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Norwalk BoE, Council, discuss ‘challenging’ budget request

Common Council Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large), center, begins Monday's joint meeting of the Board of Education and the Council Finance Committee meeting, Monday in City Hall.

Common Council Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large), center, begins Monday’s joint meeting of the Board of Education and the Council Finance Committee meeting, Monday in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. — For starters, think of it as a 5.2 percent increase, Norwalk Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons said Monday.

Lyons, Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski and Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton spent nearly three hours explaining to Common Council members the Board’s request for almost $17.5 million more for this year’s operating budget than last year’s. Left out of the discussion about that requested 10.1 percent increase for the 2017-18 operating budget was the part of it that comes from soaring health insurance costs, because Mayor Harry Rilling and Adamowski are looking into alternatives.

For some years now we have been bringing our budgets in with lower increases than the city because we have been trying very hard to get our budgets under control,” Lyons said, emphasizing the fiscal responsibility of the Board under his leadership.

The joint meeting of the BoE and the Council Finance Committee was attended by 12 Council members.

The Council has three weeks to make a decision, Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said, explaining to the sparse audience that the Council sets a budget cap by Feb. 28 and then the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) takes over.

The Council decides how much money the city will spend and the BET decides how to spend it. The Council has an opportunity in April to change its mind regarding the cap, but overriding the February decision would take a two-thirds majority vote.

Adding to the complications this year is profound uncertainty regarding state funding. Kimmel said this year is unusual in another way: the BoE’s large capital request has the Council’s mind occupied before the operating request, he said.

I’ve been around for a long time, perhaps a little too long…I can’t recall a request from any department, especially the ‘Board of Ed,’ going beyond 7.5 or 7.8 percent. So, this rather large request,” Kimmel said, expressing respect for the amount of thoughtfulness the BoE has put into it.

“This is a very challenging budget year but one thing that we have committed to do for the last several years, and I think the process has worked very, very well –  we have developed a working relations with the Board of Education and the Common Council and the Board of Estimate and Taxation, for the purpose of crafting a fair and responsible budget,” Rilling said, citing the “very adversarial relationship” that might have happened in the past.

Joint Council and BoE meetings to discuss the BoE’s budget began on Rilling’s watch.

With a 10.1 percent increase, you might think the BoE is a bunch of “wild spenders,” Lyons said.

“I can fully appreciate the shock on the part of the receiving end getting a request like that,” he said, citing his years on the BET, and then citing controversial moves the Board has made to cut expenses.

Privatizing custodial work saved the Board $700,000 a year, he said.

The move to modernize the BoE’s health insurance, which Adamowski said last month originated in a meeting in the mayor’s office, is focused on the state’s 2.0 Health Insurance plan for employees of Connecticut cities, towns and school districts.

BoE Facilities Committee Chairman Mike Barbis said that 2.0 has saved Fairfield 3.8 million in its first year. Greenwich expects to save $26 million over three years, he said.

I think the way to look at is for a family of four under our insurance plan, with the self-insurance I think we’re over $26,000 a year,” Barbis said. “I think under 2.0 that premium is about $16,000. We’ve got a little over 1000 employees with health insurance so you can do the math.”

“We can’t really get into the nuts and bolts of how we convert that over until the mayor and the superintendent … can get back to us,” Lyons said. “…I’d like to put that aside because at this point there’s nothing we can do about it. If we can’t make a move to 2.0 or something like that then we need that money to pay our bills. If that’s what it is and it wipes out everything else that we have asked for then that’s what it is, but assuming that their good efforts can pay off and that we can accomplish something close to what Greenwich has saved, or Fairfield has saved, and the numbers look like we might be able to save, which might solve our problem.”

The real budget increase, excluding the mushroom cloud of insurance costs, is 5.2 percent, Lyons said. Of that, 1.5 percent is needed for increasing operating costs – union-negotiated raises included – and the rest is an effort to meet the goals set in the Board’s three year strategic operating plan.

