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NPS agenda prompts fear of redistricting

Rilling promises land acquisition for South Norwalk school

Demographer Mike Zuba presents enrollment projections during Tuesday’s Norwalk Board of Education meeting on Zoom.

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.”

18 comments

john flynn May 5, 2021 at 7:30 am

Scenarios will “drastically effect the affluent” and “who?” whith no border, leaving out the middle class? The New High School, and an undisclosed problem with the three top professionals at Brien McMahon? Lets start the bidding at 4 schools, do I hear 5?

Patrick Cooper May 5, 2021 at 8:58 am

Thank you, Mike Barbis. Thank you – for talking about “it”. Indeed, lots of promised goodies for the city – in an election year – what a shock, and yet – how do we pay for it?

FYE 2021 operating expenditures – “Debt Service” is 8.41% of the budget. Greater than Police & Econ & Community Development – combined. And it’s going up. Wait till the rate’s begin to climb.

Land acquisition in South Norwalk? Aside from the Meadow street brownfield sites which would require massive remediation, what parcels would properly “fit” a school? Maybe city hall has sniffed out some significant corporate move, freeing up the WWE warehouse or maybe Wustoff is in play? Sequel / WB Mason? In these cases, though – it’s also subtraction from the grand list. No matter what – this is going to be expensive.

In any case, the fact that Harry had to face reality on the record is an astonishing accomplishment. It might be the first time in 4 years.

Lastly – NoN – given this statement “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”. Don’t your readers deserve to know – who specifically was the opposition? Name names?

James Cahn May 5, 2021 at 9:43 am

You don’t buy a house in Rowayton “because” of the schools. You buy a house in Westport, Darien, New Canaan or Wilton “because” of the schools. All of the elementary schools in the NPS have more or less similar metrics.

I’m confused by what is being inferred by the idea that if certain Rowayton kids are no longer able to go to Rowayton Elementary that there would be a corresponding drop in property values. In what specific manner is the BRAND NEW STATE OF THE ART school that these kids might be instead going to, “less” of a school than Rowayton Elementary? Does the Harvard Business School have some sort of secret grooming program at Rowayton Elementary that I’m unaware of?

I know! How about if we let the kids in Rowayton stay at Rowayton Elementary school but we can put a sign on the fence that says, “Rowayton supports the other, slightly less good, property value decreasing school, too!!! We’re all in this together!!” That might be a good solution that would make everyone happy.

NPS Parent May 5, 2021 at 10:11 am

It was troubling to see a group of Rowayton parents complaining about their property values decreasing and their children being developmentally affected if Norwalk Public Schools rezones schools in Rowayton. Property values have increased substantially, so many of us are left questioning whether their comments were about greed or racism? Some of the comments were really ugly and shameful. We need to all take a step back and remember that all of our children in Norwalk (from Cranbury to South Norwalk to Rowayton) are OUR children. How can we improve our community at large if we remain in our silos? We live in a global economy. Preparing our kids for a diverse world will enrich and improve their lives. Come on Rowayton. We have to do better.

PIBERMAN May 5, 2021 at 10:52 am

LETS ENCOURAGE CITY OFFICIALS TO USE EMINENT DOMAIN TO CREATE A CAMPUS OF NEW SCHOOLS IN SONO DOING OUR CITY PROUD.

JustaTaxpayer May 5, 2021 at 11:22 am

Yikes. Look at that bar chart! At this rate, the Latino/Hispanic population in Norwalk will be 2/3rds in no time. I wonder how this impacts planning and other minorities head start opportunities.

