Norwalk Council members look askance at BoE’s $11M request

From left, Norwalk Finance Director Bob Barron explains the potential impact of budget impacts on the city’s mill rate, to Common Council member Nick Sacchinelli (D-At Large), Finance Committee Chairman Greg Burnett (D-At Large) and Council President John Kydes (D-District C), Thursday in City Hall.

Updated, 6 p.m. Feb. 22: John Kydes’ comment removed. Updated, 5:24 p.m.: Information from Mike Barbis. 

NORWALK, Conn. – The Norwalk Board of Education’s budget request is not – at this point – drawing comments of support from Common Council members.

Rather, the mood at Thursday’s Finance Committee meeting, as pressure already mounts from the Board of Education, was skeptical.

“It seems to me to be an unrealistic ask,” Council President John Kydes (D-District C) said.

The 5.5 percent mill rate increase it would hypothetically take to fully fund the $11 million increase requested by the Board would be “totally out of line with what we have been doing the last three years,” Finance Committee Chairman Greg Burnett said, attempting to confirm an explanation from Finance Director Bob Barron.

“It’s totally out of line but like I said on Tuesday, I don’t want to presume any one – the chief of police brings forth a plan, and I tell you, these department heads really develop their budgets and asks every year,” Barron replied. “But once it’s turned over, in the aggregate, we need to make recommendations. And say, ‘this is the level that we can afford.’”

The public-side of the operating budget process has just begun, with the Council beginning to consider Barron’s unusual recommended budget – unusual in that Barron factored in a “zero” increase for the Board of Education – on the way to setting a budget cap by Feb. 27.

The Board of Estimate and Taxation will then work on the actual budget, returning to the Council to ask for a higher cap if it feels necessary, by April 2.

“The Board of Education’s recommended FY 2018-19 budget is a base recommendation equal to the current year appropriation. I recommend that the Common Council fund as much of the Board of Education’s request as it feels the taxpayers of the city can afford by increasing its cap over the recommended base budget,” Barron wrote to the Council, explaining his “zero” recommendation for education funding.

Barron’s recommendation carries a hypothetical 1.9 percent mill rate increase. That’s “rock bottom” on the city-side of the budget, Barron said Thursday, then explaining that “city-side” actually includes about $24 million worth of BoE expenses: the debt service on new-school construction costs as well as liability insurance for the Board and worker’s compensation for Norwalk Public Schools employees.

“I would encourage you to begin with that (budget) base and not assume anymore is coming out of the city-side. I personally don’t find any more room,” Barron said.

“We gave up everything to get to my recommendation,” Barron said, explaining that he’d cut $1.4 million from city department requests, included $2 million from the Rainy Day Fund, $2.6 million from the pension fund and $3 million from the insurance fund in his budget request.

That $3 million will wipe out the insurance fund surplus, Barron said, pointing out that it’s not a well that Norwalk can draw from again.

Barron’s letter to the Council explains the pension fund money:

“Pension Contribution decrease of $2,619,976 or -19.2% which includes Police, Fire, and City pension plans along with 401A matches for newer employees not enrolled in the defined benefit pension plan and small administrative costs.

“The city engaged its actuary to complete an experience study on its pensions which pointed to changes that notably lowered the liabilities and related ADEC calculation. Specifically, the pension funds’ investment returns were significantly higher than the assumed rate and there were two years of changes in the mortality improvement scales that both moved in the direction of lowering liabilities. In addition, the plan experienced gains relative to the current salary scale and retirement rate assumptions.”


Barron also touched upon the comments made by some that the city should use its Rainy Day Fund to help fund the BoE budget.

“What do we do the next year when we don’t have the excess?” Barron asked, commenting that he is “really afraid” of the “stair step.”

The state has a minimum budget requirement; whatever the Board of Education gets this year for funding the city is obligated to pay the following year, as a base-line budget.

“At some point when you have exhausted all the one-time revenues, you have to pay for them. So I think that’s another argument for making next year as light as you can,” Barron said.

The Board of Education’s funding over the last decade averages out to a $4 million increase a year, Barron said.

