Common Council member Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) is running for the Board of Education.
According to Connecticut state law, all Boards of Education are agencies of the State and have a certain degree of independence from other branches of municipal government. But no city agency, particularly one as large and important as a BOE, is totally independent and separate. This would not only be inefficient and costly, but would probably, over time, diminish the quality of education in any community. That’s why in Norwalk the Mayor is an ex officio member of the BOE.
Nevertheless, I regularly hear Norwalk residents talk about our schools as if they were operating in a void, totally on their own, with little oversight from anyone, including education officials in City Hall. Nothing could be further from the truth. For instance, even though the asbestos abatement project for Cranbury School and the windows replacement project for West Rocks Middle School were devised by the BOE, both required Common Council approval before implementation could begin this summer.
And in August, the Council will consider three items that will have an impact on the operations of both the City and the Board of Education. One is a software upgrade that will improve the ability of the Board to do advanced financial analyses, a second will be the initial step in upgrading computerized timeclocks used in City buildings, including schools, and the third is designed to create a more efficient mailroom for both the City and the BOE.
Although these are not big ticket items, they do reflect how closely the City and its agencies, such as the Board of Estimate and Taxation and the Council, work with the BOE on a broad range of issues. While we often applaud the collaboration that takes place during the operating and capital budget processes, once those budgets are approved, the nitty gritty of implementation requires a sustained working relationship among every branch of government.
In Norwalk, all capital budget items must be approved by the Council. And that includes items that pertain directly to education, including technology improvements (for classrooms and for administration), and major, that is, expensive, textbook purchases. Council members occasionally are uncomfortable in their role of rendering final decisions on these legislative items. But we’ve managed so far, with considerable help from BOE staff and members.
But the most important and intense collaboration between the City and the BOE takes place around construction projects. The Board spent over a year developing a five-year facilities plan that includes renovations at all schools, such as the aforementioned asbestos abatement and windows replacement projects. The plan also calls for the construction of two new schools and for two renovated-as-new schools.
The cost and complexity of this five-year plan, which needed the approval of the Mayor and the Council, required the presence of two Council members (Tom Livingston, chair of the Land Use and Building Management Committee, and me, chair of the Finance Committee) at BOE Facilities Committee meetings. And now that the program has been adopted and the funds are in place, all construction issues related to these projects will have to go through the city’s Facilities and Construction Commission, as well as the Council’s Land Use and Building Management Committee.
Bottom line is, the BOE and the City will need to work hand-in-hand to ensure that all of the work is done properly, within budget, and on time.
(Many, if not most, legislative bodies in medium and large cities have committees that focus exclusively on issues related to education. No so in Norwalk, even though we’ve been discussing adding such a committee to the Common Council. As the cost and complexity of education increases, and as the importance of having a quality, 21st Century school system becomes ever more apparent, perhaps it’s time for the Council to consider such a committee.)
On Election Day, I urge residents to remember that we need Council members who are more than willing to work not only with the Mayor, but also with the Superintendent of Schools and the BOE. And that we also need BOE members who are more than willing to work not only with the Superintendent, but also with the Mayor and the Council.
No matter what anyone might say, we are all in this together.