“That’s where we’re going to make the difference if we’re really going to convert the Norwalk school system from a good school system to a great school system,” Lyons said, citing the plan’s efforts to reduce the achievement gap, the plan to switch to a school district of choice via strong magnet schools, an international baccalaureate program and improved offerings at high schools.

“These are very specific uses for this money,” he said.

The 5.2 is significant but not unheard of, he said, listing these statistics from former Mayor Alex Knopp’s administration, before the recession:

  • 2001, a 5.9 BoE increase
  • 2002, a 5.1 BoE increase
  • 2003, a 6.6 BoE increase
  • 2004, a 3.8 BoE increase
  • 2005, a 4.9 BoE increase
  • 2006, a 4.7 BoE increase

 

In answer to a question, Lyons said that included health insurance.

Questions, as the meeting progressed, included a focus on growing enrollment – a net gain of 200 students at the moment, Adamowski said – and the amount of time high school students spend actually learning things, as opposed to sitting in study halls.

The request includes a greater allocation to the high schools, to make their funding higher than that of the middle schools. Adamowski said incremental increases would eliminate study halls in three years.

Kimmel, at the end of the meeting, called it “extremely productive.”

The Council will hold a public hearing on the operating budget on Feb. 23, he said, apologizing that the public was not allowed to speak on Monday but inviting comment at the hearing.

“Going forward, this 10.1 percent is a lot,” Kimmel said. “We all know that, including the members of the ‘Board of Ed.’ In the next month or so there’s probably going to be differences of opinion on how we work this out but however we move forward let’s try to keep our composure and have a civil discussion. Hopefully, when everything is done, when it’s spring we will all be satisfied and pleased to see the city and its school system moving forward.”

16 comments

Non partisan February 7, 2017 at 7:12 am

If you could save $10,000,000.00 in changing from a self funded free for all to an actual insurance plan why isn’t it done already?

Norwalk Native February 7, 2017 at 8:31 am

The yearly increases that Mr. Lyon’s references in the above article have not improved our school system. They have not lowered the achievement gap nor kept young families outside of South Norwalk from leaving our City. They have not served to prop-up our long stagnant property values. These annual increases, which are double the inflation rate in those years and well above the wage increases of private citizens, serve only to further feed the bloated “Educational Industrial Complex” in Norwalk. There is no accountability to the taxpayer and the bleed of of the 80% of residents who do not utilize the Norwalk school system will continue. My question to the BOE is this: who will pay for your ridiculous budget increases once the tax base has been fully amortized?

Norwalk Homeowner February 7, 2017 at 10:23 am

Dear Norwalk Native, The increases over the years have not made enough of an impact — you are correct — but could it not be because those increases were simply pennies compared to what is actually needed to run the school? I do agree that we need some specific accountability on where the money is going because what I do know is not enough of it actually gets to the SCHOOL which is where it is so desperately needed to hire more teachers, make infrastructure repairs and upgrade the technology and improve the aesthetics of our schools. This will allow the schools to deliver a 21st century education to our children, raise the test scores and improve the “look” of our schools so people want to live here and our PROPERTY VALUES INCREASE!!! And that is why the 80% should be happy to pay for a better school system, because a rising tide raises all ships — a better school system makes your property values go up.

Norwalk Native February 7, 2017 at 11:07 am

Dear Norwalk Homeowner,

How much would you then say “is actually needed to run the schools”? Would a 20% increase do it? What about 50%? I’m not convinced that there is a proportional correlation between total dollars spent and the quality of schools. The other problem of course is that those kind of budget increases are not achievable or sustainable. Despite the annual budget increases we’ve had thus far, my home is worth less than it was twelve years ago when I purchased it.

How about starting with an honest assessment of who is cuasing the spike in enrollment? How many students have been found to be attending Norwalk schools illegaly? What is the total? If no-one is willing to report a number, then it is clear that the BOE has no intention of protecting the taxpayers of this City.

