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.