Rilling promises land acquisition for South Norwalk school
NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk is prepared to move forward with its huge investment in school construction, including building two South Norwalk schools on the same property, Mayor Harry Rilling said Tuesday, indicating through his statements that their location won’t necessarily be where Columbus Magnet School is now.
Rilling’s comments followed a lengthy discussion of a demographics analysis with an explanation of a PowerPoint presentation that inspired an outcry over the past few days, chiefly from Rowayton parents, who interpreted the information to mean that the Board of Education was planning to redistrict school zones.
“I’m sorry that things took such a such a spin,” Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella said, explaining that the PowerPoint, included with the information available online in advance of Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, was intended to inspire Board dialogue and feedback from the community.
Basically, Norwalk Public Schools needs to show the State that it’s done its homework and there really is a need for a new school so the City can qualify for construction cost reimbursement, Estrella and others said.
But it’s not moving forward during this school year, they said.
Voices are heard
The PowerPoint presented redistricting scenarios developed with school administrative input “over the last several months… to achieve NPS objectives,” it said. All of them feature major shifts, such as Brookside Elementary’s zone extending into South Norwalk in one scenario, changes to feeder zones, and redrawing the Rowayton school area.
“I do regret that the posting of tonight’s presentation in advance without some proper context, has very understandably upset many members of our community,” Board of Education Chairman Colin Hosten said. “But I do want to clarify and hopefully offer some relief, that redistricting is not something that this board is considering tonight, or has any short term plans to consider.”
Hosten went on to read snippets of more than 30 letters the Board received because, “I do want to make sure that everybody’s voice is heard.”
Many of the Rowayton parents said they’d struggled to buy a home there but did so because of the schools, and redistricting would cause the value of their properties to drop. One mother said that eliminating certain neighborhoods from the Rowayton Elementary School area would create a school with “only two” economic classes, one of them being “the affluent.” The middle class families are needed to “help round out these extreme socio economic differences.”
One letter had been sent by about 20 people, Hosten said. The proposed scenarios would adversely affect them, it said.
Hosten said, “I’m actually really pleased, I think this kind of parent of parent and community advocacy is a really, really, really great sign of how vibrant the Norwalk School District is, this is really, really gratifying.”
Parents who spoke to the Board thanked Hosten for reading something from all of the letters.
‘Not picking a random number’
Demographer Mike Zuba of Milone & McBroom, who has been working with NPS since 2014, said the pandemic has skewed numbers but there are overall trends across Connecticut: many parents kept their kindergartners home this year.
This means there will be a spike next year, he said.
Back in 2007-8, Norwalk was 59% minority and now it’s about 75%, he said. The State has racial balancing mandates, keeping schools within 25% of the district wide average.
The number of multilingual learners has decreased, because the students have reached a proficiency level and tested out, he said.
The demographic update was tasked with three main objectives, including a drive to increase equity for South Norwalk students, who are bussed to other areas based on where seats are available. The goal s to balance enrollments across the city and keep South Norwalk kids in their neighborhood.
Milone & McBroom used 2019-20 numbers to make projections, and the scenarios were developed with “various changes in school size, number of classrooms, number of sections per grade, changes just to geography, really looking at being able to sort of fine tune and create a concept that was different enough to be able to have discussion,” Zuba said.
“I don’t intend any one of these to be able to be taken off the shelf. And this isn’t a redistricting process. I’ve done enough of those. This is a school facility planning process. My intent tonight is to be able to provide four different or three different scenarios for the Board of Ed to have some rich dialogue on,” he said.
“I’m not going to get spend a lot of time going through street by street neighborhood by neighborhood other than noting that you have neighborhood schools, you’re also been transitioning towards choice a magnet programming,” he said. “The less you rely on neighborhood school boundaries, and the more options you have for choice and magnet programming, the better you are in a position to be able to manage enrollment through students selection of where they want to go programmatically.”