Norwalk Native February 7, 2017 at 11:07 am

Dear Norwalk Homeowner,

How much would you then say “is actually needed to run the schools”? Would a 20% increase do it? What about 50%? I’m not convinced that there is a proportional correlation between total dollars spent and the quality of schools. The other problem of course is that those kind of budget increases are not achievable or sustainable. Despite the annual budget increases we’ve had thus far, my home is worth less than it was twelve years ago when I purchased it.

How about starting with an honest assessment of who is cuasing the spike in enrollment? How many students have been found to be attending Norwalk schools illegaly? What is the total? If no-one is willing to report a number, then it is clear that the BOE has no intention of protecting the taxpayers of this City.

Education101 February 7, 2017 at 11:35 am

Ridiculous and unacceptable. The “investment theme” has been overplayed year after year to no avail. Both Adamowski and Lyons are living in fantasy world by once again looking to the taxpayer to bail them out instead of taking out the scaple and making wholesale material cost reductions/building economies of scale/imposing fees in line with the constraints of ordinary taxpayers. Further distressing is the recent high priced superintendent gives the appearance of operating in a bubble with no regard for targeting realistic budgetary goals. It has been known for some time that the ECS formula is inequitable but please stop using this as an excuse and make the district operate under the constraints they are given just like any other household. This cannot be another green light to stick distressed tax payers with higher tax bills and place Norwalk on the fast track to a “Bridgeport” junior municipality. Zero based budgeting should be in order and perhaps a search for a new superintendent and BOE chair. More spending can no longer be a motis operandi for thinking better school ratings . . . so please stop the nonsense.

Carol L. Frank February 7, 2017 at 4:16 pm

I am appalled to believe that our wonderful Mayor would approve of a budget like this. Adamowski could care less,he does not live in Norwalk and the tax increase would not affect him.
Please consider the seniors living on social security who cannot afford this boe budget. SOMETHING MUST BE DONE!!!!!

Non Partisan February 7, 2017 at 4:18 pm

sorry- But I think all of you are missing the point

Unequivocally housing values are tied to perception of how good the schools are, how crowded classrooms are, sports, arts and other programs that are available.

Unfortunately our schools could be better, test scores higher, our buildings could be in better shape, and our classrooms less crowded/ no trailers.

Some factors are within the BOE control- others are with the City Government itself. All is not lost- we do have choices.

Achievement Gap- as long as you have un-fettered immigration of unaccompanied minors who are enrolling in our schools for a free ride- we will never overcome the achievement gap and test scores will remain lower than they can be. Unaccompanied minors need to be educated (by SCOTUS interpretation) but do we have to be a sanctuary city? How much increased tax revenue does an unaccompanied minor bring to the city?

As long as we spend money on ESL programs we will be hard pressed to afford expanded AP courses/ sports/ music/ art etc. This will drive tax rates up, and property values lower.

As long as the BOE spends $10,000,000 more to self insure the 1000 faculty and staff than using the state system we will be faced with increasing taxes, decreasing home values and decreasing programs. And please don’t tell me the unions wont allow it- its in use in Greenwich Ct.

As long as the BOE and City Govt refuses to use zero based budgeting (like almost all of the private sector) – the bloat will get bigger and bigger.

As long as the city does not enforce illegal apartments- we will have more students WITH NO CORRESPONDING TAX REVENUE.

As long as the city invites and fights for more moderate income housing-above and beyond state minimum requirements- then more subsidies/taxes will be required- FROM THE TAXPAYING HOMEOWNERS OF THE CITY

As long as the new Ely street school has $4MM buried in the project for tennis courts……

As long as the BOE budget only 200K to maintain all the buildings- we will have buildings in bad shape……

Dedicated NPS Teacher February 7, 2017 at 8:53 pm

Norwalk Public Schools have been neglected for a very long time. We have been a system of schools rather than a school system for about 20 years. The BOE and Dr. Adamowski are working hard to clean up the mess. Listening to the BOE meetings have been so inspiring, giving hope to potentially being one of the strongest districts in the state. These initiatives are long overdue. I just hope the current BOE and Dr. Adamowski stick around long enough to see this through! I am looking forward to these changes. It’s about time we got rid of the “status quo”!! I am not well versed in the politics of Norwalk, but I look forward to the changes I am hearing about!

