NORWALK, Conn. — The Norwalk Board of Education on Tuesday gave a unanimous blessing to the 2018-19 budget requests that have been drawn up.
“Whoa, this is a big deal here guys,” new member Bruce Kimmel said, expressing surprise as Chairman Mike Barbis moved on without fanfare after the $194 million 2018-19 operating budget request and the capital budget request for $15 million in 2018-19 were approved.
“Another day on the ‘Board of Ed,’” former Chairman Mike Lyons quipped in reply.
Kimmel noted, in being the first to advocate for the operating budget, that it represents a $9.9 million increase over 2017-18.
“I know this is the beginning of a process that goes on until the spring. I know also that a lot of people will say this is almost $10 million,” Kimmel said, predicting talk of the minimum budget requirement and other issues and asking naysayers to study the budget goals laid out by Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski.
“As a city, I think we have been kind of missing the boat,” Kimmel said. “On the one hand, we constantly rail against the inequities of the ECS (Educational Cost Sharing) formula and rightly so… yet on the other hand we have never really funded our operating budgets anywhere close to what we are losing through ECS. There has been a perception, I think, over the years that we were treading water, just hanging in there, despite the ECS formula doing the best we can…. we weren’t treading water we were really sinking.”
Kimmel said, as he has previously, that he was “blown away” two years ago as the chairman of the Common Council Finance Committee to learn that Norwalk Public Schools wasn’t offering Tier II interventions. Just last week, he learned that the Board is still struggling to eliminate high school study halls although that had been a topic when he was on the Board in 2008, he said.
“The last couple of years – I am pleased to be part of this, with Mayor Rilling, Dr. Adamowski, the Council and the Board – to really coming to grips with a basic premise which we’ve got to face as a city,” Kimmel said. “We’ve got a lot of good things going on, from the transit oriented districts, the mall, all kinds of good stuff but in the long run the thing that is going to make or break us as a city, first and foremost, is the quality of our schools.”
Board member Erik Anderson cited his experience as a Board of Estimate and Taxation member received BoE requests and presentations.
“What I am absolutely in love with is our strategic operating plan,” Anderson said.”… Yes, we understand that there were concessions in past years. We have seen the success though when we are spending the dollars in investing in the strategic operating plan.”
Lyons also cited experience on the BET.
“I remember what it was like six or seven years ago,” he said. “They couldn’t answer any rudimentary questions about what the money was be used for and there was no sense whatsoever of any kind of overall plan of how we were going to change things. That has dramatically changed over these last years because of these superintendents and their finance staffs.”
The relationship between the Board and the Common Council has “improved dramatically partially because the Board has gotten honest in its presentation on its budgets,” he said, concluding, “I am a conservative Republican but I don’t oppose spending money if I think I am going to get something for it … we have already seen results in closing the achievement gap from initial steps. I think this budget is going to continue some very significant motion forward for our school system.”
The capital budget does not change the overall numbers agreed to last year, Lyons commented. Finance Committee Chairman Bryan Meek noted that the capital budget reallocates some of the resources as plans have been fine tuned.
The capital budget request includes seed money to start design work for the International Baccalaureate school planned for Concord Street and the renovation of Jefferson Elementary School, as well as $12.5 million to improve existing schools, said Barbis, Facilities Committee chairman.
The only negative commentary came early in the meeting as Norwalk Federation of Teachers (NFT) First Vice President Joe Giandurco asserted that the operating budget ignores problems in middle school redesign.
“I and many others across this district are concerned with how the budget has been constructed,” Giandurco said. “…In what is now year three of middle school redesign there is no additional funding to support the teachers, instructional aides and administrators at this level, despite plans for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards) implementation. This is the level that has seen the most change and upheaval. It now receives no additional funding to ensure progress will continue and the vast difficulties created by middle school redesign will be corrected.”
Classrooms are overcrowded, teacher stipends were eliminated and correct textbooks are not available, he said.
Although a new music curriculum has been developed, it “cannot be implemented with high fidelity and rigor at the middle schools due to the weakened middle school program,” Giandurco said. “Some of the actions have allowed the middle school program to slowly wither and eventually (it) will die on the vine. In fact, some creative solutions have been proposed by music teachers, guidance counselors and other teachers which would allow students to enjoy the continued participation in the band program and receive the needed interventions that are required to raise their academic skills. These solutions have been largely ignored and passed over…. I ask the BoE to look for more creative solutions and allow more flexibility in how we steward the taxpayers’ money to create an improving school system.”