Hosten pointed out that the scenarios are related to the facilities study that was done this spring. Consultants recently presented a concept for two schools on the Columbus Magnet School site.
“The State requires that we go through these scenarios in order for us to be able to build a school that we need to serve children,” Board member Sarah LeMieux said. “Is that a good summary?”
Yes, Zuba said. “We also want to ensure that if we’re putting the school in South Norwalk to serve the South Norwalk neighborhood, that is the right size. I mean, that’s part of the due diligence of not just picking a random number and say, I think a 500 students-school would be perfect there.”
New NHS might come after other schools are built
“We’ve been at this for six years now. And we have nothing,” said Board member Mike Barbis, who shepherded through the current new schools plan as then-Facilities Committee Chairman. “So we spent a bunch of money and we have plans for different schools. And anyway, we still have not broken ground. And it’s six years later.”
The plan for a new Columbus school on the Nathaniel Ely site has fallen through because it involved a land swap for open space, opposed by some South Norwalk leaders.
The new studies show the need and there’s a meeting with the State on May 20, Estrella said. Although there4 was talk of trying to submit an application for the two schools on the Columbus site by June 30, “the goal is to work on this for the next year.”
Obviously, “there was community concern” about that urban concept of squeezing two schools on the site, she said. “And I know the mayor and his team has have made a commitment to acquire land, South Norwalk that will allow us enough space to build the one to build the new CMS as well as the South Norwalk school. The question has been, you know, given the resources we currently have, how large would these two schools be?… Our goal is, hopefully by June of 2022, that we can move forward with an application.”
Barbis observed that Rilling was in attendance and asked, “Can we talk about money?”
Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz talked early this year of a need to slow down borrowing because of the massive amount of bonding the City has committed to, and the need to keep the Triple A bond rating.
Barbis on Tuesday spoke of the plan to build a new Norwalk High School, hotly derided by some, and asked how a South Norwalk school would be prioritized given the “final stages” design of a new Cranbury Elementary, which also wasn’t in the new schools plan he had a major role in developing.
“Based on what the city CFO has said, that the bonding of all this is not possible, how are we going to make these decisions?” Barbis asked.
“It’s not that it’s not possible. He has a limit where we can get to, and we’re under that limit right now,” Rilling said.
Dachowitz has explained this publicly.
Rilling said the bonding is authorized for Cranbury, the Jefferson renovation, Columbus and NHS, and “Right now, we’re below the threshold that we need to be in order to save our triple A bond rating. But we have a plan that will get us back to the area that is a is a more of a comfort zone. We’re in good shape.”
Barbis and Board member Sherelle Harris pressed.
“We have money in place for a new South Norwalk school. Right now, we also have money in place for the acquisition of property where that school will be built,” Rilling said.
Harris and others have danced around the “acquisition of property” for months, little comments made hesitantly, without explanation.
Rilling has publicly stated that Norwalk can build all these schools. Barbis pressed him to say it again.
Yes, all the schools can be build, but, “I’m not sure it’ll be five years, it might be six as we move forward,” Rilling said. “I don’t know how quickly we’re going to be starting the new Norwalk High School. Right now, the priority is the South Norwalk school, as well as finishing up on Jefferson and Cranbury.”
Importantly, Rilling said, “Obviously, if we have two schools on the new property in South Norwalk, then we have to determine what’s going to happen with the old Columbus. I mean, there’s an opportunity for the old Columbus, that we’ve only begun to explore.”
Harris asked when the land acquisition might happen.
“When we start to look at a school, especially a new school, we have to determine design, we have to look at the programmatic things that will be you know, how is the school going to operate? How many students and so forth? Once we get that information, then we move forward with land acquisition,” Rilling said.
The BoE must approve education specifications, then the city acquires land, he said. The land must be acquired before an application is submitted.
“We’re on the record here,” Barbis said. “Just so everyone knows we can do all this.”