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Norwalk Council takes risk to move schools forward

Common Council President John Igneri (D-District E), left, and Council member Michael Corsello (D-At Large) discuss Norwalk's budget cap during Tuesday's meeting in City Hall.

Common Council President John Igneri (D-District E), left, and Council member Michael Corsello (D-At Large) discuss Norwalk’s budget cap during Tuesday’s meeting in City Hall.

Updated, 9:26 p.m.: PDF added to compare compensation of BoE management to city management.

NORWALK, Conn. – It’s worth taking a risk to improve Norwalk’s school system, some Council members said Tuesday, while South Norwalk representatives expressed skepticism that the Board of Education will produce results with the money spent from the “Rainy Day Fund.”

The Common Council voted unanimously, 14-0, to approve a budget cap that, when worked in with other machinations, provides the Board of Education with enough money to inspire confident statements from Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski that goals in the BoE’s strategic operating plan will be met.

The controversy stems from a planned draw down of $3.3 million from the general fund balance, or “Rainy Day Fund,” which Council Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) called nearly unprecedented.

“They may be able to implement this year, hopefully, in one fell swoop, hopefully, their strategic plan, which is long overdue,” Kimmel said. “We will know in the next budget season how much of this plan was implemented. Right now, our fingers are crossed. We know that $3.3 million drawdown on our fund balance is something I don’t think we have never done.”

Maybe once, “many years ago,” during the dire straits of a recession, more money was taken out of the fund balance, he said.

The Council approved a budget cap of $329,967,112, which is $300,000 more than was approved by the Finance Committee last week. The $3.3 million draw down is $1.3 million more than proposed by Finance Director Bob Barron. The 2.2 percent mill rate increase that was proposed by Barron remains.

It’s now up to the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) to figure out the details of the operating budget. State funding details are yet to come.

Barron told the Council that he doesn’t think the expected draw down will damage Norwalk’s Triple A bond rating this year.

“I do not think it’s a significant enough of a departure to have a credit impact for us in the next year,” Barron said. “My biggest concern, which I told many of you, is the next year. If we increase our budget by about $10 million every year, knowing that we can continue drawing down on the fund balance, at some point we’re going to have to stop drawing down on the fund balance.”

Council member Faye Bowman (D-District B) mixed the capital budget into the discussion, given that the expected work on the schools will increase Norwalk’s debt ratio.

“We don’t want to get into a situation where we are listening to a Board of Education that has a habit of not listening to our own professionals that we hire,” Bowman said, going on to reference BoE Chairman Mike Lyons’ recent slam of the NAACP and suggesting that South Norwalk have more input into a possible new school there.

Council member Michael Corsello (D-At Large) asked a series of questions about the minimum budget requirement for the schools budget.

The budget is going up 4.5 percent with this plan. The city, by state law, cannot lower the schools’ budget in coming years.

“Essentially, by dipping into the fund now, we are putting off a likely tax increase for the future,” Corsello said.

“I think that’s a reasonable conclusion but not always,” Barron said, going on to explain that “big banner year” in revenues would change the equation, as would less expenses or less money from the state.

“Every year we find ourselves, when we are discussing the operating budget, in an increasingly tighter corner,” Kimmel said. “A municipality has always got to find a balance between prudent fiscal policies, prudent budget policies, on the one hand and the needs of our schools and the students on the other hand. It’s a tough call.”

The finance director looks at things with one set of eyes, that are conservative and fiscally prudent, Kimmel said, going on to slam the state’s Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) formula as putting Norwalk in dire straits.

The BoE is asking for a lot, but the planned programs, such as interventions and enough teachers in the high schools to make study halls less frequent, are needed, Kimmel said.

“The Board is on the brink of implementing a lot of programs that are long overdue, and nothing comes for free in the world of education, as we all know. So, I am willing to bend a little this time around,” Kimmel said. “…My feeling is, if we don’t provide this additional money for these programs, these very specific programs, we’ll end up paying for it later.”

Council President John Igneri (D-District E) agreed that Barron is being conservative, including in his view of the grand list.

“Optimistically I am looking at that grand list growth in the future as helping us out and not having the concern as much as you do. I agree as well that we do need to support our schools at this point. Little was done over the years and that needs to change,” Igneri said.

Common Council members Faye Bowman (D-District B) and Travis Simms (D-District B).

Common Council members Faye Bowman (D-District B) and Travis Simms (D-District B).

Yes, the schools should be supported, Council member Travis Simms (D-District B) said.

