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.”