MarjorieM February 7, 2017 at 11:35 pm

Should I tell you, “I told you so?” Yes, I am back. I am amused by the comment referring to “changing the status quo,” I thought the status quo change came with running certain administrators out of town? Guess that didn’t work. Now we are complaining about outrageous budgets. You were all warned about this superintendent and his excessive spending habits. Looks like this Board of Education keeps making promises about the perfect superintendent for the school system. Rivera, now Adamowski…. Not so easy, is it? I just couldn’t resist revisiting these topics. Keep trying….

Adam Beausoleil February 8, 2017 at 9:37 am

Thank goodness our politicians don’t make decisions based on the quagmire of opinions in the comments section on the interwebs. Based on the mis-information read on a daily basis, it’s very clear this budget increase is needed. It can only help to improve the next generation to think clearly and informatively, not only what works for them personally.

Ed Long time resident February 8, 2017 at 10:56 am

Disappointing. Was not one of the criteria for hiring a new superintendent to keep budgets reasonable for the tax base? It sure feels like ground hog day and I can not support this. We are flirting with unsustainable budgets which will further facilitate the long term residential base to moving out. Let’s keep spending in check and prioritize.

Lisa Thomson February 9, 2017 at 11:30 am

Agree the budget request is unsustainable, but I’d hardly lay it at Adamowski’s feet. This is pure Norwalk. The unsustainable 10% budget request is due to:

Insurance Costs: With a ~5% increase, given the current national problem with healthcare and the long standing premise that NPS employees have the BEST benefits in the state, this has been festering for my 12 years in the system. NPS employees need to merge with the City, and consolidate under the state 2.0 plan to gain economies of scale. If it’s good enough for Greenwich teachers it’s good enough for Norwalk. That will save taxpayers millions.

Rising student population ~ 2.5%, this is due to new developments coming out of P&Z without factoring the impact on schools, sanctuary status, as well as illegal apartments (another Norwalk tradition) that add students to the system, without corresponding tax revenues being added to the roles. Is it any surprise that Jefferson has 12 portables in the center of the city, with supposedly x number of residential properties on the tax roles? Where is the Norwalk’s ordinance enforcement on illegal apartments or the other not talked about Norwalk tradition of undervaluing commercial properties of long standing Norwalk residents?

The only part of the budget that has real ‘value’ at ~ 2% is Adamowski’s stamp on the long talked about curriculum magnet and choice options for parents and students. However, we’ll likely never see it because City officials don’t seem to see the correlation between collecting ample revenues and the reality of education expenses.

One reason I lead the charge against charter revision last fall was that it did not address any improvement in managing our ~$400 M City budget. The line item, silo department management just pits residents against one another at budget time and never addresses the macro issue of how everything is related. Until residents and politicians ‘get it’ we are destined for repeated failure and more tax increases.

Dedicated NPS Teacher February 10, 2017 at 7:24 pm

MarjorieM, Dr. Rivera is well received in his new district, New London. I have spoken to educators there and they are so happy with the changes he is making to better the education of those students. “Finally, we are making progress because of Dr. Rivera” is a quote from one teacher there. Why is he so successful there, but met a lot of resistance here in Norwalk? Because the status quo of Norwalk prevented Dr. Rivera from doing good work. Dr. Rivera and Dr. Adamowski came into a mess that took 19-20 years to make, don’t expect changes over night. There are still a few “status quo” employees left, and once they are gone, Central Office will move forward and this district will be great! Most people don’t like change. But change is needed to turn around the education system for the better.

Know it all February 12, 2017 at 1:34 am

Long time employees are not the problem incompetent bloated out of town central office administrators are bullying and making themselves look good while all the work falls on the principals

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