“However, for me, I’d like to see when we start appropriating a budget for the ‘Board of Ed’ that we are thinking more on the lines of really putting money toward the education of our kids. I mean, the school and the infrastructures, yes, they do need some repair and replacement but I think the real focus of where the money needs to be going to is the education of our kids,” Simms said.

Norwalk’s public school system is 82nd in the state and 4,489 nationwide, Simms said, calling it an “an almost failing school system.”

“I think we really need to be fiscally responsible and really start thinking ahead, and make sure that we have that money going toward the right academic programs for our kids and making sure that the curriculum is exactly what is desired by our kids and our parents, not just throwing money to the ‘Board of Ed’ because they are requesting it, just to fix up schools, etc.,” Simms said. “If we are going to put this kind of money in the ‘Board of Ed’s’ budget, I want to make sure they are doing everything in our power to make sure they are getting a top of the line education.”

“Half of the budget goes to the central office and not to the schools,” Bowman said. “…I want to hear that the high school kids are not in study hall all day. I don’t want to hear about 18-year-olds not going to college, not able to get a job.”

Lyons responded to these comments in a series of emails to NancyOnNorwalk after the meeting.

“I certainly agree that we should spend the funding wisely,” Lyons said. “As I noted at the public hearing, we are spending it very explicitly to advance our Strategic Operating Plan, not simply as a percentage increase over last year’s budget, focusing on increasing credits at the high schools, providing more extensive Tier II and Tier III interventions and expanded summer school opportunities to close the achievement gaps throughout the system, and boosting our magnet school programs to enhance choice.”

Simms and Bowman were not present at last week’s hearing, but they did attend a Feb. 6 joint Committee meeting where Lyons talked of funding the Strategic Operating Plan.

“Regarding the comment that the schools are ‘almost failing’, this is ridiculous and flatly false,” Lyons said. “Norwalk’s students (including its minority students) already have the highest test scores in the State among urban communities.  We are getting such successful results from our Middle School Redesign that we won a national award of recognition just this past week.  We are successfully implementing our Special Education reform initiative.  We have implemented School Governance Councils at all 19 schools to increase teacher and parental involvement in the management of their schools.  The list of projects underway right now is unprecedented in the Norwalk schools’ history – and that doesn’t even include the most ambitious school building program in almost half a century, just about ready to start.  Just this year’s list of projects underway includes 25 matters (http://www.norwalkps.org/UserFiles/Servers/Server_71596/File/Strategic%20Plan/Priority%20Implementation%20Steps%20for%202016-17%20School%20Yar.pdf).  Our schools are doing well, and about to do much better.”

Lyons said:

“Regarding Faye, we apparently have an even greater degree of ignorance than with Travis.  Her statement that ‘half of the budget goes to the central office and not to the schools’ is preposterous.  For instance, a recent simple calculation showed that about 64% of our budget goes to teacher salaries, and teachers work in the schools, not the central office.  So do the aides, and social workers, and psychologists, and custodians, and technicians, and food service workers, and on and on.

“In fact, we ran a calculation of the percentage of our budget that went to senior management compensation (the Superintendent and his direct reports) — it comes to 0.74% (less than 1% of our budget).  So the ‘half the budget’ statement isn’t just wrong — it overstates central office spending by a factor of 50 to 1.

“Interestingly, the city spends a considerably higher proportion of it’s budget on senior management than the Board does (1.34% — see attached analysis).  Faye might want to start there if she’s looking for savings.”

Common Council member Steve Serasis (D-District A) was absent from the Council meeting, hence the 14-0 vote. 

senior-management-compensation

32 comments

Faye Bowman March 1, 2017 at 7:01 am

And I don’t think you, Mike Lyons want to get into a battle of calling statements ignorant because you took the cake the other week.

April G. March 1, 2017 at 8:53 am

“Half of the budget goes to the central office and not to the schools,” Bowman said…..Can someone further explain this>

April G. March 1, 2017 at 8:58 am

p.s.-I know that Mike Lyons explains it in the article, but who are we to believe? When one hears two different statements about the same thing…

Barbara Meyer-Mitchell March 1, 2017 at 10:17 am

See pages 22 and 23 of the Recommended Operating budget on norwalkps.org for the exact figures. We should all be reading these documents.

MarjorieM March 1, 2017 at 10:36 am

It would help all to understand if a list of central office personnel, the jobs they do, and their salaries were reported on here. It is misleading to say .74% of a budget goes anywhere without a total dollar figure.