Elizabeth Hilts May 5, 2021 at 1:56 pm

“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.” This claim doesn’t make sense. I grew up in Rowayton and went to the Norwalk public schools that served that part of Norwalk–Rowayton Elementary and Roton Middle were/are IN Rowayton while Brien McMahon was/is in South Norwalk–but they were the schools that serve the municipality in which these people struggled to buy houses. If you bought for the schools surely you mean ALL the schools in the district. Even when I was a child in the 1960s/70s, there were students in Rowayton Elementary who didn’t live in Rowayton and the student bodies of Roton and Brien McMahon certainly included those who didn’t live in Rowayton. One thing I definitely learned growing up in that part of town was the kind of coded language that is being used here; using it as heinous now as it was then and maybe even more so since we are supposedly more enlightened as a society. These parents should be ashamed of themselves; barring that, they should at least be honest about the true nature of their “concerns.”

nora king May 5, 2021 at 3:09 pm

NPS Parent
How about you do better? People like you love to slam Rowayton but you certainly like to spend our expensive tax dollars, which I am tired of paying. Not sure what Norwalk provides anymore. As in any community you create a village…. Rowayton is no exception. We all work hard by volunteering and taking care of our village area for our families and kids. Norwalk has many neighborhoods and Rowayton is no different. Rowayton -if you educated your self was the only area on the map that was influenced. So before you blame people here or call us racists get your facts straight. On top of it the Chairman of the Board is promoting this culture of no transparency and doing things behind closed doors. Enrollment studies do not typically contain redistricting scenarios unless they are requested. Because Norwalk is now 75% minority there is no need for redistricting so why the Chair even had it part of the discussion is shocking. Kids like neighborhood schools They like to bike, walk and be part of a community and every parent will fight for that for their kids if they think it is important. I am so tired of everyone thinking they can bully people by calling them racists. If you have not facts then you make statements like yours and throw labels on them.

James Bartley May 5, 2021 at 3:40 pm

According to demographer Mike Zuba of Milone & McBroom – “back in 2007-8, Norwalk was 59% minority and now it’s about 75%.” I would think a “person of color” would prefer that term – instead of minority.

Norwalk Resident For Not Much Longer May 5, 2021 at 5:00 pm

Funny. To me it looks like that graph shows every single population declining except Latino. As someone born as raised in Norwalk, the city has been diverse my entire lifetime, as well it should be. At the same time i think its quite easy for people to see where the majority of school resources go. ELL programs that Bob Duff doesnt get the city any more from Hartford for. Its pathetic. Since buying my home here i have watched taxes go up every single year with absolutely no gain in services to show for it. Even worse is the fact that the BOE budget increases every single year and what does Norwalk have to show for it? Sub par schools to put it nicely.

I’m all for inclusion but im not for subsidizing the teaching of basic things that all parents should teach their kids, I am also not for subsidizing using the public schools as a glorified babysitting program. Norwalk public schools have buildings that have been neglected for years, by politicians of both parties, school fields and parks (with very few exceptions) are in horrible shape. I drive by NPS field with kids playing Tball or baseball and i genuinely feel bad that parents have to pay for a program that is for the benefit of ALL kids and they are forced to use fields that look like they havent been properly taken care of since well before the pandemic. Cost of living in Norwalk, let alone Fairfield County, is astronomical. Norwalk just has an uncanny ability to make it worse on its residents by having that same high cost of living while giving absolutely nothing back to residents. Its almost like the politicians at city hall are just mocking residents and their cries for less apartment buildings, better schools, better roads, and just a general level of service that one would expect in what is one of the top 10 most expensive places to live in the country.

Being born and raised here, buying a house, and wanting to raise my family here, I cannot wait to leave and go somewhere that values not only diversity, but also the amount of money its residents contribute to the city/town. Norwalk is on the fast track to becoming Bridgeport.

Ron Morris May 5, 2021 at 5:40 pm

Let’s never encourage eminent domain. Eminent domain is the most anti-American thing that you can do. It would be an embarrassment to the city.

Need for Correction May 5, 2021 at 7:28 pm

Elizabeth Hilts may have been describing the Rowayton School of her youth, but it is very important to note that the Rowayton School of today is not districted only for students who live in Rowayton. It is for Rowayton and for part of South Norwalk. The Rowayton parents who spoke weren’t objecting to the South Norwalk students who attend Rowayton School because it is their school, too. They were objecting to having the Rowayton students removed from Rowayton School.

