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Planning Commission exhorted to fund school projects; turf fields debated

Wednesday’s Planning Commission public hearing on Zoom.

NORWALK, Conn. — Contrasting opinions on turf fields and a would-be welcome center, disappointment over another possible delay regarding Cranbury Elementary and a consensus that the Silvermine Elementary School is dangerous and some school bathrooms disgusting marked the Planning Commission’s virtual hearing Wednesday on the capital budget.

More than 30 people spoke to the Commission, many of them responding to austere recommendations made by Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz, characterized by citizen Jennifer Romano as “really disproportionate to the needs and ask, especially for the schools.” The comments prompted Planning Commission Chairwoman Frances DiMeglio and other Commissioners to point out that they have their role in the process, but the buck stops with the Common Council.

“They can change any, any line item or budget item, as they see fit. So, this isn’t that, we’re not voting on anything tonight, we’re listening,” DiMeglio said.

“I think there’s a lot of first time listeners on … our input is more analytical. We’ve listened to all of the department heads make their arguments, we listen to the public. And then we move all that along into a, you know, a much deeper review by other parts of the City bureaucracy,” Commissioner Mike Mushak said.

One mom, April Wennerstrom, replied, “I appreciate that clarity and consideration, I intend to be at every meeting to fight for schoolchildren of Norwalk.”

Dachowitz has recommended the Council pass on many requests out of concern for the City’s triple A bond rating and alleged that the Board of Education has been asked to delay its expensive plans, which include three new schools that have already been approved.

“We would hate to see Cranbury be delayed once again, for I believe what is the fifth time it has been delayed or moved since I’ve become a teacher in the last 20 years,” Norwalk Federation of Teachers (NFT) First Vice President Joe Giandurco said.

“It’s funny because two weeks ago, I would have not expected me to be here in front of this Board talking because we were moving forward with plans and ideas of making a beautiful green school for Cranbury. But here I am as history, like April said, repeats itself,” Marie Vergara said.

Four BoE members spoke to the Commission; Diana Carpio advocated for the $7 million welcome center proposed by new Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella and Barbara Meyer-Mitchell said, “It is so egregious to zero out so many of the Board of Education programs and limit us to only $1.7 million of funding.”

“Please restore this Silvermine driveway construction to this year’s capital budget.  It should be noted that many of the capital budget cuts affect district D, especially the bathrooms that are in dire need of renovation and any discussion of further delaying the long overdue new Cranbury school,” Erica DePalma said.

Many years ago, students were not exposed to diverse cultures in books available to them in their classrooms or school libraries, but things have changed. There are a wealth of books on different cultures, as well as books written in different languages,” Sherelle Harris said. “… Norwalk Public Schools wants to show our students that we see them, and that we value, all aspects of them, including their language and their culture.”

 

Parents weigh in

A situation like this would ordinarily pack the City Hall community room.

“I just love this format better than waiting for somebody to walk up the aisle,” Mushak observed. “I mean it just seemed like this was so much more efficient, and we got the same information I don’t think there was any compromise here on the process in terms of us hearing from the public.”

DiMeglio gave speakers three to five minutes to express their thoughts.