Sick and Tired March 1, 2017 at 10:43 am

@ April G – Here is the link to the budget documents as presented.

http://norwalkps.org/cms/One.aspx?portalId=71681&pageId=31424073

I believe the document you are looking for is titled “FY 2017-18 Recommended Operating Budget”

Travis and Faye should go visit a few schools, speak with teachers and administrators and see whats going on. They have no clue what they are talking about and their comments are a slap in the face of teachers and administrators that have been working hard to keep the school system moving forward.

Phaedrel (Faye) Bowman March 1, 2017 at 11:03 am

In the document provided by the Norwalk Public Schools named “FY 2017-18 Board Approved Operating Budget Request – Raising the Bar-Closing the Gap” dated February 6, 2017…

Page 8 states that School Based Budget Middle School and High School allocation is $7,747 per pupil. We know that the per student expediture for a student is closer to $16,000 so the remainder of that is not making it to the classroom.

Page 16 of the same document states that 48.2% or $104.6 million will go to CENTRAL SERVICES, 34.2% will go to SCHOOL BASED BUDGET, 2.0% will go to Food Service, 4.0% will go to Healthcare Increase,1.8% will go to program improvements, 2,5% will go to School Readiness, and so on…

My statement was that only 50% is making it’s way to the classrooms…

These are the Board of Ed provided numbers.

Ignorance is not knowing the numbers you are providing to the Common Council.

Erik Anderson March 1, 2017 at 2:25 pm

Faye, thank you for raising your concerns. Let me help clarify what Central Services are and how they directly impact the students in the class room. Under the Central Services umbrella are Special Education and Facilities expenses, just to name a few. These expenses are managed centrally at the District Office and dispursed to the schools. The student based budget figures are monies directly managed by each school through our newly implemented School Governance Councils(SGCs). So almost all of these funds are spent at the schools, but the portion you have referenced is the portion managed by the SGCs.  The funds that you note as Central Services aren’t spent at central office; they’re just managed there.  The share of our budget spent at central office is tiny in comparison to the amount spent at the schools. When we talk about the “per pupil allocation” that figure does not include all expenses connected to directly educate each student. Also, I would like to note that we are in the first phase with our SGCs and plan to further allocate Central Service costs to the schools to be managed by each council. Thank you again for your involvement and attention to the education of our children. If you have any other questions, please shoot me an email at [email protected]. I look forward to seeing you and the rest of the District B residents when we meet next week.

srb March 1, 2017 at 8:22 pm

Thank’s Erik for explaining the budget. It’s so odd to hear a democrat make what are typically republican arguments–ie bloated central office. Sadly, my sense is that Ms. Bowman is less concerned about how much is spent at the school level vs. central office and by obfuscating the facts she’s simply trying to muddy the waters and make progress more difficult. I wish Chairman Lyons would hold his tongue a little more since it often brings out the worst in people but as a parent of children in Norwalk PS (and teacher in one of those high fallutin districts), I’m simply inspired and amazed by the work from the top down and the down up of administrators, teachers, paras and support staff in Norwalk. There are loads of people who want the system to succeed. Sadly, I repeatedly don’t get the same sense from Ms. Bowman. As the hard working and dedicated (and sadly, now retiring) principal of Brien McMahan said, FUND THE MAGIC!!!

Stephanie AK March 1, 2017 at 9:19 pm

Mr. Anderson, thanks for your adult and civil tone as your clarified the issues raised by Ms. Bowman. I wish other members of our community could learn by your example.

Donna March 1, 2017 at 11:52 pm

Thank you Erik for the clarification. I wonder if there are volunteer resources in the community to create programming for those students “stuck” in study hall so their time can be put to some educational use.

Also with so much available online learning, it’s remarkable that kids are doing nothing durIng study hall. It’s as if the study hall figures were being exploited to support hiring more teachers to grow the union and explode the budget. Our economy is headed in an automomated direction. And the old model of the classroom teacher with the chalk and blackboard has gone the way of the dinosaur. Time to reinvent the wheel. A new educational model may not involve hiring more teachers but hiring fewer. If the economy can live without cashiers at Stop & Shop, and we are on the brink of driverless cars, why aren’t we also talking about hiring fewer teachers and supplementing with online resources? Why has the educational model not changed in over 100 years?

Debora Goldstein March 2, 2017 at 10:44 am

Perhaps because teaching is a highly trained profession and there is little in the way to support that deep learning and critical thinking (as well as civic and moral learning) can be achieved with technology.

To suggest that ringing groceries or driving a car require anything near the training or education required in order to teach human beings in their formative years is disrespectful.