Redistricting is tricky business and I am not aware of a time when it was done well. I know there are parents in a good number of Norwalk schools who would object to having their children involuntarily moved from the schools closest to their homes, to be sent elsewhere in the city. The best solution is to make the physical facilities and the program offerings of the new South Norwalk schools superior, offering them as magnet schools to the rest of the city, although South Norwalk students should first be entitled to seats in their new buildings.

John Pop May 6, 2021 at 4:32 pm

It’s funny how these parents are so considered about “their” kids and protecting their right to “Rowayton” schools. They are NORWALK schools. They chose to buy and pay additional taxes to the taxing district and have access to amenities including a private beach, paddle courts, tennis courts and extra garbage collection. These do NOT pay for the schools.

Nora – you complained that people like to “slam” Rowayton. The reality is, Rowayton continually presents itself as separate and entitled, NOT as a “neighborhood” within Norwalk. People in Silvermine, Cranbury, Brookside, etc. don’t put their address as their neighborhood. Even with the Black Lives Matter sign, you couldn’t just say, “Black Lives Matter”, you had to specify “in Rowayton”, do they not matter elsewhere? You can’t behave in this manner and then cry foul when it’s it’s pointed out.

Those children being moved from Rowayton to Brookside could still walk or bike to school. The distance between the two schools is 2.2 miles. Brookside is also a vibrant community school and if they came out of their bubble, Rowaytonites would be shocked.

Parents concerned about their child’s development being drastically impacted are right. Your children would be exposed to more of the world, have the opportunity to broaden their prospective and would see a huge positive impact.

The focus on the money was absolutely disgusting. It truly displayed what Rowayton values! It wasn’t about a rich and robust education system, the number of District 99 children who currently are being bussed all over and don’t have access for after school activities because of it. Yet a Rowayton parent, where 3/4 of the kids are enrolled in private sports and enrichment programs, was worried about their child not having access to after school activities because their school was a mile further away. It would

Perhaps they should completely remove themselves from Norwalk. It would be interesting to weigh the tax implications versus what it costs the town to cater to entitled village that clearly doesn’t want to be part of our city.

Bryan Meek May 7, 2021 at 10:29 am

My numbers are a little dated, but I can’t see how they are smaller now.

The city spends roughly $10 million a year on bussing 70% of our school children. Similar sized cities with respect to density and population bus about 50%.

If we only had a goal to reduce that by 10%, it’s a $1 million a year saved, or enough to build a brand new school over its economic life.

We are literally paying to pollute our city and congest it with unnecessary traffic shipping kids all over the city. 10 hours spent on a bus every week is 10 hours less on enrichment and after school fun. How did we ever settle for doing this to our children?

Tartuffo May 7, 2021 at 4:33 pm

How about getting some land away from real estate developers and dedicating it for a new school in SONO? How about improving infrastructure in existing schools? Better yet, did anyone investigate possibly enlarging existing schools instead of building new ones? Some of the school fields could probably be used for a building. Or are fields such an absolute necessity when we have public parks or other schools in the area that offer amenities for that?
Looking at the statistics about demographics: why are we still talking in terms of “minorities”? There is a net change in NPS demographics, and it is clear that 2020-21 shows a balance tipping towards Hispanics/Latino (53%) and the rest of the groups are the new minorities: White (25%) Black (15%) Asian & other (7%). Do we really need to still differentiate the various groups? Isn’t the whole point of public school to be inclusive and having quotas in place to protect against risks of inequalities? By the way, these will soon be obsolete as the entire country demographics is changing. I think it is better to look at districts in terms of how we can really serve the students better in terms of quality educators, access to technology, access to opportunities, offering extra curricular activities through local museums, nature centers, etc. Stop focusing on “race”. These kids deserve better from us adults. I favor content/quality over quantity any day of the week! And for those “wealthy areas”, don’t worry about their public comments that don’t make sense; their kids will go to private schools! All these new transplants from NYC and other wealthy areas already have a plan, and it doesn’t include the “threat” posed by redistricting. Unfortunately, the middle class is the one that pays for all! This will never change, anywhere in the world for that matter!

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