Board of Education Facilities Committee Chair Mike Barbis and Finance Committee Chair Bryan Meek published this OpEd piece in local media on March 5, 2017.
The past week has seen promising strides towards securing the future of Norwalk’s schools. In collaboration with Mayor Harry Rilling, Common Council President John Igneri, and other city government leaders, the Board of Education and City of Norwalk have agreed to an operating budget proposal, as well as a capital budget framework which builds new schools and repairs existing ones.
Despite collaboration at the local level, several elected state officials continue to generate confusion about future plans for Norwalk school buildings. Facts and figures have been misrepresented, a comprehensive facilities analysis dismissed, and well-researched and vetted plans attacked, for reasons that are unclear.
One fact remains perfectly clear: With aging facilities and a growing student population, Norwalk cannot wait any longer to take decisive action. Our city cannot afford to let divisive actions stall progress once again.
An Updated, Comprehensive Plan
In 2015, the Board of Education recognized that demographic and economic changes required a new look. We did not reach this point overnight. We’re fortunate that our wonderfully diverse city is growing, at a time when others are not. But that also means schools are now at 110% of capacity. In January 2017 alone, 57 new students were added to the district. Old plans are no longer relevant.
As a result, the Board launched an extensive, year-long study to examine how to support the city and its families in the coming years. Conducted by outside experts with deep experience, the study included a comprehensive enrollment analysis that showed the district will continue to be over-enrolled in the coming years, despite some ups and downs by grade level. It also included a detailed repair and maintenance review that assessed existing conditions and prioritized capital needs.
All of 2016 was devoted to careful consideration of the full study and its recommendations. Options were vetted at committee meetings, in public forums, at PTO meetings, via public survey, and finally, at a Board of Ed workshop in December.
The end result, approved by the Board in January 2017, was a proposal for Phase I of a 10-year plan, dubbed “Modern Schools for a Growing City.” Over the next three to five years, this integrated plan would add 900 much-needed student seats. It would provide a school in South Norwalk where the need is greatest, reducing long bus rides.
It would offer robust academic programs in new and renovated buildings, with K-8 campuses, attractive themes, and intra-district magnet programs. The approved School Facilities Master Plan is also aligned to the district’s three-year Strategic Operating Plan, which is designed to raise student performance and lower the achievement gap.
But this is not a plan that just builds new schools. We recognize that existing buildings need repairs. That comes with the territory in a system that educates over 11,500 children, but has not built a new school since 1971. The study’s Capital Needs Assessment provided an unprecedented level of detail to work from.
The proposed five-year Capital Budget would include all repairs categorized as Priority 1 or 2 in that assessment, plus Priorities 1-4 in several buildings. Repairs would include plumbing, mechanical, electrical and architectural issues across every school. The thoroughness of the plan led to its endorsement by the PTO Council, the leading representative of Norwalk’s school parents.
The Limitation of a “Fix It” Approach
Some of the work in that proposed Capital Budget appears similar on the surface to what was outlined two weeks ago in Senator Duff’s “Fix It” document. Despite the availability of an updated, highly detailed study, “Fix It First” recommends going back to an outdated proposal which lacked extensive analysis. It ignores current over-enrollment problems in favor of “fixing” things at existing schools, in a timeframe that is unworkable for a district bursting at the seams.
The “Fix It” plan reverts to construction plans that are no longer viable, such as a recommendation to build an addition at Jefferson Elementary to replace the current portables. There’s no provision for where Jefferson’s 600+ students would go during construction. There’s no provision for Jefferson’s unique location, which means that an addition cannot meet current state standards and would leave little outdoor space. There are similar issues with the plan’s proposal for an addition at Columbus Magnet and an un-needed addition at Cranbury.
Simply put, there are times when a “band aid” approach is just not effective, and when some buildings need to be “renovated as new” in order to serve students well.
Senator Duff contends that the need to fix schools outweighs the need to provide more space and updated buildings for modern academics. As evidence, he has posted photos that purport to show a dire state of disrepair. Dramatizing and misleading people on these issues is not just a disservice to our employees, but to the community overall. Norwalk Public Schools has made great progress in fixing issues that built up during years of economic slowdown and skeleton budgets. Yes, there remains much work to be done. But some of the photos used to justify “Fix It” show areas that have already been repaired, or that are currently on the work schedule. In other cases, classroom repairs were prioritized over fixing things like loading docks. Either way, these tactics that are divisive and disappointing.
We appreciate the support of state legislators who took the time to engage in the process and reach informed opinions. Reps. Lavielle, Wilms and Wood fully support our plan. As school funding is the responsibility of local governments, we had no reason to question Senator Duff’s absence from public meetings over the past year, although others did choose to attend. During this time, we have no record of any inquiry – formal or informal – from Senator Duff prior to December 2016.
Once the plan was approved locally by the Board, we held a well-attended briefing for state legislators to talk about building needs and plans, as well as the over-arching vision for the school district. Although no mention was made of an alternate plan at that meeting, by most accounts it was an open and productive discussion, with all parties agreeing to a follow-up in April.
We do appreciate Senator Duff’s stated commitment to making sure Norwalk gets the full 32.5% state reimbursement for renovations. We ask that he join with all our elected state officials to finally change the ECS formula to ensure that Norwalk gets its fair share of funds for education.
Schools are an Investment in the City’s Future
At the end of the day, this should not be about state or even local politics. Schools are an investment that a community makes to secure its future. It’s an investment that pays off in rising property values, continued economic growth and a strong reputation.
Norwalk is poised to become the state’s most successful city school district, but we need a long-term vision to make that happen. We’re grateful to the Common Council, as well as for the many parents, citizens and community leaders who support that vision.
While the details remain to be worked out, we’re confident we have a joint commitment to making a long-awaited major investment in building much-needed new schools, renovating others, and addressing priority repairs and capital projects at all schools.