  • The Silvermine situation is “mayhem from the sense that you have little people who can’t worry about even the height of the bus, a school bus wheel or school bus tire, who are going across this super busy hectic really tight space just not visualized for more than one vehicle at a time,” Zina King said.
  • “In a time of pandemic, it is undignified and unacceptable that our kids are going to bathrooms in broken doors, with broken sinks and dirty floors, especially in West Rocks Middle School,” Iliana Zuniga said. “When kids are studying to change into teenage years, if you cannot lock your doors, it’s something that is very unsettling for kids that are going on there those changes.”
  • Cuts to technology and other curriculum support elements seem “very tone deaf in a climate where we already have had two out of three one days canceled,” said Romano, adding that if the Commissioners visited the Nathan Hale Middle School bathrooms “you would not get the stench out of your nose.”
  • “I understand that a welcome center has benefits. I completely see where that could be helpful in the longer term, but right now it feels like it’s a golden band aid on a bullet wound. It feels like we’re going for something that is so futuristic when we don’t have running water and bathrooms and our kids are going to school where there’s this asbestos in the hallways,” Romano said.
  • “There’s no doubt, a family welcome center would have helped my single dad transition transition my siblings and I much more smoothly to NPS,” Sharon Baanante said.
  • “The Briggs Welcome Center could definitely be eliminated, I think in terms of priorities, to save $5 million. But on the other hand I think fully funding the request for curriculum materials and textbooks, would be important. This year, especially with all the schools suffering from having to deal with remote learning,” Diane Keefe said.
  • The recommended zero funding for school technology is “really dispiriting when our kids, not only on remote days, but every day, even on the days when they’re in the buildings, they are getting all of their instruction delivered to them through technology,” Nalini Jones said. “It all has to be on computers all the time, because that’s how they can be a class in different cohorts, one cohort at home and one cohort in school.”
  • “In 2019, the Cranbury community was led to believe by Mayor Rilling, and the former superintendent, Mr. Adamowski, that a new Cranbury school will be supported for a break ground period of 21-22 and the City is again considering removing funding,” Wennerstrom said. “…I’m infuriated by this recent reversal. And believe that City Hall just assumes parents like me move on after aging out of their district. Not so. I’m no longer interested in waiting for city officials to act in support of a new school, and I’m hoping to demand action and a public announcement of the commitment by ‘this council’ to appropriate and execute the promise made for a new building.”
  • “It’s a lot to ask parents to volunteer, you know, we work, we go to school, we do this, we do that, and, you know, here we are selling cookies and just to get an air conditioner or, you know, new bathrooms, for our children,” Sarah Amato said.

 

 

Turf supported, condemned

“We’re still on the same bandwagon of installing our seventh artificial field,” activist Diane Lauricella said. “… I ask that this be put to rest, unless and until, a one-month moratorium where you look at the dangers of artificial turf fields.”

“I’m addressing you all today to vocalize my disappointment that $620,000 is being allocated for the turf softball field during a global pandemic,” Farrah Marin said. “Not only is artificial turf unsustainable that is absolutely unnecessary. Our city needs to be at the forefront of protecting our environment and our neighbors.”

“There’s a gross amount of inequity between the baseball fields in Norwalk and the softball fields,” Brien McMahon High School Athletic Director John Cross said, explaining that fathers and sons use turf fields continually but “Unfortunately for the girls, they sometimes are inside for over three days, because of the puddles.” That “sends a negative message to all the girls because you can look at the Babe Ruth leagues and how they can host state tournaments, even regional tournaments and send teams to the World Series, but it’s very hard for the softball players in our town to play a regularly scheduled game during the summer if it rains.”

“I think one of the biggest fears that anybody has in an athletic department or in a town would be in office civil a case, put in front of the complaint I should say, given to the Office of Civil Rights, about how there’s not equity,” he said.

About 36% of the girls’ games are rained out and “we need more places for kids who live in urban areas to play outside in areas that can be used year-round, that don’t get rained out, that are well maintained and COVID has made this problem exponentially worse,” Jody Sattler  said.

 

Never ‘in the dark’ before

The Commission pressed for what is ordinarily a routine explanation from the City’s finance director: although the capital budget calendar states that Dachowitz will speak to the Commission on Feb. 11, Kleppin told Commissioners, “His availability, the only one so far was February 25th.”

Planning Commission Chairwoman Frances DiMeglio.

That date is too close to the Commission’s March 5 deadline and “the CFO has always been at the table,” DiMeglio said. Kleppin argued that it’s the Commission’s budget, “your impression of what the capital budget should be and why,” but DiMeglio replied “We haven’t done this in the dark,” and Commissioners have questions.

“What if we authorized $20 million more, what would that do about our bond rating?” Commissioner Brian Baxendale asked.

The dates “were formulated a long time ago,” DiMeglio said. Kleppin promised to press Dachowitz for a response to the request that he meet with the Commission, as has always been done.

On Thursday, Kleppin said Dachowitz will meet with the Commission on Feb. 16.

 

About that process

Support for a welcome center came from a woman who did not speak English; Commissioner Mary Peniston stepped in to translate.

