Norwalk High School (Credit: Pedro Xing, Wikipedia Commons)

Last Minute Addition of $189 Million Norwalk Project Roils Routine Approval of School Construction Funds

At 12:45 a.m., after a failed amendment to remove the late addition of an unvetted $189 million project to replace Norwalk High School, the Connecticut House of Representatives approved a $445 million bill that will provide school construction grants to 11 school districts across the state.

The Norwalk school district did not submit a completed grant application to the Department of Administrative Services (DAS) prior to June 30, 2019 as required. The proposed bill provided an extension until December 31, 2020.

The bill also included a reimbursement rate of 80 percent for the project if the Norwalk Board of Education establishes a Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools (P-TECH) program and enrolls “students from surrounding towns with priority given to students from Stamford and Bridgeport.”

The bill stipulates that the Norwalk Board of Education cannot restrict students not enrolled in the high school arts pathways program from joining any arts or music program in the regular or extracurricular school offerings.

The bill also includes a reimbursement rate of 50 percent for the construction of a natatorium, or indoor pool, as part of the new construction at Norwalk High School. 

State Rep. Robert Sanchez, D-New Britain, who serves as the House Chair of the Education Committee, explained that projects that do not go through the normal vetting process to get on to the priority list are known as “notwithstandings.” 

“[These] can be given the status of being on the priority list by the legislature even if they miss the June 30th deadline,” said Sanchez. “This is referred to as ‘jumping the list.’”

Sanchez said the notwithstanding projects must still verify all expenses to receive DAS approval, the same as priority list projects. 

With IBM as the industry partner, the P-TECH program at Norwalk High School would allow students to work toward an associate degree at Norwalk Community College while still in high school. 

State Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, who is the Deputy Minority Leader, objected to the project “leap-frogging over the entire process” and said that bonding figures needed to be revised to reflect decreased revenues affected by the pandemic.

“We talk about trying to be fair to everybody and to look at people that are impoverished or in different positions, but we had private conversations in a room that generates this type of section 5 and to me this is the definition of privilege that so much in this chamber we rail against externally,” he said. 

Candelora proposed an amendment to strike section 5 and to reduce the state construction bill by $189 million.

In support of the amendment was State Rep. Tom O’Dea, R-New Canaan, who said the state was in a fiscal crisis that the local school board had suggested an $11 million renovation instead. 

Also in support was State Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, who said because the project did not go through the committee process, approval would be disrespectful of the schools that submitted their applications properly. 

State Rep. Harry Arora, R-Greenwich, said the project, at close to $600 per square foot, was out of line with median high school project costs of about $235 per square foot. 

“We are leapfrogging the due diligence process, which we always use,” he said. “We should give more time in a time of fiscal crisis.”

State Rep. Lucy Dathan, D-New Canaan, opposed the amendment because she said the P-Tech program was an opportunity for students to earn college credit and avoid future debt. She said IBM would also look elsewhere for places to expand the program. 

“There is a lot of evidence we need to keep these projects in our state. It really is an investment in our future, it’s also an expansion of visual arts,” she said. 

Also opposing the amendment was State Rep. Chris Perrone D-Norwalk, who said Norwalk High School was 50 years old and at the end of its shelf life.

“We need to have an institution that can grow with the projected population and the needs of Norwalk as a whole,” he said.

When the vote was taken, the amendment was rejected 86 to 51. 

State Rep. Travis Simms, D-Norwalk, who said Norwalk High School was his alma mater, urged House members to pass the bill. 

“That this school needs to be new is an understatement. It’s a threat to our children,” he said. “Safety has to take precedence. This school needs to be torn down and built new. This is well overdue.” 

The bill also contains construction or renovation projects approved through the regular process for the school districts of Brookfield, Darien, Mansfield, New Britain, New Fairfield, Fairfield, Hamden, Manchester, Norwalk, New London and Winchester.

After further discussion, House members voted 99 to 38 in favor of approving the bill, with 14 members not voting.

Latest from Cate Hewitt