The 2017-18 budget increase was double that at $7.9 million, and, “I think with that $7.9 million they are able to accomplish a great deal and I am sure with the additional 11 they’ll be able to accomplish a great deal more,” Barron said. “But the charge for the Council is, ‘Hey, I’ve got to set a cap for the taxpayers to what I think the taxpayers can afford.’”

That increase included 57 new staff positions, he said.

Board of Education Chairman Mike Barbis on Monday said that the increase included 43 new staff position, not 57. His email:

“Nowhere else in Barron’s summary does he address City staffing, so it is unclear why he included this information in an 11 page summary of the entire budget.  Moreover, this schedule represents year-over-year increases in BOE staffing on payroll as of 1/22/2018.  It does not represent budgeted staffing, but merely represents staffing on-board as of a 1-22-2018 (i.e. – current fiscal year) compared to FY 2016-17.  It doesn’t represent proposed staffing changes for FY 2018-19, and indeed has nothing to do with the FY 2018-19 budget.  It is rather curious why it would even be included in a summary document for the FY 2018-19 budget.   Since this schedule is a capture of staff on payroll as of a point in time, it does not take into account budgeted vacancies that may have existed last year, but which have subsequently been filled.  Our analysis from last year indicates that the FY 2017-18 budget included a total FT head count increase of 43 positions, not the 57 positions cited in Mr. Barron’s report.”

FY 2018 Approved budget FTE’s 6-30-17

The Board’s 2018-19 request includes $2.1 million to eliminate study halls at Norwalk High School and more than $1 million to increase the school day at six elementary schools. The $11 million figure cited by Barron includes a request for $1.2 million to continue the Special Education transition fund for a third year.

Board members cite their strategic operating plan as the foundation of their requested increases.

“We have seen the success though when we are spending the dollars in investing in the strategic operating plan,” Board member Erik Anderson said on Jan. 16.

“I am a conservative Republican but I don’t oppose spending money if I think I am going to get something for it,” Board member Mike Lyons said on Jan. 16. “… 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.”

“Last year the Mayor, City Council, Planning Commission and Board of Estimate and Taxation all supported funding most of the Board of Education’s operating and capital budgets, making it the first year in my children’s educational career that we didn’t have painful negotiations about cuts to the schools,” Board member Barbara Meyer Mitchell wrote on Facebook. “I believe the goals laid out in this budget are necessary for Norwalk to catch up to communities around us and to be in integrity regarding how we allocate funds from our Priority grant.”

Barron on Thursday said that a reasonable person could say the Board needs the funding but a different reasonable person could say that Board got 57 new positions last year.

“So maybe we don’t do it all at once,” Barron said. “Maybe we do it over time but maybe not all next year because we simply don’t feel comfortable with passing on a tax hike that high to the taxpayer. I think that’s a reasonable approach, too, but that’s your decision.”

The city has already invested an unprecedented amount of money in committing to build two new schools and renovate two schools, Barron said.

It’s double what has been the capital plan and, “It astonished me,” Barron said. “…In 16-17 our debt service payment was $26 million. At year five it goes to $47 million. That’s $21 million more for a single line item in the budget in just five years. You divide 20 by five, that’s $4 million more a year.”

The Board of Education has “already come to us and said we are coming back next year with a bigger request and going into a reval year,” Kydes said. “I mean, it seems like we are going to dig a hole where we can’t get out.”

“It’s never too late to recognize, to stop digging a hole,” Council member Faye Bowman (D-District B) said, suggesting that maybe the schools don’t get built after all.

The Council has the authority over the capital budget, Barron said.

Bowman and Council member Travis Simms (D-District B) have opposed the construction of a new school at the Nathaniel Ely property in South Norwalk.

It isn’t just building new buildings, it’s paying the staff in the buildings and heating them, Bowman said.

Hempstead pointed out that there are portable classrooms, and the staff members from those would be spread out into the school system.

“I’d rather have them in portables,” Simms said.

Regarding the financial impact, Hempstead said, “I agree but it’s the crap … our representation that we have in Norwalk, for lack of a better word, because upstate, we are still getting about … half million extra (in education funding).”

State reimbursements for new school construction are much lower than what Bridgeport would receive despite Norwalk’s high percentage of students on free or reduced lunch, Hempstead said.