“We were told there would be translators,” Alterman said in an online chat, adjacent to the Zoom meeting, where Peniston and the speaker, Rosario Rojas  were enthusiastically praised.

Alterman told the Commission she found Rojas’ predicament – trying to communicate but not being understood by the panel – “really upsetting.”

“I think people need to consider what these families go through on a daily basis, not only to support their family and to make sure their kids get educated, but just to be able to be a part of these meetings is difficult,” she said.

DiMeglio did not realize there was a chat going on and said she considered those comments not to be part of the public hearing. Commissioner Steven Ferguson compared the chat to people conversing in the audience, while Peniston said, “I think a lot of people thought they were giving testimony by doing the chat room… if that’s not an acceptable way to get public comment people need to be told from the beginning.”

Citizens can submit written comments about the capital budget until 5 p.m. today, Thursday Feb. 4, DiMeglio said. Email [email protected]

The Zoom “makes it more accessible for people that {do} not have childcare or a way to get to city hall,” Zuniga said in the chat.

“It was a bit less intimidating as well to be able to speak,” Wennerstrom wrote. “It would be appreciated if the chat information is considered.”

Story updated and edited at 3:41 p.m. to show additional information regarding Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz meeting with the Planning Commission. Correction, 1 a.m. Saturday, speakers were given 3-5 minutes.

8 comments

Bryan Meek February 4, 2021 at 8:47 am

Once again Cranbury gets shafted. No garbage. No sewers. No Firehouse. And now No School. If you are one of the few with sewer and garbage you get to pay the highest mill rate of any district in the city, The rest pay additional money for garbage or use the dump which has fewer hours than most banks.

But don’t worry. Cranbury will not be the only area of the city in permanent neglect. Bob Duff High will make up for it when it cannibalizes the entire city for anything that is new, nice, or needed.

Bryan Meek February 4, 2021 at 8:49 am

And why is it not mentioned once here, that all of this angst is precisely and directly because of Bob Duff High?

John O'Neill February 4, 2021 at 9:26 am

Well….So the lack of a first rate softball field at McMahon might be considered a Civil Rights case ? Did I read that right? Puddles are a problem? Holy cow, how soft have we become as a society? Last I checked McMahon barely had enough girls to even field a softball team. Their record over the past 3 full seasons is 4 wins and 53 losses. I guess AD is relying on the “IF you build it, they will come strategy to winning championships.” Urban kids not having enough space to play? How many urban kids have even picked up a softball? If the committee has a choice between $600k for a feel good field or computers it’s a no-brainer.
This is just an example of the ridiculous asks last night. The Welcome Center and Broad River baseball complex are just as ridiculous. On one hand we’re being told to tighten our belts as life has changed. On the other certain groups still like spending our money on unnecessary projects.
If we don’t follow Henry’s advice just get rid of the guy because Norwalk will be a fiscal disaster with or without him IF we don’t heed his direction.

Fran Di Meglio February 4, 2021 at 10:08 am

For the record – I did not hold speakers to 3 minutes. In my opening remarks I stated that speakers should try to make their points between 3-5 minutes. Some speakers went more than 5 minutes and some went 10 minutes without interruption.
Thank you.
Fran Di Meglio
Chair – Planning Commission

Reflections on the Meeting February 4, 2021 at 6:30 pm

So many of the speakers’ requests could be addressed, were it not for the elephant in the room – the Norwalk High School project, which the mayor and the comptroller enthusiastically promoted a few months back, even when BOE members and Norwalk citizens questioned its place among construction priorities.

Just a little history, first. Around 10-12 (?) years ago, when Norwalk H.S. was being renovated, the city sometimes took funds from other budgeted school projects to pay for unbudgeted NHS construction costs, and so commitments to some schools were broken. This situation is worse now, though, because the other school facilities have further deteriorated and the needs are greater. Moreover, the cost of the NHS project, on top of all of the money already spent renovating that building (the bonds for which must also be repaid, even if NHS is demolished) now threatens the city’s bond rating.