Donna March 2, 2017 at 1:17 pm

I don’t disrespect the profession. But some of the professionals are costly to keep over time. And they are not all equally worth our tax dollars. To the extent that tenured teachers can’t be fired no matter how little they bring to the table, a discussion about alternatives to new hiring should be part of the conversation.

Debora Goldstein March 2, 2017 at 4:03 pm

Donna,

I never said tenured teachers shouldn’t be fired, but I don’t advocate replacing them with technology. They go through years of education and many more years of training. What they do is not easy, nor is it automatable, because you are dealing with people.

Nora K King March 2, 2017 at 4:41 pm

As someone has taught online – online learning will never replace teachers. Teachers still have to teach the courses.

Angel R. March 3, 2017 at 7:49 am

Donna, good principals will effectively evaluate teachers. Teachers would be evaluated on a regular basis with formal and informal observations. Tenured teachers may be harder to get rid of, but it is not impossible. I have seen it done. Good principals are proactive in supporting their staff when needed. The problem comes in when certain principals do not effectively evaluate these teachers and let them continue to be on staff without support they need to improve. We have some really good principals in this district. And it is reflected in the staff, and students. But we also have some incompetent principals (one I can think of which I wish I could mention!) who do not monitor these teachers and let them continue to teach in our classrooms. These principals are to blame to keep ineffective teachers. New teachers have 4 years to grow as a professional and prove that they can do their job. Shame on the principals who do not monitor these teachers and give them the support they need to be a good teacher before the 4 years are up! Again, I have only one ineffective principal in mind, where I believe we have many great principals in this district.

Donna March 3, 2017 at 10:46 am

My children all went to Westport Public Schools. Good principals were critical to managing an excellent staff. And yes, sometimes a weak or incompetent teacher sneaks into the system. Sometimes even a weak principal. My more general point was directed at the concept of high school students–aged 15-18 or thereabouts–failing to graduate on time because there aren’t enough staff to keep these kids out of study hall. If our 15-18 year olds cannot be self-directed at all and require a teacher to hold their hands through every learning opportunity, we are doing something seriously wrong in this district. The idea that high school kids “stuck” in study hall cannot be otherwise engaged in a learning experience–whether online or up the road at NCC–suggests a lack of imagination. Of course great teachers are essential. So is a robust school budget which depends upon an equally robust tax base. Things fall apart in Norwalk at the level of the tax base. This is a middle class city for the most part, and middle class homeowners will begin to flee the city if they’re put under additional pressure in the form of higher property taxes. In the meantime, doesn’t it make sense for our superintendent and BOE to think outside the “box” and consider alternatives for these kids in study hall so they can continue to learn, earn credits and graduate on time? This generation of kids learns all manner of things online all the time. That is all they do, Ask a teenager about a celebrity or sports figure, and they will reward you with excruciating details. Clearly, they love to learn and soak up information like sponges from all kinds of sources. We live in the Information Age. High school age kids are primed to take advantage of online resources and are encouraged to do so as a requirement of their public school curriculum. So why not give the students in study hall the option to take advantage of online learning? They’ll have to do this after they graduate anyway. Those who go to college will not have their hands held by teachers for the most part. I’m not denigrating the profession. I’m suggesting it’s time for the old model to be reexamined, especially when those who fund education can no longer afford to live in the town because their property taxes are too high. There was no suggestion on my part to get rid of all teachers and replace them with robots. But taking advantage of distance learning opportunities for high school students in understaffed schools seemed minimally prudent.

MarjorieM March 3, 2017 at 4:42 pm

Thank you, Nancy, for posting central office costs. It appears that the total figure is $1,302,332

Does this include medical, vision, dental and life insurance costs?

Patrick Cooper March 4, 2017 at 4:43 pm

MarjorieM – rumor has it that (gasp!) some even have parking spots assigned, what could be the value of that? The other rumor is on occasion they get comped a pudding pop or cupcake when they visit schools. What’s that annually?

Dog after a bone has a purpose, so sure seems like either trying to find a reasonable cover for someone’s clueless public statements, or fact gathering for the fall silly season.

If we’re digging for dollars, I wonder what the costs are annually to defend either ridiculous, frivolous lawsuits (racist BOE), or the lawsuits brought by former employees claiming mistreatment by their administrators. Probably more than these leaders dental bills.

MarjorieM March 4, 2017 at 8:24 pm

Patrick Cooper, if we are looking at total costs at central office, we need full disclosure. Stating salaries of senior management personnel only is not very transparent. These are people with benefits and…oh my…..even secretaries with benefits. Who else is working at central office? Do we want transparency or not? Apparently you have a hidden agenda and do not want taxpayers to look at the whole truth.

