hit for residents and the outcome will be the same…sub-standard test scores.

Piberman May 12, 2022 at 10:04 am

If only new schools would help our Norwalk students meet CT Edu Dept graduation standards. But our BOE seems focused on concerns other than student achievement.

John O'Neill May 12, 2022 at 1:26 pm

As in everything in life the devil is in the details. Let’s see what’s in the details. It should not be forgotten, Mr. Duff just 2 years ago tried to bury the Norwalk Police by lying thru his teeth for political gain.

Jim Tru May 12, 2022 at 2:36 pm

Great news!
We should name the new NHS pool after Duff because Norwalk Residents will be swimming in debt to fund it.

curious May 12, 2022 at 2:57 pm

So it will only cost Norwalk tax payers 200 instead of 500 million? Plus the tax added to the state’s budget to provide this larges.

Patrick Cooper May 12, 2022 at 3:59 pm

Guess you can’t say no to all this “free” money – except it’s not free. Norwalk should be delighted here, I guess. But something else is going on, no doubt.

Is it possible that Hartford has figured out – Fairfield County is where all the revenue comes from, so their focus is squarely on growing our towns and cities? Except – Greenwich does its own thing, Darien and New Canaan similarly operate within the bubbles that can occur when the town is small, wealthy, and the demographics are the same. Ditto Wilton, Weston, Westport, Easton, and to a lesser extent – Trumbull. Fairfield lost its prime benefactor (GE), so the money is tight there – and Bridgeport – well – that’s one of the major failures of the state.

So that leaves Stamford & Norwalk to be used as prime revenue generators for the next decade (or more). The state does that by adding bodies – any bodies. The shift from income to consumption taxes has been happening for the last decade. Course – CT asks for both – making us one of the highest tax burden states in the US. Top 3 for a long, long time.

It also seems – the CT tradition of pay-to-play is alive and well, and now fully embraced by the Democratic Party. Bob knows how to get in line.

On occasion – we get a peek into the shenanigans. Happened with POKO – where a sloppy Tim Sheehan did the unthinkable – and put it in writing. Said – had to move fast to get the “chosen” developer in place – McClutchy – as their ties to the Malloy administration were on a ticking clock. Sure enough, you find they are very, very generous doners to the Democratic State PAC that helps politicians like Bob. You can see why he would quickly pivot from “Fix It First” (he was jealous the GOP member on the Norwalk BOE might get credit) to now building schools all over town. Price – no limit. Bob has a cushy relationship with the McClutchy team – he touts their projects on his website.

No – you would think that with not one but two FBI investigations into Kosta Diamontis and the funny business of selecting (rather than open bids) chosen contractors and developers for state projects – where the construction costs are significantly above what a private enterprise would pay – because of all the “rules” that are in place to protect the unions and the developers. Meanwhile, “dark” money flows into the PAC’s – and the D’s continue to run the state.

As others have put it – shiny new buildings are nice – but what about a focus on academics? I worked with firms that moved into brand spank’in new HQ’s – and you know what? The business didn’t change, nor did it improve. Case in point – Victorinox in Monroe. So really – do we believe more of the kids will achieve the education standards needed to be something more than “labor” because they are in a new building? Is it osmosis?

You better know Norwalk is not just important – it’s the key to Harford’s plans. Ned has been here more often that any governor before him – x10. They are making sure Bob wins his race again – even though he has no opponent to speak of. They know Stephanie Thomas will be the silly putty persona they need – whatever they need. Heck, even our young politico – without any college degree, much less any accounting background – has been selected for Ned’s treasurer. She has proven herself – POKO for one – that she will do whatever it takes to win. And then of course there is Harry. Enough said.

BTW, I wonder how the folks in Danbury are taking this news? New Brittan? New London? New Haven? Ned’s not campaigning there – “table scraps” doesn’t motivate quite the same way.

No – this state is toast – sorry. The GOP is completely lost – they are content to wage finger pointing skirmishes over pointless culture wars – but remain silent when our city is sold off a piece at a time to the detriment of it’s residents. Waterfront is next. They (GOP) are silent, because – they are complicit. Moderate Dem’s seem to be too busy to participate (vote), and the 2-party system purposely diminishes the desire of “U” and “I” voters as we don’t even get to select our candidates. The registered “U’s” in CT represent the largest voting bloc (930,963 U’s vs 825,286 D’s and 463,656 R’s). They don’t vote in off-year elections.

So yea! Bob brought home the bacon. We should all be so happy, right? I wish I could join the celebration – but I simply can’t.

Piberman May 12, 2022 at 8:17 pm

A “generational game changer” would be for Norwalk public grads meeting CT’s Educational Dept standards for graduation. But most don’t. Neither our BOE nor our Supt nor City leaders have any plan to ensuring our kids meet CT Edu Dept standards. But they’re excited about new schools. How new schools will improve student accomplishment remains unknown.

City Dems like to say they “stand up” for our minority population. But most of public school students are minorities. And they’re not meeting CT Edu standards. So what’s the problem here ? Doesn’t our BOE believe its important for our pubic school students to meet CT Edu Dept standards ? City Hall too ? Common Council ?

So what’s the problem here ? We spent the monies matching salaries with surrounding wealthy towns. Pay the highest Supt salary in CT. But can’t get the results. Would a new BOE help ? Sadly we know the answer. City leaders don’t seem too concerned about our failing public schools. They support our BOE.

M Murray May 13, 2022 at 6:17 am

And it will still cost taxpayers 200 million? After how much in renovations in the last 15 years to the same school? And will this be a Norwalk school or a regional high school? Somewhere lost in all of this is a plan to bring out of district students into Norwalk schools.

s May 13, 2022 at 10:10 am

I was for quite a while unaware and happy with Norwalk schools, but the more i read and the more I see my kids going through it – i wish i had moved away when home prices were less expensive:(

agree with what @piberman has said. Norwalk cares less about improving student education quality and more about a few shiny new things.

Instead – all middle schools could have been brought up to par with the state levels by offereing better quality education and syllabus. Kids should be pushed to excel NOT have the line pushed back so they continue to be average or below average. This system is ridiculous and one of the reasons why our students are struggling.

George May 16, 2022 at 9:21 pm

The buy line is incorrect.
Bob Duff pushes his hidden regional school agenda wasting taxpayers money on unnecessary new school building construction.

There all fixed. No need to thank me.

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