NORWALK, Conn. — Surprise capital budget requests got their first public airing Tuesday as the Norwalk Board of Education reviewed its proposed $7 million renovation to the former Briggs High School and a hoped-for $46 million career and technical high school in four or five years.
Neither were mentioned last year or sprang from the much-ballyhooed feasibility study five years ago, but former Board Chairman Mike Barbis praised the Briggs plan, while slamming the efforts to build a new Norwalk High School.
“Norwalk High School’s taking money away from schools that really need it,” said Barbis, former Facilities Committee Chairman. “We don’t need to do Norwalk High School. We know it’s a whole political shenanigan.”
Capital budgets feature a 5-year plan, and the $7 million for a new Welcome Center at Briggs would be the only real commitment made in this budget cycle.
“The out-years, years two through five, don’t represent an actual authority to spend money and they don’t represent an actual appropriation,” Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton said.
The Planning Commission is known to push back on projects that weren’t part of previous budget cycles, but generally the Common Council then gives them a greenlight, at least in recent years.
One item that was tentatively approved last year has been delayed: while $80,000 was approved to design a new driveway at Silvermine Elementary School with the expectation that $1.5 million would follow for construction, the pandemic has diverted staff time and the design work remains unfinished, Hamilton said. So it’s been pushed out a year.
The career school and the welcome center are inspired by a new superintendent. Hamilton mentioned a $747,000 request for curriculum materials and textbooks this year and “the superintendent had identified and others in the district have identified that many of our library materials are really dated and are not reflective of the student population of Norwalk. It would be appropriate to supplement and replace some of these materials with more up to date library materials that are more culturally relevant and reflective of our student population.”
The Briggs Family Welcome Center, at 350 Main Ave., would be a one-stop location replacing the “very disjointed” and “very confusing maze” that families need to navigate, Hamilton said.
“Each school does its own registration,” Hamilton said. “So they have to go to the individual school buildings. But then, if they’re a multi-language learner, they need to come to the testing services to be tested and that’s here at City Hall. They may need to go to talk to folks in health services, they’ll need to talk to folks at food services, they may need to talk to folks in transportation to find out where the bus stops are, there’s just a whole host of different offices that a new family coming into the district has to navigate its way through.”
Alexandra Estrella, who became Norwalk Superintendent of Schools in June, said it would be more than a welcome center but a “robust resource center.”
“One of the things that we’re hoping to do was not only make this a sort of education space, but a community space that we can work with our partners in bringing resources that will support our families,” Estrella said. “Getting not only the registration component and special education services, transportation, health, food services, and all of the above, but also a place where our families and community at large can come to acquire different resources and information even before students enter our system.”
The renovation to make the dilapidated old school into a welcome center would be “much less than bringing it up to school code,” NPS Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams said. “It would be warm and friendly and welcoming could be used for community organizations in terms of coming in with meeting rooms and conference space, and all that type of stuff.”
“It is a building that has a storied history here in Norwalk, that carries a lot of passion with members of the Norwalk community,” Wilcox Williams said. “And it also is a piece of property that’s in a very highly traveled area and to see it sort of not used well is really just a shame.”
Norwalk ACTS may be interested in sharing space and “other resources that are essential for the wellbeing of our families, to also be at the fingertip of this in this location for our families,” Estrella said, adding that outside health clinics could “provide services around physicals and other health care needs.”
Given that it’s right on a major bus line, it offers flexibility for families that don’t have private transportation but also would be convenient to those that do, Estrella said.
“Like Brenda articulated, the space doesn’t look very inviting at this present time. But it’s because the space needs a lot of TLC, to bring it up to code, one, and two, to develop that warm feel that we’re hoping to develop in that space,” Estrella said.
But wait, there’s more.
“The one thing that we don’t have as a district is a conference room large enough to occupy large numbers of people to do a large professional learning series or provide professional learning to a large number of teachers, principals, etc.,” Estrella said. “So this will also provide us space because we could transform the gym into a professional learning center for the district.”
Presently, NPS contracts out or uses space from other organizations, “but even then, the spaces are limited in terms of their size,” Estrella said.
It will also alleviate overcrowding in City Hall, as “a lot of that personnel will be sited at that location permanently, allowing us to have more space for curriculum and instruction and special education personnel here on site,” Estrella said.
Board member Heidi Keyes was first to voice support.
“I assume that’ll kind of be kind of the pulse of Norwalk Public Schools right within that building,” Keyes said, asking about parking on the site.
Estrella said parking could be created in front of the building and in addition, there’s parking available within walking distance, at the NPS food services facility.
