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.
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.”
“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.