Treading water

Common Council Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large).

During last year’s operating budget discussion, in the midst of the BOE-Common Council workshop in the community room of Norwalk City Hall, Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski stated that the district did not have a multi-level remedial intervention program for students who were academically below grade level.

I was chairing the meeting and expressed my concern using a rather strange choice of words, based on my experience as a teacher in New York City: “But that’s impossible.” Next I noted that the absence of these critical remedial programs was essentially a guaranteed, and patently unfair (and in many states illegal) ticket to special education for a fair number of students.

Unfortunately, the Superintendent was forced to agree. The discussion then moved to other aspects of the 2016-17 BOE operating budget request.

That moment, for me, was a fiscal eye opener. Our district was in a bigger bind than I had thought, treading water at best. As that discussion continued, it became increasingly obvious that we needed to devise ways to create money-saving efficiencies and spend more on basic academic programs if we were to provide our students with a 21st century education. The water treading had to end.

And, of course, this unconscionable bind was, and still is, the direct result of the absurd state Educational Cost Sharing formula that shortchanges Norwalk to the tune of $20 to $25 million each year, and that, inexplicably, seems impervious to major change.

Last year, the priority of the BOE, in what would be the first major initiative to counter this ECS-imposed fiscal straight-jacket, was to work with the city to develop a three-year program to turn-around special education services.

The city had been warned by consultants, in a series of reports dating back a decade, that our special education programs needed to be revamped; that we were doing a severe disservice to special needs students, many of whom had to travel to other towns – at the expense of Norwalk taxpayers – to receive the services they were required to have under federal law.

This year, the BOE continued its effort to move beyond the ECS imposed water treading. Both its operating and capital budgets called for spending increases much larger than the city was used to funding. Put differently, these budgets were designed to provide students the kind of education they deserved and needed.

Fortunately, at the end of February, the city and the BOE were able to piece together a spending plan that came very close to funding the Board’s entire operating request, without placing an exorbitant burden on taxpayers. At this point in time, the projected property tax increase for the coming 2017-18 fiscal year is about 1.75%.

The BOE also developed a five-year capital request for the coming fiscal year that in some ways was unprecedented. It calls for the construction of two new schools, two renovated-as-new schools, and basic repairs in other schools across the district. The plan was almost two years in the making, and the Board was assisted by architects and demographers who analyzed both the condition of school buildings and demographic trends in the city.

What’s not always appreciated is that the ECS formula is used not only to determine the amount of state aid for operating expenses, but also to determine the state reimbursement rate for school construction projects. Put differently, the very same formula that has dearly short-changed Norwalk students when it comes to reading and math, has made it difficult for these students to learn in proper school environments.

The Mayor and the Common Council recognized that something had to give, that we could not continue to lease portable classrooms to deal with overcrowding, that we could not continue to band aid older buildings that had antiquated electrical systems. After extensive discussions on how to reduce the overall costs of the five-year plan, we approved all of its basic elements.

Norwalk has been placed in an impossible corner. We’ve been short-changed for years by the state. We’ve desperately tried to maintain a first rate school system, but over time we’ve discovered that treading water is not nearly enough. Something has to give in Hartford. If that lousy formula does not change radically, Norwalk’s budget cycles might become little more than exercises in futility, desperate efforts to tread water.


Donald April 17, 2017 at 2:39 am

People let us not forget that Kimmel is the one that keeps pushing for wasting our tax dollars. He is Rilling’s puppet that thinks its ok for cops to make six figures, when the required education is only a GED. We must vote out Kimmel and Rilling in November if we want lower taxes.

Donna April 17, 2017 at 1:38 pm

@Donald, please don’t distort the truth by suggesting that paying for education and school building is “wasting our tax dollars”. An excellent public school system is exactly what enriches neighboring towns like Westport, Wilton, New Canaan and Darien. Better schools attract investment in the community. Higher Propety values mean more tax revenue without the need to raise property taxes.

Also you missed the point. The state reimbursement formula needs to change. Bob Duff is supposed to be working on this. Hopefully, he is. But Norwalk suffers economically because it is forced to shoulder an educational burden beyond what our neighboring towns bear. Perhaps appropriating funds for all an aggressive 2017-18 operating budget and an ambitious capital plan without ECS reform is putting the cart before the horse. Not sure what the cops only needing a GED has to do with the Ed budget. Are you suggesting that no one with a GED should ever earn six figures? Maybe some officers make too much money. But I’m not getting the relationship with the minimal education requirement for the job.