“There’s a complex next to the to the facility that has a lot of parking and we may be working a partnership that if we have a really large event, we could potentially use that space,” Estrella said. “But we’re going to try to maximize it by opening up additional spaces either towards the front of the building with the parking lot is and also utilizing the food services area, which has some parking as well, as additional parking spaces.”
Erica DePalma said that during the summer tours, parents reported they hadn’t been aware of Norwalk’s magnet schools. She called it “exciting” that NPS can open a welcome center to facilitate awareness of what the district offers.
Estrella, responding to a question from Barbara Meyer-Mitchell, said she hopes that philanthropic grant funding could help build the welcome center.
A new high school?
The recommended capital budget includes a possible $2.7 million appropriation in 2023-24 followed by a $42.3 million appropriation in 2024-25, netting a new career and technical high school. A possible location is not specified.
“Obviously, we have to have some discussion about what this is,” Hamilton said. “The concept here really, is to look at developing a more robust continuum of school to career options for our students, particularly students who may not be intending to go to a four-year college.”
It would “complement the State Technical High School System, not compete with the state system,” he said. It “would develop work-based learning opportunities, through partnerships with local employers, and local businesses and other organizations, and really try to develop the niches, the niches that are currently not being served and for our students, and for the workplaces, that are located in Norwalk or near Norwalk.”
The goal is 21st century jobs and “a career path that would make sense” for students, Hamilton explained.
“Obviously, we would want to coordinate as well as possible with the state. Ideally, we would love the state to look at this as something that they would want to get behind and perhaps fund at, you know, an enhanced level of state funding,” Hamilton said.
The new Norwalk High School project qualified for 80 percent reimbursement as a “pilot program,” shepherded by State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25).
Estrella said it’s inspired by the feedback she got when joining the district.
“I heard continuously … the concern that once Briggs was closed down, that there were limited choices for student students, particularly disenfranchised,” she said. “They wanted to make sure that we had adequate programming to provide students alternative pathways into career and technical education.”
The sense of being disenfranchised often starts in middle school “and we want to catch them early, so that we support them in thinking about their career goals and how they want to proceed in their learning experience early on,” Estrella said. “…We’re hoping that we can align this to the Governor’s workforce task force initiative.”
Not only could students set out on their career when graduating high school, but others could use the skills they’ve learned to get employment while they go to college, she said.
“We have enough time one to really plan through the work, but really think about and work with different partners, particularly the state, and finding the resources necessary to bring this project to life,” Estrella said.
“I’m waiting with bated breath for the (new) facilities feasibility study, for them to really reveal from an engineering standpoint, and so forth, what our needs are in the (Briggs) building, because I think the Welcome Center is a fantastic idea,” Meyer-Mitchell said. “And I think it will really benefit so many families and help us streamline and modernize our processes.”
But, she said, “We…can’t lose hold of the fact that we articulated five years ago that we have major needs in our buildings, and some of them have been addressed, which is a huge win. But some of them have not. And the community feels very strongly about their, sort of, end user experience.”
Barbis said, “Just in response to what Barbara just said that, if there are all these crying needs of these other schools, I think, you know, those are obviously very valid needs, which, as she said, we’ve been addressing. But there are many still unaddressed.”
He continued, “I think this Welcome Center at the same time is also very necessary. What we don’t need, truly, is this new Norwalk High School. And I think we need to realize at some point, we’re going have to make a decision that the resources are limited.”
Barbis said he’d been on a phone call and “the city’s bonding is maxed out, and they really can’t borrow any more money on behalf of projects for us.”
While the high school project, with 80 percent State reimbursement, has inspired a feeling of not looking a gift horse in the mouth, “it’s really not a gift horse,” Barbis said. “And we are going to hurt our other schools and our other needs to build this trophy that is unnecessary.”
Barbis also suggested that the new welcome center could be used to recheck the status of NPS students, reaffirm at regular intervals that they live in Norwalk.
Years ago, “We really realized we had a problem that we never dealt, we never second checked,” Barbis said. “…We just couldn’t figure out how to do it cost effectively. So we as of yet haven’t done it. But this might be another role for the Welcome Center.”
Estrella promised to look into that residency certification.
Board Chairman Colin Hosten voiced support for the big budget requests.
“There’s just saying that duct tape can fix anything. But I do think that when we think about some of the needs of our physical structures, our kids deserve a little bit more than duct tape,” Hosten said. “And I appreciate that this budget requests looking out for the next five or five or so years, is taking into consideration some of the immediate needs, our physical plans, and forward thinking about what are some of the ways we can grow and evolve, and continue to offer high quality instruction to all our students here in Norwalk.”