NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Common Council members held firm Tuesday, approving last weeks’ proposed budget cap even if it inspired two hours of passionate opposition in the overflowing Council Chambers.
New to the 2018-19 operating budget discussion was an additional drawdown from the “Rainy Day Fund,” $1.2 million to fund a third year of Special Education reform efforts.
While Mayor Harry Rilling characterized the $336.2 million appropriations cap as a continued investment in Norwalk Public Schools and its strategic plan, Board of Education Chairman Mike Barbis said, “They want to stick to this? They might not like the consequences.”
Board members and their supporters asked for $1.5 million more than the Council had decided upon last week, calling that a compromise offered by the Board of Education. Instead, Rilling added up the funding for the schools to declare that the 3.7 percent recommended BOE increase is quadruple the average increase for the last several years.
Add the $5.5 million allowed for by the Council to $1.1 million from the Board of Education’s insurance reserves and $383,000 in increased state Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) funding next year, and the Board has 74 percent of its requested budget increase, $8.2 million more than 2017-18, he said.
However, after a long recess, Rilling announced that after “robust and healthy discussions” with Council members, he would work with Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski “to see how we can reconcile some of the difference between where we are now and where we need to be.”
“Make no mistake about it, the Common Council members did hear you tonight and we have committed to trying to work together to try to make that happen,” Rilling said to the audience.
The vote to pass a $336,168,940, which would mean an average mill rate increase of 3.7 percent, was unanimous.
Before the meeting began, people jammed the Council Chambers hallways and sat on the steps, and others could not get in. Norwalk Fire Chief Gino Gatto ordered people out of the room, declaring it a fire hazard.
Concert Hall was being used for another event, Rilling explained to angry parents requesting a change of venue.
Barbis spoke first, declaring, “We are not a foreign entity. We are not a rival to the city. We are part of the city. This is not North Korea versus South Korea.”
“I would love to know why we are being punished by the city when we are part of the city,” he said. “Why are we being attacked for trying to build the best school system possible for Norwalk?”
Norwalk Public Schools needs a $7 million increase to continue making progress via its strategic operating plan, he said, continuing to be the first to urge further use of the Rainy Day Fund, officially called the fund balance, and implying that the city-side elected officials were not living up to their campaign promises to support education.
Adamowski said the schools are in a “distressing position” with the recommended funding, and pointed out that Stamford spends $1,600 more per student but Norwalk just scored better than Stamford in the state assessment tests.
The cavalcade of statistics continued, with NPS Budget Coordinator Kristen Karzcmit asserting that Norwalk has gotten a 26 percent return on its academic investment, while other school systems in its District Reference Group (DRG) saw a negative return, and Columbus Magnet parent Adam Blank doing a real estate analysis based on research through Zillow and knowledge of local mill rates.
“Norwalk is darn near the lowest tax burden per family of any of the towns in Fairfield County, in fact, we are about $3,500 less in taxes per single family house than the rest of the Fairfield County,” Blank said. “If you actually compare us to the towns that abut us… our taxes are about half of what they pay.”
“Nobody is leaving Norwalk to go to another town in Fairfield County to go to another town in Fairfield County where property taxes are lower, because they are not (lower),” Blank said. “I think we can certainly withstand to continue to increase the mill rate to fund the ‘Board of Ed.’”
BoE Finance Committee Chairman Bryan Meek later spoke with anger, producing a news article quoting Finance Director Bob Barron last fall as saying the city could withstand a $5.7 million hit to its Rainy Day Fund to deal with state budget cuts.
“Let me get this straight: we can give $5.7 million to Dan Malloy but we don’t give a cent to the schools? C’mon, really?” Meek said.
Barron’s insistence on protecting the city’s Triple A bond rating is an excuse and a smoke screen, he said, attacking Barron’s 13.6 figure as the percentage of the fund balance and saying it’s really 15 percent of the operating expenses.
“He is adding in $40 million of teacher retirement payments that never hit our checking account,” Meek said. “It’s a pro forma number, it’s required by GASB (Governmental Accounting Standards Board) but that money never comes in or goes out of the city. So that is a smoke screen.”
Parents made emotional appeals, returning over and over to the Next Generation Accountability ratings that were just released by Connecticut.
“With all these improvements, in turn, we see Norwalk becoming a better community to live in, to work in, to own property in and to be a part of,” Karine Sweitzer said. “How can we stop now? In our final year stretch to implement the strategic plan set forth by Dr. Adamowski, it would be beyond catastrophic to halt now. it would destroy the morale of the education community and the parents and the children who are in it.”
“We have worked so hard, our kids have been working so hard,” Tiffany Kiriakidis said. “We have managed to close our gaps. We have great momentum, our kids are ready and excited to go to school. They feel good, they feel proud, they feel exited. We have to keep this going… please take our money from the Rainy Day Fund and put it toward our children.”
“We feel abandoned by our partners on the council. The budget recommendation will arrest all the progress in our schools,” Parent Teacher Organization Council (PTOC) President Michael Byrne said.
Several children spoke, too.
“I would have had more problems without special education,” said Emma Aponte, a fifth grader. “But because of special education … I even got recommended for the academically talented program next year.”
Other Board of Education members were among the last speakers.
“These improvements achieved in such a short time have been convinced me that my dream of excellent schools on a lean budget can be a reality for Norwalk,” Barbara Meyer Mitchell said. “We have a finite period of time to take advantage of Dr. Adamowski’s experience and leadership.”
“Slowing down the implementation of these much-needed reforms is the equivalent of denying an entire cohort of students the education they need to compete in our ever more complex and competitive world,” Bruce Kimmel said.
Rilling closed the public comment session by reading what he said was a statement from the Council.
“Norwalk needs and deserves a top tier school system,” he said, pointing out that last year the BoE received a $7.9 million increase and a commitment of $150 million over five years to build two new schools and renovate two schools.
“We intend to continue that commitment this year,” Rilling said. “We must do so in the context, obviously, of uncertain state funding, a looming state deficit, a reval on the horizon and new federal tax law, which limits deductions for State and Local Taxes. These challenges are of real and great concern to our citizens and elected officials. It’s not easy to put together a budget and having to consider not only making sure that we fund our ‘Board of Ed’ but also that we don’t overtax the people who are living on a fixed income.”
“The city-side of the budget, after contractual mandates, includes a .9 percent increase, less than 1 percent funding for new initiatives including hiring additional staff to enable better Zoning compliance and replacing outdating and expired police equipment,” Rilling said. “The recommended increase on the city-side is so low because I have instructed my staff that the city-side needs to wait. We need to take our next four to five years to focus on improving our schools.”
He called a recess.
Barbis, waiting for the meeting to start, produced a Norwalk Plus magazine article from before last fall’s election, with Rilling listing his previous support for Norwalk Public Schools and promising to continue.
If the city hadn’t come up with $1.2 million from the Rainy Day Fund to fund Special Education reforms, he would have taken the city to court, he said.
“We are asking for $1.5 million,” Barbis said. “We are not asking for the full $9.9 million. They want to stick to this, they might not like the consequences. We are going to stick to our strategic operating plan. We are going to cobble the money together, to make sure that maybe not all of it, but much of it gets implemented in 18-19. So we’re going to have to cut some costs.”
“There is nothing in the strategic operating plan that talks about classroom size in elementary or middle school,” Barbis said. “It won’t be easy but we can do it. Is it really worth all that turmoil when they could pull $1.5 million out of the Rainy Day Fund? I hope it is to them.”