Donald April 17, 2017 at 5:36 pm

Please do not put words in my mouth and attempt to distort the truth of what I posted. What I simply posted and what I would think most would be able to understand, is that if Rilling and Kimmel did not waste my tax dollars on the unions we would have money for the schools.
In addition, I would like to know where all the extra tax revenue from the all-new apartment buildings went. This revenue would be more than enough to fund the schools, if it were not wasted. Actually, I was expecting a major tax decrease because of all the new construction. However, what we got from the failures Rilling and Kimmel is a tax increase.
Rilling and Kimmel must go.

THE TRUTH April 17, 2017 at 6:38 pm

You state

Not sure what the cops only needing a GED has to do with the Ed budget.

I find it hard to believe that you can’t figure out how wasting money on one city department takes away from another.

You also asked if people with only a GED should be allowed to make 6 figures. I realize that the question was not addressed to me however I will give my view. I have no issues with someone making 6 figures in the private sector with only a GED
. I have major issues with it when the taxpayers are paying for it when it can be done better and cheaper.. Aka police vs flagmen looking at a hole in the ground.

NonPartisan April 18, 2017 at 6:18 am

Mr Kimmel

I think any reasonable person can see there are many ways to increase spending per pupil without raising taxes or waiting for more money from Hartford. It starts with fiscal discipline

1- enforce zoning- rid the city of illegal accessory apartments, or legalize them and collect tax revenue. This will decrease the overall student population, increase property values and reduce overall pressure on most city services.

2- reduce the 15 % subsidized/ work fare requirements- to zero ( we are currently compliant) subsidized housing reduces tax revenue and decreases building values

3- do not pass legislation to become a sanctuary city.

4- do not wast money by spending more than needed for the new schools planned- the budgets are rediculously high. Control the design and finishes.

I can go on- but above is a good start.

Donna April 18, 2017 at 10:49 am

@Donald, in your OP, you did not draw the line as clearly as you did in your reply to me. Of course overfunding the PD and FD will take operating capital away from the ED budget. Bear in mind that insofar as union contracts contribute to higher than necessary PD costs, the same applies to NPS, where teacher contracts and other union obligations very quickly run up the annual education budget.

@The Truth, I agree 100% that we don’t need police officers directing traffic whenever there is road work. There is work going on near me on Burritt. And the flag men are not police officers. However, when utility work was performed on Knorr Street, which is effectively a dead end, there were two cops posted to “direct traffic” and both were on their cell phones. In fact, if we’re on the subject of posting expensive police officers to direct traffic around work zones, we might as well ask why they’re allowed to use their personal devices almost continually. THAT is not a good use of taxpayer money.

For the record, when the PD direct traffic around utility work performed by SNEW, that is a fixed cost that gets passed on to the homeowner. My quote was $1000 just to cover the cost of police support to upgrade my water service. And I don’t live on a thru streeet. So yes, there are lots of problems related to city government, unions and union contracts, tax dollars and other ways in which the city takes advantage of its citizens and doesn’t deliver to them.

In my OP, I was responding to Kimmel’s point that the state reimbursement formula needs to be changed because Norwalk is forced to bear a larger burden than it should to educate students, especially if many of these students are undocumented and are attracted to Norwalk either because it is a sanctuary type city or more likely because the cost of entry and availability of high density housing makes Norwalk more attractive than Darien, New Canaan, Wilton and Westport.

NonPartisan April 20, 2017 at 5:41 am

Mr. Kimmel
I’m hoping you would respond to my comments. Where do you stand on actually reducing real estate taxes, and reducing the financial burden paid by real estate taxpayers financial support for those who lease and rent illegal apartments in our city?

MarjorieM April 22, 2017 at 7:24 pm

In discussing intervention programs offered by the Norwalk Public Schools, has our superintendent ever heard of SRBI? This was a multi leveled program designed to offer intervention to students. I believe it was instituted when Dr. Marks was around.

Nancy Chapman April 22, 2017 at 7:56 pm

I have heard SRBI mentioned many times.

In January, 2016, in laying out a 12 point plan to address the CREC report recommendations, Dr. Adamowski said that the $3 million SpEd transformation fund he was requesting would “be used exclusively for the purpose of implementing the priority recommendations of the CREC audit to transition from over-reliance on one-on-one para-professional and contracted services to a professional service delivery model for each classification of student need and a full continuum of Scientifically Research Based Interventions (SRBI). The fund will be used to develop new roles, programs and systems, and provide training and development to special ed staff at all levels to improve the scope and quality of specialized instruction. Items 6-11 on this list are largely dependent upon establishment of the fund in 2016-17.”

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