Pleas to fully fund the BoE request are being organized on Facebook, where one parent said it appears that the Council members do not want to fully fund the BoE budget.

Asked after the meeting if Council members are not inclined to fully fund the BoE budget, Hempstead said, “That sounds like a reasonable statement. But I’m only one vote.”

“We are still discussing it. So no one said, ‘We are not,’ but we are discussing it, we are doing our due diligence,” Burnett said. “Members of the Committee are voicing their opinion which is what they are supposed to do, but we are doing our due diligence. That’s where we are at. We just need people to be patient as we work through this process.”


Donna Smirniotopoulos February 19, 2018 at 9:45 am

Barron’s approved City budget is going up by 5% (with the pension reduction factored in). And he seems to believe the taxpayers can afford to keep feeding the beast at City Hall. Also the BOE budget does not call for 57 new hires, as stated above, but 43. A well thought out plan on improving public eduction in Norwalk can help reverse the trend of the wealth leaving the City. It’s a long game. But the BOE has put considerable effort into its development. Ambitious, yes. But unlike the mall gambit, this one will most likely pay off for the city. A city is no better than its public school system.

My District B reps, Travis and Faye, should look past their disappointment about the Ely project and vote to fund this budget.

Education101 February 19, 2018 at 11:35 am

I am not one for adding city personnel but in this case, it would be prudent for the mayor to install a fiduciary over the BOE to contain spending and safeguard the city finances. They just don’t appear to get it and this is insanity to say the least. The Council should flat line BOE spending and not give in to the Facebook spinmeisters which are initiating their annual social media campaigning of more funding or else (getting old to say the least). The superintendents along with board/ board chair are breaching their fiduciary responsibilities by not containing their budgets year in and year out. Taxpayers continue to pay with no returns in material improvement in school ratings or growth in the grand list. It’s time to hold the line on this nonsense and push back – the education budget now devours 70% of the city finances and continues to grow. When is enough enough? It’s also sad to see the Bridgeport analogy being used more and more on the commentary section here but continued growth in spending with negative (adjusted-inflation) growth in the grand list is a sure fired recipe to get there.

Debora Goldstein February 19, 2018 at 11:54 am

“The city engaged its actuary to complete an experience study on its pensions which pointed to changes that notably lowered the liabilities and related ADEC calculation. Specifically, the pension funds’ investment returns were significantly higher than the assumed rate and there were two years of changes in the mortality improvement scales that both moved in the direction of lowering liabilities. In addition, the plan experienced gains relative to the current salary scale and retirement rate assumptions.”

When Matt Miklave proposed doing exactly this, a few years ago, he was skewered for it.

Once again, if we don’t move to some other form of budgeting process, this City is never going to get ahead of what it is currently costing to run things. I vote for outcome based budgeting.

Donna Smirniotopoulos February 19, 2018 at 12:20 pm

@Nancy, nice photo showing CC members literally “looking askance” at the papers Bob Barron is showing them. This looks like a “standing up for you” photo op by the CC and Barron, possibly staged by Herr Harry “Drosselmeyer” Rilling. The conceit is that the democratic controlled CC and democratic mayor are the prudent guardians of our tax dollars. And #Education101 has either taken the bait or is in on the con.

The last thing the BOE needs is another mayoral hiree “safeguarding” the City’s finances. This is what Bob Barron does in fact, however unlikely it is that Barron is acting on his own accord and not as the lapdog of the mayor. The Mayor’s budget includes a 5% increase. The BOE budget is flat funded by the Mayor. The Mayor cannot or will not show the people how much money exactly is in the RDF TODAY. The Mayor cannot or will not show us how much money the city received in fees from GGP or from anyone else. This is the same mayor who in response to the FONSI, said…..nothing. Time for Harry Rilling to show some leadership and come out publicly to support the BOE’s budget. No more hiding behind the green curtain.

Drewt February 19, 2018 at 1:18 pm

For all those so concerned with the spending at the BOE maybe you should go online and look at all the documents posted regarding spending and the budget. NOTHING IS HIDDEN like the amount of the Reserve Fund! It is all posted online!! The meetings (ALL OF THEM) ARE OPEN!! Go find out what’s going on! Be informed and stop already just casting untruths an information that isn’t accurate!!

