Updated, 5:17 p.m.: Minor copy edit.
NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Board of Education members worked Tuesday to deal with “budget reality,” while holding out a slim hope that the city will come up with maybe the $1 million more needed to eliminate Norwalk High School study halls.
Although the Common Council set an appropriations cap that allows the BoE a $5.5 million 2018-19 operating budget increase, the Board had requested $9.9 million more. With that in mind, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski at Tuesday’s Board meeting laid out options to adjust the Board’s approved budget, to include cutting the number of secretaries, guidance counselors and kindergarten aides, as well as closing the Pathways Academy at Briggs.
The goal in Adamowski’s recommendation was to make advancements according to the Board’s strategic operating plan, perhaps making it a four-year plan instead of a three-year plan. Making more cuts necessary is a move to strengthen school security in the wake of a massacre at a high school in Parkland, Fla.
Adamowski’s recommendation includes an additional $457,099 to strengthen school security, and $496,236 in unemployment expenses. These strategies were discussed by the Board in an executive session.
The Board has sought to increase the number of credits needed to graduate high school from 20 to 26, two years ahead of the state’s requirement for that shift. Adamowski suggests, in his recommendation, that this be delayed for a year. The new high school program would debut in 2019-20 and the new graduation requirements would begin in 2020-21.
This would cut more than $1 million from the budget, but also mean that study halls would continue next year.
Norwalk can make do with less reserve teachers next year, because it looks like the enrollment increase is going to be very small, he said, explaining that the number of reserve teachers is specified in the Norwalk Federation of Teachers contract, but it’s a guideline and not a contractual obligation.
This could mean larger class sizes in the lower grades, potentially “a little over the guidelines,” he said, later telling Board member Bruce Kimmel that if every class is over the guidelines, another section will be added.
It’s recommended that K-2 classes have a maximum 22 children, while third through fifth grades can have 24, he said.
Eliminating four reserve teachers would save $462,734.
Norwalk has more teacher aides, para professionals and guidance counselors than other districts, Adamowski said.
Adamowski recommended cutting 30 of 42 kindergarten aides, a projected $814,072 savings.
Kimmel said he’d be reluctant to cut kindergarten aides but understood that the high schools are the priority.
Also recommended is the retention of 12 kindergarten intervention specialists, a cost of $321,578, bringing the kindergarten savings down to $492,494.
“We have the largest number of aides in the state,” Adamowski said, explaining that the Hartford School District, which is twice Norwalk’s size, has 300 aides while Norwalk has 200.
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) says that the average for paraprofessionals to teachers is 2 percent, but Norwalk is at 16 percent, he said.
“I think this goes back to those days where the district was treading water and shifting responsibility from teachers: fewer teachers, more paras,” Adamowski said. “That’s kind of what we are dealing with now. What we need is more teachers, we need more highly trained expert staff working with our children, and just not a custodial function.”
The national standard for guidance counselors ins 300-350 students each, but Norwalk guidance counselors oversee 180 students, Adamowski said, explaining that each high school has a guidance counselor position vacancy, and he’d like to leave the positions open.
Nationally, most middle schools with 500-600 students have one guidance counselor, but Norwalk has three, Adamowski said, adding that the counselors have been scheduling the middle schools, which you would think a principal or assistant principal would do.
Cutting the number of middle school guidance counselors would save $362,405, and cutting high school counselors would save $316,052.
Cutting middle school guidance secretaries would save $262,972, and the consolidation of high school assistant principal secretaries would save $330,200. Two Central Office positions would be cut, a savings of $194,498.
There are guidance secretaries in the middle schools but not at the high schools, and at the high schools the Aps have secretaries, Adamowski said, caliing that “rare.”
“Even in our central office we have high level people who don’t have them. We share secretaries,” he said, after stating that organizations have fewer secretaries these days.
Cutting middle school sports would save $160,645. Adamowski’s recommendation also includes a savings of $187,978 by eliminating a Norwalk High School assistant principal, a position that is no longer needed now that the Norwalk Early College Academy is at full enrollment and there are fewer students in the high school, he said.
Board members agreed that it’s a good time to eliminate Briggs.
“We know this program has to end at some point because it can’t stay in that building, which can’t be remodeled or renovated because it doesn’t meet standards,” Adamowski said. “I think this is the time we have to do that. We will have a blended learning classroom at each high school by the end of this year so those students can continue their program, we can keep them on a flexible schedule like they are now. But the great advantage of having them in the high school is that so many of these students could benefit in taking subjects in other areas, which they cannot do at Briggs. So we are not doing justice at Briggs from an educational standpoint.”
Julie Corbett agreed that the students would have more of a high school program, and Mike Lyons said that when Briggs was established, the high school pathways and academies didn’t exist.
The savings are “huge,” and the students will benefit from working with typical peers, Heidi Keyes said.
“It will also eventually expand the city’s tax base considerably, which will help us craft fundings in the future,” Kimmel said. “That piece of property has been sitting there for ages and people are just staring at it. Who has a high school there, in a place like that?”
The recommendation would also eliminate the Naramake School Resource Center, which the Board kept going after the state eliminated its financial support last year. Adamowski also took out funding to complete a snow plowing deal the Board had with the Department of Public Works, “just to make a point.”
Corbett said she appreciated that the reductions had been spread out to target different areas of the education system.
“Tight fiscal times do give us a chance to reflect on efficiency and effectiveness,” she said. “So, it does seem like some things have been continued for years and decades and it is time to make some changes. This unfortunately may be a reason to make some of those changes and improvements.”
Erik Anderson asked if there were any options for cuts that would add $1 million, so the Board could eliminate Norwalk High study halls.
“I have no found a way that does not do greater damage,” Adamowski said. “I can say to myself that a number of adults will need to work longer, harder and differently, but basically we don’t have a big impact on students. We don’t have a big impact on student achievement, and we are able to address a majority of our goals, which will enable us to continue on the trajectory of higher achievement. I don’t know how to take another $1 million out of the existing budget without doing significant damage.”
Anderson said the lack of funding would stymie improvements.
The Board’s Finance Committee will vet the recommendations, and the Board will vote on the “tentative” reductions at its March 20 Board meeting, Adamowski said.
“’Tentative approval,’ meaning we still have a chance for the Board of Estimate and Taxation to perhaps do better than we did with the Mayor and the Common Council,” Adamowski said.
Joanna Cooper, a member of the public, spoke after the presentation.
“I think we are blessed to have such a great ‘Board of Ed,’” she said. “I am very angry with this city. I don’t think we have ever had it so good and I am going to be really upset if they screw it up.”