Steven Colarossi is a former member of Norwalk’s Board of Education.
In 2015, with much self-congratulation for its “fiscal responsibility,” the Norwalk BoE negotiated a teachers’ contract for 2016-2019 that included the current insurance plan. The praise for this plan is set out in the BoE’s own press release (which can be read here).
Then, in 2016, when faced with a need to implement long-overdue program improvements in Special Education services, the BoE opted to fund these improvements by raiding the Insurance Fund (the fund set up to pay medical claims under the teachers’ contract). Such a funding scheme was to have no impact on other school department services and was touted as such by the BoE’s expanding propaganda office. You can read the article about this pain-free means of funding special education here.
The BoE’s decision was supported by the City’s own financial team, which manages the Insurance Fund. In the City’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for the Fiscal Year ending June 30, 2016, the City (which manages the Insurance Fund used to pay benefits under the BoE teachers’ contract), indicated that a “draw down” was fiscally prudent and justified given its review of claims. That statement can be found on page 9 of the report which you can read here.
Of course, a few months after the decision to draw down on Insurance Fund was put into action, a startling revelation was made tucked inside the notes to the 2017-2018 budget: “While the recommendation to draw down the available balance in the Insurance Fund in this way helped reduce the Board of Education budget for FY 2016-17, at this point the available surplus in the Insurance Fund is below the recommended level and sufficient funds are not available to offset the increase in costs.” (2017-2018 recommended Norwalk Public Schools operating budget; Superintendent’s budget message, notes 17 & 18.)
One would think that the actions of the BoE to expend funds from a reserve account that put that account in jeopardy would have caused some level of review or analysis by the BoE’s Finance Committee. At a minimum, one would think that the dire prediction for the adequacy of that fund would have prompted some prudent minds to begin the process of evaluating other Board of Education spending. But that didn’t happen. Rather, a secret document was circulated proposing the most onerous cuts possible to children’s education along with press statements and blog posts by BoE members decrying, not the Administration’s mismanagement, not their own lack of oversight, but the greed of the teachers in wanting to maintain benefits (critical to their families) that were negotiated and implemented less than one year earlier.
Now, when faced with having to pay for the fiscally-responsible teachers’ contract and the other expenses of running a school department, the BoE seems to be crying foul. Rather than accepting responsibility for the contract it negotiated and the Insurance Fund draw down it initiated, the BoE wants to blame the teachers for relying upon a contract that was negotiated in good faith and implemented less than one year earlier.
Rather than engage the public in an honest discussion of its continued fiscal mismanagement and lack of any clear oversight over BoE finances, the Finance Committee of the Board of Education has accepted the word of Superintendent Steven Adamowski (whose costly pet projects litter the budget with barely a whisper of circumspection) that there are but a handful of budget cuts (all of which, with one exception, will negatively impact the quality of education for our children) that can resolve this fiscal crisis.
Of course, rather than accept responsibility that the actions of the Board of Education have created the need for budget adjustments, the BoE propaganda machine wants to convince the public that if only it weren’t for greedy, self-serving teachers, none of these cuts would be necessary. The facts, as revealed above, tell an entirely different story. But, to keep to their narrative, the Board of Education’s Finance Committee has had to skirt the state’s Open Meeting Law by circulating the Superintendent’s suggested cuts privately and then presenting them as a fait accompli at a meeting at which the public was not allowed to speak.
Certainly, Norwalk’s parents deserved to know of these proposed cuts when they were first being “circulated,” and the public deserved to be heard during the planning stages (and not merely given the right to oppose them at the meeting at which the budget will be approved). And, like many parents of a public school child, I’d like to know what motivated this set of anti-student cuts. Why are subsidies to the for-profit Literacy How, LLC remaining in the budget for their private pre-school program (which other pre-school operators would undertake with no financial assistance), when the less-expensive NPS program at Brookside School is being cut? Why is a bloated Central Office administration (which includes an expanded communications department) facing cuts of just two positions? Why would cuts be made to kindergarten aides at a time when children come to school with increasing needs (that are impossible for a lone teacher to manage) but no savings are sought from the high school band or sport programs (other than the often-threatened swim team)?
Clearly, this budget proposal presents the unequivocal sentiment of the administration and BoE majority that the needs of students are secondary to pet projects, administrative bloat and a long-simmering desire to punish teachers for accepting and relying upon a contract that was negotiated in good faith and praised by all parties less than two years ago.
Norwalk’s students deserve better. Norwalk’s parents deserve a voice in the process. And Norwalk’s taxpayers deserve some measure of honesty in the debate that is needed over the direction we, as a community, wish for our schools and families.