Drewt February 19, 2018 at 2:39 pm

@Niz We can even the number of how much is in the Reserve Fund and thats mainly TAX PAYERS MONEY!!!!!!!! And a PLAN would be wonderful if the City actually had one!

Mike Barbis February 19, 2018 at 2:44 pm

You need to do your homework. Barron’s numbers are incorrect — the actual number of hires was 43, not 57. 13 of the 43 of those were security guards who were being paid for a state grant that will soon run out … the BOE thought it would be prudent to put these positions back in the operating budget. Maybe Barron thinks we should have just fired them? I’m sure that would go down well with parents!
Please call me and get your facts right. And did you know that, if you adjust for the one time pension expense reduction, spending on the City-side is proposed to go up 5%!! But Barron proposes 0.0% for the BOE?
PS Let’s talk about the State accountability figures — NPS knocked it out of the park. Education 101, you need to read NON more carefully.

Nancy Chapman February 19, 2018 at 5:22 pm

Mike, my facts were correct. Bob Barron said 57. That’re reported correctly, as it was last week. I agree that in my comment I should have said, “according to Bob Barron.”

Mike Barbis February 19, 2018 at 5:29 pm

Barron is spreading misinformation … the 57 number is incorrect. I sent you an email with an explanation …. Barron’s math is completely illogical and makes zero sense. His 57 positions is completely incorrect. You are spreading “fake news” and my email to you proves that. We added 43 positions last year and 13 of those were existing employees (security guards) that had been paid for via a grant and we transferred them to the local operating budget.

Mike Barbis February 19, 2018 at 5:31 pm

Yes, at a minimum, you could have written according to Bob Barron … and to be honest you should have contacted members of the BOE live and gotten our version of the facts. That’s what the Hour did. You used old quotes off of Facebook.

Claire Schoen February 19, 2018 at 6:29 pm

@Mike Makes me cringe to see accusations Nancy of spreading ‘fake news’ or offering to provide ‘your version of the facts.’ She’s reporting on what someone said (granted, attribution was missing initially) — that’s the fact. He said it.

That said, it’s also cool that we can quickly get a response within the story itself, which makes it an even better read imho…

Thanks, Nancy for posting a link to the primary source document which lists the actual proposed changes in headcount. (“Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts…”)

Man I wish we didn’t need all those security guards…

Eleanor Lx. February 19, 2018 at 7:00 pm

Thank you for this insightful article Nancy and you are a wonderful asset to the city. Simple math should dictate that school budgets can no longer be sustained given they take up a majority of city funding. I am dumbfounded yet vindicated that I am making the right decision and leaving the city after 15 years. Some of us on fixed incomes are being forced out and this is unfortunate. It is disturbing to see how some of our elected leaders are being attacked here for what appears to be doing the proper thing by containing this.

Donna February 19, 2018 at 7:07 pm

@Claire Schoen, my post was fact-checked by @Nancy, and my figures were disputed. At no point did Nancy write, “according to Bob Barron” when she “corrected” my comment. Not only was attribution missing in the article. Nancy fact checked my comment based on an assumption that what she reported was factual.

Education101 February 19, 2018 at 7:44 pm

News flash to BOE – the tax overhaul recently signed into law will have adverse impacts to the grand list. Thankfully Mayor Rilling and Finance Director Barron are acting like the grownups in the room once again. A quote from today’s Hour, “Rilling, upon receiving Barron’s recommended base budget last Monday evening, said he’s concerned about the effects of this year’s citywide property revaluation and that property owners may deduct no more than $10,000 in state and local property taxes under the new federal tax law. We’re going to have to make some very, very difficult decisions because … we don’t want to punish the people who live in Norwalk by extraordinary taxes,” Rilling said.” This is real leadership.”

