NORWALK, Conn. – When the dust settled after Thursday night’s 2½-hour budget presentation to the Norwalk Common Council Finance Committee, it was time to vote on whether to recommend the 2013-2014 spending cap to the full council.
The vote to recommend the budget as presented by Finance Director Thomas Hamilton was 2-0 — not an overwhelming endorsement from a seven-member committee.
The puny vote reflected both the disenchantment of the majority of members with the process, the absence of two committee members and the apparent lack of interest on the part of the city’s department heads.
Councilmen John Igneri (D-District E), Matt Miklave (D-District D) and Warren Pena (D-At Large) abstained from voting. Councilmen Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) and Nick Kydes (R-District E) were not present, leaving only Councilman Carvin Hilliard (D-District B) and Councilman David McCarthy (R-District E) to vote in favor.
“This is the first time in memory, for me at least, that I do not recall the department heads bothering to come out to this meeting,” Common Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-District D) said.
Both Miklave and Igneri said they abstained from the vote because they wanted more information.
“There is a lot in this budget that I want to go through and I want to be prepared with more information,” Igneri said. “I was also disappointed that none of the department heads showed up. We had questions for them, they weren’t here. Last year they were all here. This made it look like they thought it was a done deal and they didn’t have to show up.”
Hilliard, the committee chairman, said he didn’t mind that the department heads weren’t present – as a council member he knows all about the city side. If he has questions, he makes a phone call.
“I guess you can make the argument that they should have been here, but that’s not a reason to – the challenge every year since I have been on the council comes from the board of ed, not from the city side,” he said. “Because we represent the city. I know – we deal with that all the time. This is the board of ed’s budget. That’s where the questions in my mind arise, because I know what’s going on in the city. But the board of ed, I don’t.”
Only one group was well represented at Thursday night’s meeting: those who are passionate about education, who want to begin rebuilding Norwalk Public Schools.
Hamilton’s operating budget cap request totals $294,798,999 — including $163.7 million for the schools — and includes a $2.7 million increase in school spending, $1.2 million less than requested by Interim School Superintendent Tony Daddona Daddona and the Board of Education.
For the average homeowner with a $6,300 tax bill, the budget carries a $250 increase. If the schools were to receive the additional $1.2 million, it would add $20 to the bill.
“We cut into flesh and it is impacting what happened in the classroom,” Board of Education Finance Committee Chairman Mike Barbis said as he asked council members to grant the BOE it’s full operating budget request. “I got an email today: their kid went to the library for the first time. It’s not like this is some frivolous additions we are looking for. These are meaningful additions.”
Barbis said most of the increase the board is looking for is due to mandated increases, contractual obligations it has no control over.
Much of the conversation concerned Common Core State Standards at the schools, a mandated program to establish a common curriculum nationwide. Much of that funding comes out of the capital budget, separate from the operating budget.
“This introduction of a common curriculum is a national movement in education that we have not had since public schools were created,” said Brien McMahon High School Principal Suzanne Koroshetz. “It’s a brand new way to do business.”
She added that it is a standard that both high schools will soon be judged by, and are in danger of losing their accreditation within six months of each other if the transition is not made.
Common Core State Standards account for $1.7 million of the 2013-2014 capital budget. Some of the expense, however, is included in the operating budget. A science curriculum specialist is included in the operating budget at a cost of $169,218; educators say the specialist is necessary for Common Core.
Brien McMahon Parents Club Co-President Patrick Vagos pleaded for Common Core funding.
“Take this out of the horse trade,” he said. “There has to be a way that you can fund this separately. The Common Core is implemented and then it doesn’t need to get implemented any more. It’s a two-year thing and then you’re done.”
Also included in the recommended $1.2 million cut is a new art teacher at Brien McMahon, where 423 of the 1,753 students signed up for art classes and were turned away, Sheila Wolfe said, adding, “The arts make you more human.”
Barbis said if the full request isn’t met, the schools will have about $300,000 to work with for non-fixed expenses.
“If we buy $2 million of textbooks and technology, we would need professional development for our teachers,” he said. “We would be foolish not to find the money to do that. My guess is the $300,000 would go towards that. We would not be in the position obviously to fund the rehiring of the science curriculum specialist, the building coordinator, the art teacher at Brien McMahon and, of course, the library aides and intervention aides. We just wouldn’t be in the position to hire them.”
Igneri said, “The Board of Education request seems very reasonable to me, this year in particular. I am disappointed we are talking about cutting it.”
Not all talk revolved around the school budget. Questions on non-BOE topics included the total expenditure needed to meet all department requests. Hamilton said that would be $315,763,775, resulting in a 5.6 percent tax increase.
Igneri said he has asked Hamilton how much of the total budget is tied up in contractual obligations.
“How much of the budget are we debating – 20 percent, 50 percent?” he asked. “The board of ed increases almost all went to contractual obligation, and that’s not broken out here.”