Angel R. March 5, 2017 at 7:47 am

MarjorieM, what is your point? Sound so like you have an agenda. You expect people at Central Office to work for free or have no benefits? This is the first time we have had a Central Office that is actually working for the district and students. Maybe if the bullies of the Norwalk district didn’t bully the previous Central Office administrators away and let them do their job, NPS wouldn’t be such a mess. We have one more bully administrator to get rid of, and finally NPS can move on in the right direction with no distractions. To me, it’s worth their salaries and benefits to finally put NPS in the right direction!!

Faye Bowman March 5, 2017 at 7:26 pm

Either the schools are getting enough funding or they are not. If they are, then please don’t imply to the Council that they are not.

My point was the schools are not seeing the funding in the classrooms further more there is no guarantee that anything the Council approved will end up going towards anything related to instruction. It’s a wait and see.

I voted for the increase that the taxpayers could afford so any comments that imply that I am not for education is sadly mistaken.

Unfortunately taxpayers near Jefferson, Silvermine, Columbus, and Tracey are being placed out of their home schools. Before we ask taxpayers for additional money, let’s make sure their dollars are going towards their neighborhood school that they thought it would when they brought their property. Until I see that something we intended to fund is funded AND worked, I will not waste taxpayer dollars.

Faye Bowman March 5, 2017 at 7:45 pm

One more thing, MY comment at the Council meeting was not limited to compensation.

To Mr. Anderson, if they Central Services are managed at the Central office then it still goes there.

Again, I did not specify compensation. Maybe that is the conversation folks want to have and one probably worth having. However, that was not the statement that I made.

Mike Barbis March 5, 2017 at 10:51 pm

Faye

We only went to this per student allocation model last year … the model is just a start and is by no means perfect. The model will get refined and improved with time.

Certain specialized expenses — like Special Education — are incurred at the individual school level but Central Office has yet to design a model they felt could properly allocate these services on this per student basis. Thus they are still labeled “central services” although the dollars are being spent in the schools. Thus, your implication in your last comment is incorrect.

Faye Bowman March 6, 2017 at 12:03 am

Well if it is not incurred at the Central level, and you are still reporting it there, then that is an issue on you all’s end.

We expect accurate up to date information.

MarjorieM March 6, 2017 at 12:43 am

Angel R., when did I ever say that I expect people at central office to work for free or have no benefits?? As for agenda, I ask simply for transparency regarding total budget for central office staffing. Is that an unreasonable request? I suggest it is totally reasonable!

Erik Anderson March 6, 2017 at 1:37 pm

Faye, thank you again for raising your concerns.

Yes, Central Services is managed by our Central Office however, the office does not directly benefit from these expenditures. The 48.2% or $104.6 million budget allocation associated with Central Services directly impacts the well being of our students. That figure also represents health benefits for all NPS employees (mostly teachers and aides), retirement benefits for NPS staff per collective bargaining agreemenrts, payroll and Medicare which all benefit the students in providing for our teachers, aides and other NPS staff.

Below is a break down I received from Tom Hamilton that will hopefully help shed some light on the exact make up of the Central Services budget. Please note that this isn’t a complete list, however these are expenses that directly impact the education of our children.

Employee Health benefits for all district staff (which is predominantly classroom teachers and aides) $31,806,775

Special Education Services $16,089,534

Curriculum & Instruction, including ELL, textbooks, magnet school supplements , instructional coaching, etc $3,925,701

Reserve Teachers for enrollment increases $291,000

Substitute teachers and interns $1,876,560

Payroll and Medicare taxes $3,384,814

Retirement benefits for district staff, per collective bargaining agreements $1,814,671

Facilities Expenses associated with operating all schools (custodians, heat, lights, etc.) $9,157,652

Student Transportation expenses (mandated by State law – regular ed and special ed students) $9,028,936

I hope this helps and as I stated earlier, please send me an email if you have any further questions at [email protected]. I hope to see you at our District B meeting March 9th at 7:30 PM at Calvary Baptist Church.

Debora Goldstein March 6, 2017 at 4:44 pm

I’d like to go back and address Donna’s comments about high school level kids sitting idle in classroom (study halls) because there is not enough staff to teach them?

Perhaps the BOE and Dr. A can examine the experimental high schools in New York City for a solution. There were two in Brooklyn, and I’m sure there were others in other parts of the city. The days there were structured intentionally with free periods, with a robust program of “independent study kits”, teachers available for remedial help (tutoring).

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