I wonder if the superintendent and BOE/BOE chair understand the macro environment they’re operating in and what cost containment contingencies are in place to deal with the looming threats let alone the train wreck in Hartford which will further strain city resources in the years to come. Or is it business as usual and continue to put more squeeze on city taxpayers? We can do better than this and perennial spending increases should always be scrutinized.

carol February 19, 2018 at 10:36 pm

enough is enough with the boe more,more,every year. we the citizens can no longer afford these tax increases,especially the seniors. something must be done to the tax burden on the seniors.

Bob Welsh February 19, 2018 at 10:59 pm

Mike Barbis:

Nancy covered the BoE budget request extensively here, including many comments in support of the funding increases:


The budget story linked above was primarily about the BoE budget proposal. There was no CC reaction included. In today’s story, which is primarily about CC reaction, I nonetheless see multiple quotes from BoE members explaining the value of the funding increase. I expect this isn’t the last story on the BoE budget and I expect there will be more stories which likewise present multiple views, including yours.

Nancy wrote about NPS’s success with the state accountability report here:


Drewt February 19, 2018 at 11:16 pm

@Carol & Education..NEWS Flash to both of you: If your schools decline or are not supported you won’t have to worry about money because people WONT want to move here! We won’t get any revenue OH And Bob Barron {…} And here another news flash how much is in the reserve fund $30-$50 MILLION?!?!?! Thats your Tax Dollars At Work doing nothing! But maybe if this City would actually figure out ways to raise revenue (Beach/Dump) Sticker or many, many, other ways could help. And one more point maybe just maybe the City could have a SOP like the BOE?!!? I’m sorry to tell you all education is not cheap! But please tell me how the other City Departments like Park & Joke is getting about a 5% increase??? Have you seen the fields the kids play on?!!? Money well spent right?!?! NOT!
Edited at 3:50 p.m. Feb. 20 to remove an instance of ascribing motives, a violation of the comments policy. https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/comment-guidelines/

Ken Hughes February 20, 2018 at 6:07 am

Drewt, your anger is misguided. The Rec and Parks Department has roughly a $4 million budget. We realized a recommended increase of 3.8%, which covers contractual increases. Almost 30% of our budget is spent maintaining the school properties.
If you have any ideas how to successfully renovate a natural turf field which needs to be used 8 1/2 months out of the year, I am all ears.

Ben Wise February 20, 2018 at 1:23 pm

I might be late to this party, but I think this is a little ridiculous. @Drew Todd and Mr.Barbis both of your tones are way out of line. This forum is not the echo chamber of your “Closed Facebook” page. Go there and rant and rave and dis-credit people there. I am sure all your followers will love you even more. For an elected official to act like this, to me is a little selfish and childish. You can threaten school staff but you cant threaten taxpayers.

Lisa Brinton Thomson February 20, 2018 at 1:32 pm

@Marj- If only it were that simple:

1. Public sector wages, benefits and pensions, long been out of step with residents.
2. Poor land use decisions (overpayments, underpayments, lawsuits) resulting in poor (0.5%) grand list growth.
3. Silo city departments, including a BOE and City that have never ‘strategically’ worked together.
4. An outdated city charter that is so complicated with appointed boards and commissions that no one is in charge.
5. A ‘strong’ yet volunteer common council and ‘weak’ yet autocratic executive mayor which perpetuates narrow minded cronyism.
5. A now, bankrupt state that never gave Norwalk its fair ECS funding grants in the first place.

If only our problems rested with the BOE 🙂

Nancy Chapman February 22, 2018 at 6:00 pm

John Kydes suggested I review my recording of this meeting, saying that he did not remember saying “I vote we keep it flat.” In reviewing it, there’s a reasonable possibility that he was joking. I have therefore removed the comment from the article.

Donna Smirniotopoulos February 22, 2018 at 9:55 pm

Can we rename this site WBD for We’ve Been Duped? This is not about the BOE budget. It’s not Taxpayers v. kids. It’s not BOE v. Common Council or even Ben Wise v. Drewt, though it might be the mayorally appointed BET v. Everyone. Follow the $$$. We can afford to fund the schools and pay off Firetree to pack up their tents and move their circus to the next little honkytonk. This is about protecting entrenched political interests and ensuring that the status quo doesn’t lose ground. When will citizens, taxpayers and voters realize we are being played by amateurs?

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