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Official: Norwalk BOE proposed budget still short $1 million, under current plan

Norwalk Common Council meets BOE Jan. 28 2013 070

Norwalk Board of Education Finance Committee Chairman Mike Barbis, right, discusses the proposed Norwalk Public Schools 2013-2014 operating budget recently.

NORWALK, Conn. – Cuts will still be needed from the Norwalk Public Schools proposed 2013-2014 budget even if state legislators have finagled more potential funding for the city, a Board of Education member said Saturday.

While the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee on Friday voted for an increase of $1.37 million in Priority School District program funding for the Norwalk Public Schools in both fiscal years 2014 and 2015, BOE Finance Committee Chairman Mike Barbis said there are strings attached.

“The State Dept of Education is still refining the list of what this Priority School money can be used for …” Barbis said in an email. “Based on past experience, we should be able to use this money for Common Core implementation but not for our day-to-day operations.”

He is not optimistic. “We still have a serious funding challenge — at this point, we are scrambling to stay in place,” he continued. “There will be no additions such as library aides or a building facilities manager. … The question really is, ‘what will we need to cut based on the funding and associated strings?’”

The process, which legislators hope will culminate at the end of the regular legislative session on June 5, has had many twists and turns. It started when Gov. Dannel Malloy proposed $1.7 million in additional aid to Norwalk for Fiscal Year 2014 through a revamped Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) formula, but also proposed eliminating the non-education Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) grant program for municipalities.

The city then cut the BOE’s proposed operating budget by a like amount, $1.4 million, on the theory that the increased ECS  money would keep the BOE’s budget at the same level. But, last week, the assembly’s Education Committee reversed the proposed change in ECS, recommending $326,590 as an increase for Norwalk instead of the $1.7 million proposed by Malloy.

While the decision made on Friday – to send Norwalk an additional $1.37 million in Priority School funding – would seem to mend that gap, Barbis said the BOE is, in reality, $1 million behind.

“The problem for NPS is only about $0.5 million in our budget of the $1.5 million we lost from the city will meet the requirements of Priority Schools monies,” he said in an email. “So, if you follow the logic, our budget has been cut by a net $1 million from what we had agreed upon.”

There’s another wrinkle. The Appropriations Committee also rebuffed Malloy’s proposal to eliminate PILOT. Funding has been reduced, though. In Fiscal Year 2013, the statewide appropriation for PILOT was $73,641,646;  in Fiscal Years 2014 and 2015 it is proposed to be $62,641,646.

That would theoretically mean the city will get at least some of the funding it thought it was being deprived of.

Board of Estimate and Taxation Chairman Fred Wilms did not know Saturday if the city would reinstate its funding for the BOE if that happens.

“I really can’t say at this time. I really haven’t seen what the appropriations committee did,” he said.

But, he said, “It sounds like it’s moving in a good direction.”

It’s always tough to work with the state, he said, likening the need to fund the BOE and keep the city’s tax rate low and finances intact to juggling three balls in the air.

“This year, unfortunately, the state is throwing a fourth and fifth ball in,” he said. “It’s really complicating what the city has to do.”

State Sen. Bob Duff (D-Norwalk) said in an email that, with Friday’s decision, “The legislative branch now goes into negotiations with the executive branch for a final budget. I think everyone will work hard to get it done by June 5,” the end of the regular legislative session.

Under the proposal advanced by the Education Committee, Norwalk’s 2014 ECS grant would be $10,999,197, state Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-Wilton) said recently. That is more than $10,672,607 Norwalk got in 2012-2013, but less than the $12,376,887 proposed in Malloy’s bill.

Barbis said he was surprised to see the Duff apparently taking credit for getting more money from Norwalk, as the press release about the Appropriations Committee decision came from Duff, state Rep. Chris Perone (D-Norwalk) and state Rep. Bruce Morris (D-Norwalk).

“I find it interesting that he is trying to take credit for this …,” he said in an email. “The city, Norwalk Public Schools and the Board of Ed have been trying to get Duff to a meeting for several weeks. … The first response we had from him was this press release on Friday!! So, any suggestion that he, Perone or Morris had been working with NPS to know our needs and help is is complete malarkey!”

Duff, a member of the Appropriations Committee, said he was planning to meet with officials later in the process. “The mayor suggested a meeting a couple of weeks ago at a time I could not attend,” he said in an email. “I suggested we wait until the Appropriations Committee budget comes out. The mayor was fine with that. As far as I know, that’s the plan.”

Barbis said the additional funding through Priority Schools “is being referred to as ECS monies … which it technically is not.”

The formula, as currently written, is still unfair, he wrote.

“Note that we are still being screwed on ECS funding — wealthier, whiter districts are getting more $ per student than we are. The chairs of the Education Committee at the state legislature — Fleishman and Stillman — are making sure of this. We get $10 million in ECS. … If the playing field was level, we would be getting $30-plus million!! This injustice continues to be ignored.”

Mayor Richard Moccia did not return a request for comment.

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