The city needs to put the brakes on the NHS project. It’s too costly, no matter what the state reimbursement, and it is yet again taking from the other schools, which have been long denied their due. And not that long ago, I saw some serious objections to the early plans by the P-TECH community, the staff, students and parents involved in the school-within-a-school that is supposed to be a major part of this project. I don’t have inside information, but I suspect that the planning was a rush job, and through a combination of pushy people who pressed for their own pet projects within this construction boondoggle, not enough attention was given P-TECH. This has all the potential of a major Norwalk embarrassment in the making.

Bryan Meek February 4, 2021 at 10:06 pm

Bricklayers who get paid $72 an hour per prevailing wage contracts don’t get to keep that money and until most of us realize it, we will just be paying for this graft and spaghetti dinners. Time to wake up.

Alan Kibbe February 5, 2021 at 11:41 am

The solution to this funding dilemma is staring us right in the face. Taxpayers must demand that the funds set aside for a new high school which apparently the community doesn’t need, doesn’t want, and hasn’t requested be released for projects which ARE needed. Reach out to the Mayor, the Common Council, the Board of Education, your state representative, and Governor Lamont to let them know how we feel about this waste of taxpayer dollars.

Reflections on the Meeting February 6, 2021 at 2:38 pm

I agree that the solution to the funding dilemma is staring Norwalk in the face, but I don’t expect that the politicians who are promoting the Norwalk High School project will demonstrate the courage to admit that their thinking has been wrong. It is badly flawed thinking because of the much higher priorities, but also because of the economic times, when so many taxpayers are fearful of their economic future. And for some people, the future means tomorrow because they don’t know how they will pay current bills.

Bob Duff, the mayor and the comptroller led many to believe that this “gift” (in reality, giving away taxpayers’ money) is too good to pass up. However, when they did that, they omitted some details:
1. The state is paying 80%, but not 80% of an unlimited project cost; there is a limit. In fact, the original amount that Mr. Duff said that Norwalk would receive for this project was significantly reduced.
2. That the 20% that Norwalk will have to pay amounts to tens of millions of dollars.
3. That anything over the amount that state taxpayers’ money will fund or anything that the state determines is not reimbursable will be funded at 100% by Norwalk taxpayers.
4. That Norwalk will have to bond the cost of the entire project, with state taxpayers providing payments for the state taxpayers’ share of the cost over the next 20 years.
5. That bonding that much money has caused Norwalk to reach (exceed?) the bonding limit for a city that wants to continue a AAA credit rating. A lower credit rating is a non-starter because it would make all borrowing much more costly in the future.
6. That Norwalk is still obligated to pay off the bonds for previous Norwalk High School renovations/construction, even if the construction is demolished. I don’t know if the state is still required to provide its contribution toward the previous construction if the building is demolished. If it isn’t, then Norwalk will owe even more money.
7. That bonding that much money means that Norwalk won’t be able to bond other projects, many of which are desperately needed.

Questions:
Why didn’t the comptroller tell us about this problem when he and the mayor were telling us that the “gift” was too gook to pass up? If they knew and didn’t tell us, they were dishonest. If they didn’t know, they should have known because that is their job.

Why didn’t the comptroller and the mayor, knowing well the other capital projects that the board of education was proposing, tell the board that there wouldn’t be enough money for those projects before they asked the board of education to support the NHS project? If they knew and didn’t tell the board, they were dishonest. If they didn’t know, they should have known because that is their job.

What was the reason that the governor and the state legislature agreed to provide this so-called gift to Norwalk? I very much doubt that they just wanted to do something for the benefit of Norwalk. Call me overly suspicious, but I suspect that the governor will expect support for something else. Could it be for regionalization, something that Mr. Duff has discussed recently? By the way, there is some of that in this project, which requires that Norwalk accept 100 students from Bridgeport and Stamford.

How did Bob Duff get to make this commitment for Norwalk? He negotiated this with the governor, without the involvement of the board of education, which oversees the schools and which is supposed to determine the priorities of the school system. This is the same Bob Duff who was among the demonstrators who opposed the South Norwalk elementary school.

The final question is this: Will the board of education and the Common Council have the courage to reassess the city’s support of this project? Will the board of education and the Common Council have the courage to say that this is a project that is simply not warranted, and so it must come to a halt? And please don’t respond by saying that a significant amount of money has already been spent in the planning because that pales in comparison to the value of the building that will be demolished if this project proceeds.

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