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School budget increase could be reduced if grants come through

Norwalk Schools Superintendent Manny Rivera speaks to Board of Education Finance Committee members Tuesday.

 

 

Correction, 5:57 p.m. Dec. 12: Teacher dollar increase was incorrect. Teacher salary increase accounts for $3.1 millon. Also, an attachment of the first draft budget document has been added at the end of the story.

NORWALK, Conn. – Shortly before the Nov. 5 election, Board of Education member Mike Barbis, who was not up for re-election, said he suspected the 2014-15 school budget would be at least $4 to $5 million more than the 2013-2014 budget, and probably more. Superintendent Manny Rivera’s first-pass budget presented Tuesday night to the BOE’s Finance Committee was nearly $6 million more than the current budget, a 3.6 percent hike.

When the BOE meets Dec. 17, the figures will likely be different.

Rivera told the committee he is continuing to pursue grants that could bring down costs and add services. He said it is possible he could hear by Dec. 17 whether Norwalk will be getting a Race to the Top grant potentially worth millions of dollars.

Rivera and Chief Financial Officer Rich Rudl walked the committee through the budget draft with a Power Point presentation that showed where the money goes and where the savings are. Rivera also gave the group an overview of his grand plan for improving the Norwalk Public School system, ranked tops among Norwalk’s eight largest cities by Connecticut magazine but lagging behind state averages in standardized test scores.

Rudl pointed out that 84 percent of the budget goes to salaries and benefits. Because teacher pay was frozen this year in an arbitration decision, the union will receive a 4 percent increase in salary and benefits in 2014-15, accounting for $3.1 million of the $5.84 million proposed budget increase.

An item labeled “other bargaining group increases accounts for $1.5 million more and includes increases caused by aid cuts due to the federal sequester, plus the salary for the new communications director and other new positions, he said. Another $600,000 increase was caused in part by the addition of five new vans needed for out-of-district transportation for special needs students, and another $300,000 was attributed to out-of-district tuition for special needs students, Rudl said.

Rivera said he wants to look into providing more special education services within the district to cut down on the need to send students elsewhere.

Excess Medicaid funds and grant re-allocations created a $1.62 million savings, and another $1.26 million was cut by going through the budget line by line, trimming six positions (three of which were vacant), changing vendors cutting back on supplies.

NancyOnNorwalk contacted Rivera Wednesday night, but he declined to answer questions about the budget draft.

“I made a presentation to the Board Finance Committee,” he said in an email. “There were questions raised which we are responding to. I will then make my formal presentation to the full Board next Tuesday, and there will be more questions raised. We will develop our responses for the Board.”

The presentation included estimates for the budgets for 2015-16 and 2016-17, based on a same-services model and assuming similar levels of aid, grants, expenses, benefits and salary increases. The increases were $8 million in 2015-16 (a 4.7 percent hike) and a $6,074,000 jump in 2016-17, or 3.5 percent. The prime drivers of the bigger increase in 2015-16 are an expected benefit cost increase and professional and technical services.

Those numbers in the second and third years of the budget are likely to change due to collective bargaining, the pursuit of more grants and outside funding and the possibility of bringing more special education services in-district.

Rivera also pointed to Title 1 funding available for schools with a high number of students on free and reduced-price lunches as a potential source of funding to bring down the increase.

Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Bruce Mellion said the plan was a “sigh of relief,” and that he is optimistic.

“I think it’s a cohesive budget, well thought out, well directed, well positioned and it sets us a plan, not just for one year but for multiple years,”  he said. “All the detail is not there yet but they probably will come in time.”

Budget presentation: First draft budget 12-10-13

16 comments

anonymous December 12, 2013 at 8:58 am

@Mike lyons, You reference that 85% of the Board of Ed budget is wages and salaries so 85% of the $20Million increase from 2014-2017 would go there too.

85% of $20million is $17million.

Does that mean that $17million of this projected increase goes straight to staff raises of 2%, 3%, 4% a year and increases in their benefit costs?

Does that mean that only $3million is left for everything else?

Mike Lyons December 12, 2013 at 9:16 am

Anonymous, I have the budget projection with me (I’ve emailed a copy to Nancy so she can link it here). Of the projected $20 million increase through 2017, $13 million is for salaries/wages, $5 million is for benefits, the balance is for everything else. We’ve preliminarily identified $2.5 million in cost reductions over that time frame, so the ‘everything else’ actually adds up to about $4.5 million. Note that the projections for years 2 and 3 are ‘same services’ projections to give us a sense of what would happen if nothing else changes. The whole point of doing long-range budgeting is to give us the opportunity to make other things change — to identify areas we can reduce costs, or make program improvements without the need for more headcount (e.g., through better use of educational technology), etc. Years 2 and 3 are there as planning tools, not simply as a statement that ‘this is all the money we want.’ This is using budgeting as a strategic planning tool. The starting place is good data, which we finally have in this budget.

marjoriem December 12, 2013 at 3:35 pm

I thought grants were meant for money used for ADDITIONAL and new positions. How can they be used to fill budget gaps? Could someone explain?

