According to State Senator Bob Duff’s December 9 announcement, the State has approved — despite Connecticut’s financial woes and Gov. Ned Lamont’s debt diet – a new $200 million Norwalk high school to be completed as early as 2023 with 80% state reimbursement, instead of our usual less than 35%.
I will not address the merit of this project, which was not part of our Board of Education’s facilities plan, or the concerns over the little understood long-term operational costs to Norwalk. The fact is that most Norwalkers are very excited by this news. The landing page of the Norwalk Public Schools’ website proudly publicizes the opening of our new high school. Also, under pressure to seize this immediate opportunity, our Common Council and Board of Education have rushed to make the necessary arrangements, including spending money on architects and committing to a $40 million capital request.
Unfortunately, information has now surfaced that indicates that this announcement was premature. In fact, the project is so tentative, it was unethical for our state senator to make such a promise and unwise for our local elected officials — our mayor, Common Council and Board of Education — to rush to action.
Contrary to the senator’s statement during his press conference, the project is not on the school facilities priority list or included in the $209 million grant obligation list revised on December 11 by the Department of Administrative Services and submitted to Governor Lamont.
In fact, this $200 million project would need to be included in a new school construction bill and approved by the full legislature – both the House and the Senate – and the Governor to become a reality. Also, the 80% reimbursement, which amounts to $160 million, is contingent on a new bill yet to be introduced that relates to a regionalization concept involving a pilot program for a regional school aimed at reducing educational inequity.
Beyond the many steps and hurdles that would have to be met, the likelihood that even fellow Democrats in the legislature will approve a $160 million project for Norwalk is uncertain. The entire statewide ask for school construction this year across 12 projects is $209 million. Next year’s statewide school bonding goal is also around $350 million. Is it feasible that a Norwalk school would represent 45% of the total construction reimbursements granted?
I will not presume to guess why State Senator Duff felt compelled to sell such a tentative project to his constituents as a done deal. But hardworking Norwalkers have seen less than 9 percent of their State tax dollars come back to Norwalk while the percentage of their school budget provided by the State has shrunk by half during Senator Duff’s tenure. Should they not expect truthfulness and transparency from their state senator – enough, at the very least, to protect them from being set up purposely for disappointment?
Isabelle Hargrove lives in Norwalk.