Updated, 4:17 p.m.: Document from Bob Barron inserted, along with clarification. Correction as to BoE increases, and statement about “10.6 versus 22.8.”
NORWALK, Conn. – Skepticism toward the Norwalk Board of Education was revealed Tuesday as Finance Director Bob Barron explained to Common Council members his figuring in coming up with a budget recommendation.
The BoE’s projected budget increase just 10 months ago was 3.7 percent in 2017-18 but now it’s 10.1 percent, Barron said, answering a question from Council member Steve Serasis (D-District A) at Tuesday’s Council meeting.
The BoE, in estimating last year what possible increase it would need this year, projected a $6.6 million jump, Barron said. Instead the BoE has requested $17,743,170 more for 2017-18 than it received for 2016-17.
Barron’s recommended 2017-18 budget “happens” to suggest the same number for the BoE as had been projected, $6.6 million, Barron said.
“Anything north of what I am recommending really has to come at your level, the Council and the BET (Board of Estimate and Taxation), it would be such a drastic departure from what we have ever done before,” Barron said. “I did not take their budget apart and try to rerun it, recalculate what they should be asking for. All I made my recommendation on is what I believe to be a fair and reasonable burden to the taxpayer.”
The Council will study the budget in depth next at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 22, in the Council chambers, and hold a public hearing the next day, at 7 p.m. Feb. 22, Kimmel said. Then on Feb. 28 the Council will set a budget cap and send the entire mess to the Board of Estimate and Taxation.
Barron, as he has in previous years, presented the Council with a budget worksheet, showing his recommended budget and the effects that would be made should the Council decide to increase or decrease his recommended cap.
Barron’s recommendation is for a just-under-2 percent mill rate increase, made lower than it would be because of a 1.1 percent increase in the grand list. The total tax levy is 3.1 percent higher, but the grand list increase lessons the burden on individual taxpayers.
The total requests from city departments was $360,154,741, or $22,830,600 more than last year’s budget, he said.
“I have been here six years and the budget increases for the entire city have been between $8 (million) and $10 million, year after year. So, this is an incredible figure, this $22.8 million,” Barron said.
Later, he got to the 10.1 increase in the BoE request.
“Frankly, it’s significantly higher than any increase to the Board of Education in recent history,” Barron said. “In order to make room for that amount of money at the ‘Board of Ed,’ that 3.8 percent, and still keep the total expenditures at 3.1 percent, and mill rate at 2 percent, I cut all incremental requests from the city side, all additional programs … So, it’s a real bare bones budget for the city. It is a historically high appropriation recommendation for the Board of Education, which just happens to be equal to the amount that they had presented last year to the upcoming year, 2017-18.”
The BoE increases over the last three years:
- 2016-17 3 percent
- 2015-16 2.7 percent
- 2014-15 2.6 percent
The BoE has said that $8.6 million of its increase is due to health insurance expenses. BoE Chairman Mike Lyons, speaking to the Council last week, said that if you take that out the requested increase is 5.2 percent.
Barron, questioned by Council Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large), said his recommended budget is $10.6 million more than last year, a $12.6 million gap from what it would be if all departments had their requests granted in full. That’s an important figure in calculating what impact there would be in raising the cap more than recommended.
“I don’t believe anything coming out of Hartford at this stage of the game,” Council member Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said, asking Barron for a list of assumptions he made in regard to state funding.
The Special Education grant proposed by Gov. Dannel Malloy would, at this stage, result in the BoE getting $1.7 million more from the state than it did last year, Barron said.
“If you consider my ($6.6 million) and the state’s ($1.7 million), that, if you were to approve, they’re really $8.3 million better off than they are in the current year,” Barron said.
Council member Faye Bowman (D-District B) asked Barron if he’d run the BoE’s cost per student, saying that she had studied the documents and, “Seemed like they were double-asking.”
Glad you asked, Barron said.
“We have repeatedly asked how many positions, how many full-time positions, does your budget request represent? No less than 10 times we’ve asked, even as recently as when I was printing the books on Monday, I gave (Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton) the opportunity to deliver. They have yet to deliver what their total number is,” Barron said.
He then cast doubt on “all sorts of numbers on tremendous growth,” the enrollment projections the BoE has put forth, which come from consultants Milone & McBroom.
“If you look at their own presentation, you’ll see that the amount (of students) they had planned for this year is 11,445,” Barron said.
The actual enrollment on Oct. 1 was 11,413, Barron said.
“When I made this (budget) presentation to leadership early this month I showed them my numbers, and it’s not my numbers, it’s their numbers: They had 30 less students that they reported. Less than what they budgeted for this year,” Barron said. “Then next year a gross increase of only 35 students. So, I am really troubled by a forecast of 1,000 more students. I know there’s 400 students in portable classrooms but their own numbers only said they are growing 35 year over year. What the most compelling thing to me was, if you look at the pre-K and K through 5 numbers, their projections show 189 less students next year.”
That’s in the context of the request to build two new schools, K-8, with a plan to renovate two elementary schools after those are built.
“Of course, 6-7-8 may indeed have some growth but their other numbers said they’re going to have 189 less students, K-8,” Barron said. “So, you all have your jobs cut out for you. There’s a lot of things that we have to understand about what’s in that request, from how many employees they’re requesting for $17.7 million, and what they are true enrollments are that is driving this large operating request.”
The discussion ended with skepticism from Council member Travis Simms (D-District B).
The BoE’s request is for about $17,000-$18,000 per student, but when you look at the figures and do the math, it’s $16,000-$17,000, he said.
“I don’t know how they come up with that projected number, what is actually on paper,” Simms said. “So, I was a little confused about that. I just think that’s a little disingenuous to all the Council members, a proposal like they have in front of us.”