Mike Lyons December 12, 2013 at 5:26 pm

Well, there are all sorts of ‘grants’. Title I Federal money, for instance, is a ‘grant’, but it comes in every year in varying amounts and funds ongoing programs and personnel at certain schools. State ECS money is a ‘grant’, too. Some grants are public (e.g., the three-year State grant for the Briggs turnaround), some are private (e.g., money that’s come in from the Grossman Foundation for early learning initiatives). So some grant money funds ongoing obligations (perhaps the intended reference to “budget gap”), and some can support additional programs and people (like Grossman). Its a mix.

anonymous December 12, 2013 at 7:42 pm

@Lyons thank you for clarifying the $17million. I take it a ‘same services’ budget means that $17million of the increase goes to raises in salary and increases benefits for the same number of staff in Norwalk today. The kids get the crumbs. How about not giving out raises to ANYONE for about 2 or 3 years so that the kids can catch up with the adults in the system?

marjoriem December 13, 2013 at 12:20 am

Isn’t Title 1 only supposed to fund additional help for low achieving students at certain schools? I didn’t think it funded teachers’ salaries for all students.

Also, isn’t it bad practice to fund permanent positions with grant money that could expire in one, two or three years’ time? Doesn’t that place a huge burden on future budgets?

Thank you, Mike Lyons, for explaining this.

marjoriem December 13, 2013 at 12:26 am

Mike, I was referring to Title 1 money being used ‘as a potential source of funding to bring down the increase.’ Sounds like supplanting, not supplementing the budget to me.

marjoriem December 13, 2013 at 12:32 am

Sorry for three posts. I decided to research on my own. Here’s what I found on a federal site about Title 1:

‘Basic premise of supplement not supplant is to ensure Title I funds are used to add to (supplement) and not replace (supplant) state and local funds’

Wouldn’t Norwalk be replacing local funds if we were to use Title 1 funds to make up the increase?

anonymous December 13, 2013 at 6:38 am

Here’s an idea, don’t give any raises to any staff at the schools for 2 or 3 years. They’re some of the highest paid employees in the state anyways.

That will bring down the budget by millions and still leave a bunch of money for things like paper and pencils and programs for the Students.

Mike Lyons December 13, 2013 at 11:38 am

Marj – we won’t be using Title I funds to supplant (Dr. Rivera and Mr. Rudl are being very careful about that). I was simply using Title I as an example of the variety of private, state and Federal grants we receive. Some of them come in every year and are used to support ongoing operations and staff (e.g., ECS). Some are for specific projects (e.g., Briggs turnaround funds from the State, City capital budget money for Common Core implementation). With the latter type of grant, we are trying to avoid adding staff (which would then be cut when the grants run out).

Mike Lyons December 13, 2013 at 11:49 am

anonymous — We are contractually mandated to provide raises (though we did manage to get a one-year wage freeze from all unions and got two years from a couple of them). Remember that we are in a union-friendly State, operating under collective bargaining statutes with arbitration if the parties cannot agree. The arbitrators tend to look at state-wide trends and apply them locally. A longer-term freeze isn’t an unreasonable idea for employees who in all of our unions rank near the top of the State pay scales. But the legal reality we face doesn’t make that a feasible option. This is one of the reasons we’ve emphasized cost control on benefits. Rudl tells me that without the recent contract settlements that reduced the rate of growth in our benefits costs from 10% to 4%, our budget request this year would have been 5%, not 3.6%. We’re trying, we really are, but we have to live in the legal environment mandated by Hartford. The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities has been trying to get changes in the arbitration statutes to create more of a level playing field for the cities for years, but with limited success.

marjoriem December 13, 2013 at 4:19 pm

Thank you, Mike. Norwalk wouldn’t do anything contrary to federal and/or state regulations, I’m sure. To clarify, I was trying to understand the superintendent’s statement in this article. He was referring to Title 1 grants.

Mike Lyons December 13, 2013 at 6:02 pm

Marj, I understand your concern; I’m not sure the reference in the article is quite right. In talking to Dr. Rivera he has said that Title I funds have been disorganized and used by individual schools without reference to overall school system goals. He intends to use the funds in accordance with law, but more to achieve system goals in an organized fashion. I don’t think he views Title I money as something that can be used to close a budget gap. Again, the conversation was about a lot of grants, some of which CAN be used for budget gap purposes and some of which (like Title I) cannot be.

Mark Chapman December 13, 2013 at 7:59 pm

@M Lyons

Perhaps the wording at the end was a little loose. Our understanding is that many grants are specific and cannot be used to save money elsewhere in the budget, but that there are some projects (like the libraries) that may be carried out regardless of whether they are grant funded. Thus, if the grant comes through, funds that may have been requested for the project will no longer be requested, or, if those funds are already in the budget, they could be applied elsewhere.

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