Updated 6 p.m., comment from Mayor Harry Rilling.
NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Public Schools are preparing for a significant reduction in force on July 1, as the Norwalk Federation of Teachers has rejected a move to a state health insurance policy, Norwalk Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons said Thursday.
Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon, in a Thursday statement, said teachers have historically worked with NPS to address budgetary concerns, and accused the BoE of mismanagement.
A fair offer had been made and rejected, she said.
The city allocated money for the 2017-18 NPS operating budget on the assumption that millions of dollars could be saved by switching NPS from a self-insured health benefit policy to Connecticut Partnership 2.0. But the BoE on Tuesday discussed laying off teachers, estimating 75 positions would be eliminated, if the switch were not made. The layoffs would likely be mostly new teachers, Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton said.
Switching to Connecticut Partnership 2.0 would cost NPS $3.15 million less than the existing plan, Hamilton said. The BoE could then roll its insurance fund into the $6.6 million budgetary shortfall and address a remaining $800,000 gap without layoffs, he said.
Yordon declined to comment until Thursday afternoon, when she released this statement:
“The NFT recognizes that the school district faces significant budgetary challenges this year, partly due to decision last year to use health care fund dollars for special education needs. The district expects the bargaining units to simply walk away from the health insurance agreements that have been negotiated and agreed upon. We have a contract and an agreement on health insurance that the district must honor. The proposed State health insurance requires a change in plan and network, and may offer our members benefits, but not the same benefits that we currently have. We are interested in doing our part to solve the problems that the city faces, and tried to work out the best way to do so.
“The NFT has historically helped the district in similar circumstances. In 2010, we saved the district millions of dollars by switching to a new health insurance plan. The district thanked us with a salary and step freeze in 2012. We are reluctant to find ourselves similarly “thanked” this time. More recently, our 2016-2019 contract has an increase of 2.66 percent per year, below the statewide average of 3.5 percent, according to the district’s own press release at the time. Our recent proposal of a retirement incentive that would have saved the district close to a million dollars was dismissed out of hand.
“We made a fair offer to the district regarding the health insurance changes, and they rejected this offer. If the district funded Special Education needs last year by raiding the health insurance fund, and this year funds schools generally by raiding health insurance agreements or layoffs, what will next year bring? Our district deserves better management than this. Our members deserve better than threats and closed negotiations brought to the front page!”
“They demanded a two-year contract extension (to an unheard of 5 years) with raises we can’t afford,” Lyons said. “And they did it not as a counter to 2.0 (which would save their own members money), but as a blatant attempt to leverage the possible layoff of their own members to force us to capitulate. Which we won’t do.”
The Board of Education took $1.3 million out of its health insurance reserves last year, to contribute to a Special Education development fund, to address criticisms levied by the Capital Region Education Council (CREC). The theory was that creating in-house SpEd services would save the city money in the long run.
NPS Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams said she didn’t believe calculations have been done to arrive at the number of layoffs necessary if only one union declines to join Connecticut Partnership 2.0.
“Most of them have been open to considering this solution,” Wilcox Williams said. “We hope that all our unions will decide to work in the best interests of both their members and our schools.”
“Others are close (as with city unions),” Lyons said. “We may be able to make a partial move, but the teachers union is by far our largest; if they refuse, we’ll be millions short and layoffs will be inevitable.”
Lyons, in a Facebook post, said, “We hope the union comes back to the table – they just gave us a flat out rejection today. Not only would the layoffs be bad in themselves, but they’d increase class sizes for the teachers who remain. This is all TOTALLY unnecessary.”
“I am hopeful the discussions will continue between the NFT and B. O. E.,” Mayor Harry Rilling said in an email. “The conversion is a critical component of the overall operating budget for NPS. I will encourage both sides to try and work this out.”