NORWALK, Conn. — The 2017-18 Norwalk Public Schools operating budget was settled Tuesday without layoffs, as promised after last week’s negotiation between the Board of Education and the Norwalk Federation of Teachers.
Spared at the last minute from elimination was the Brookside preschool program, a move inspired by a Facebook post, according to BoE Chairman Mike Lyons. Brookside’s preschool inspired the most conversation from Board members in the brief meeting, after BoE Vice Chairman Mike Barbis suggesting eliminating the program next year.
That surprise move got voted down.
The BoE reversed recommendations made by its Finance Committee for cuts, restoring kindergarten aides, music teachers and middle school intramural sports. Cut from the budget were the funding of the Norwalk High School pool, teacher stipends, redesign funds and $44,000 worth of Central Office reductions. Also cut was $540,000 of “remaining .69% reduction of per-student expenditure,” the elimination of surplus that was built into the budget to allow wiggle room.
The budget cut reversals were made possible by the NFT agreeing to switch its health insurance benefits to Connecticut Partnership 2.0. Moving all NPS employees to the state plan by Oct. 1 put $1.25 million back into the budget, according to a BoE document.
BoE members had planned to cut nearly $2 million from their budget, in addition to a $1.3 million cut they had previously agreed to, because of the stalemate with NFT.
The Brookside preschool was funded with $42,000 from the $300,000 that the BoE had expected to spend on unemployment benefits, Lyons said.
The preschool funding wasn’t on the materials handed out with the meeting. It was inspired by a post on Norwalk Parents for Education, Lyons said, after the meeting.
Shiloh Martin-Adam asked where the 40 children whose families had signed them up for the preschool would go if it were eliminated. Although there are no replies on Facebook, Lyons said he asked Norwalk Public Schools Chief Academic Officer Michael Conner if there were enough state-funded preschool slots available in the city to accommodate the children. Finding out that the answer was no, the BoE reinstated the program, he said.
Public schools are responsible for educating children from kindergarten to twelfth grade, and in certain instances to their sophomore year in college, Barbis said, during the meeting.
“Pre-K is very clearly and explicitly set by the state as school readiness slots as being not the responsibility of the public school system. And yet we do have a program currently – I am proud of that program but our resources are limited. The space we have is limited. This is not a program we probably should be involved in,” Barbis said.
“I would like to be on record that we are not going to accept new kids in that program going forward so those school readiness slots, that are funded by the state as, can be transferred to an entity that is in position to run them, which is not our core area of operations,” Barbis said.
Lyons clarified that, saying that NPS is creating pre-K programs but they are generally run by the Early Childhood Council, not the Board of Education.
The school readiness slots are “incredibly complicated,” with 10-month slots and 12-month slots, Barbis said.
“Brookside does not fit into our long-term plans,” Barbis said.
Cutting the pre-school via a motion in a meeting, not as an agenda item, would be a disservice, BoE member Shirley Mosby said.
“I understand some people’s points but you have to realize that you can’t just come out here and start saying things without getting the public involved,” Mosby said, drawing applause from the kindergarten paraprofessionals sitting in the audience.
BoE member Erik Anderson said he agreed with Barbis “as far as the sustainability” of the preschool.
“However, I am not in favor of this point of putting in a resolution,” Anderson said. “…I am in favor of a continuing dialogue to figure out how to better serve these students in a capacity where we aren’t put into a situation like we were tonight.”
“This has nothing to do with public input, it’s the reality of what our financial (situation) is,” Barbis said.
BoE member Heidi Keyes said she agreed about the finances but Norwalk’s youngest, most vulnerable children need slots.
“We have to realize that these are their children,” Mosby said. “They need to have some input in their children’s lives. We are up here and that’s fine but I feel very strongly that input from families…. They know their children better than us.”
BoE member Yvel Crevecoeur made a motion to table the item. Voting yes were Sherelle Harris, Crevecoeur, Anderson, Mosby and Keyes. Voting no were Finance Committee Chairman Bryan Meek, Lyons and Barbis.
After the meeting, Lyons said he sent an email asking if there were slots for the Brookside kids, should the program be cut.
Conner “basically said, ‘There is no plan. We were going to have a meeting on Friday and see what we can do about it,’” Lyons said.
“We all basically agree that that is not the model to follow, that we need to go over to one of the other models,” Lyons said. “This model is unreproducible because it’s vastly more expensive than the alternatives.”