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Opinion: Our students deserve a quality education now, not later

We, the members of the Norwalk Board of Education’s Finance Committee (two Democrats, two Republicans), believe city officials had long been in denial when it comes to education. They failed to appreciate the cumulative negative consequences of the state Education Cost Sharing (ECS) formula. They downplayed the devastating Cambridge Report of 2008; they ignored a series of CREC reports on Special Education. For years, the Board did not even have sufficient funds to keep up with enrollment growth.

Two years ago, the BOE adopted a three-year strategic operating plan that addresses long ignored problems. Last year, the city funded year one of the plan. We are already seeing positive results, as Norwalk can now claim to be the number one urban district in the state; not to mention number one in our state reference group. Plus, the achievement gap was narrowed by one-third in a single year.

Unfortunately, at this point in the budget cycle, it appears the city may not adequately fund the BOE’s 2018-19 request, which would require a 5.4 percent increase in spending. Several concerns have been raised that deserve comment:

The Minimum Budget Requirement: State law prevents Norwalk from reducing the education budget from what it was the previous year. This mathematical obstacle can be circumvented by an agreement between the Board and the city on a multi-year spending plan. For instance, a 15 percent increase in school funding over five years does not mandate five years of 3 percent increases; all that is required is a total cumulative increase to 15 percent. If 5 percent is spent the first year, the next four years could not exceed 10 percent.

Use of the Fund Balance: A number of residents have urged the use of the Rainy Day Fund to help fund the BOE request. Using the Rainy Day Fund is an attractive option because it allows the city to fund programs without having a direct impact on taxpayers. However, some would call it fiscal heresy to use the Rainy Day Fund for recurring operating costs. In principle, we agree; but sometimes it’s necessary and even OK to bend.

The rating agencies use multiple factors to evaluate both the level and actual usage of a fund balance. A well-defined series of drawdowns that fit into a medium-term fiscal plan is deemed an appropriate use, as long as the level of reserve funds remains within accepted parameters.

Last year, according to the city’s finance department, the Rainy Day Fund stood at 12.2 percent of revenues after a projected $2 million drawdown; an additional $1 million drawdown would have left it at 11.9 percent of revenues. The city would still have been close to its goal of being at the median of other AAA rated towns in the state, which at the time was 12.2 percent.

The city’s budget recommendation for 2018-19, after allowing for a $2 million drawdown, would leave the fund balance at 12.7% percent of revenues, which is well within the parameters of the policy goal. It would not be irresponsible to draw it down further as a way to fund the Board’s budget request and as a way to minimize the property tax burden, especially if the drawdown was part of a multi-year plan to transform our schools.

Preserving Our AAA Credit Rating: The importance of Norwalk’s AAA credit rating should not be underestimated. It enables the city to do capital projects at the lowest interest rates available, thereby minimizing the burden on taxpayers. However, Norwalk officials seem to believe the fund balance level is the lynchpin of the AAA rating. We respectfully disagree.

The rating agencies examine five categories when assessing a city’s credit-worthiness: its economy, debt structure, overall financial condition, demographic factors, and management practices. Also deemed important are median income, economic diversity and population growth. Norwalk has scored well in all these areas. A half percentage point difference in the fund balance ratio will not have an adverse impact on the rating.

The current budget cycle ends in May, when the Board of Estimate and Taxation crafts the final budget. That leaves two months for officials to figure out the best way to keep the reforms moving forward. Students have suffered long enough; they deserve a high-quality education now, not later.

24 comments

Eleanor Lx. March 6, 2018 at 2:55 pm

If by law there is a minimum budget requirement, would tapping reserves form the rainy day fund require multi year commitments and further draw down reserves in the years ahead should city revenues stagnate or decline? I think this could be mighty risky. How about teacher volunteer furloughs to lessen the burden to taxpayers?

Niz March 6, 2018 at 2:56 pm

Better management of city assets / money might help improve the education fund and proper education for all nps students.

Nora K King March 6, 2018 at 5:29 pm

Ron – wow you sound so bitter. Do you really thing a steller educational system isn’t in the best interest of Norwalk or for children. The city of Norwalk has been kicking the can to the curb at the expense of education for years. Why do you think education isn’t a good investment of city funds?

Rayj March 6, 2018 at 6:17 pm

The letter is all over the place. First it convinces us that in one scant spending cycle:
>>>>Norwalk can now claim to be the number one urban district in the state;<<<<<<< (BTW what is the criteria for that , and who else would agree ?), then secondly, the importance of keeping the AAA rating, no argument against that. There’s hint of a 5 year formula. How about a formula for fixing city mismanagement ?

Donna Smirniotopoulos March 6, 2018 at 6:39 pm

@Rayj, the authors don’t claim NPS achieved the position of top urban school district in one spending cycle. They do say that the schools have been underfunded for years, and that this is year 2 of a Strategic Operating Plan that the BOE and the city agreed to last year. There are all kinds of metrics used to calculate school and district performance. The state of CT approved a new accountability system in 2016 that takes into account indicators such as college preparedness, absentiesm and truancy, physical fitness and access to the arts, plus the usual graduation rates.

If you’re interested in fixing city mismanagement, that’s a conversation for others, and not the BOE. The mayor and the common council have made plain over and over again that the BOE is more adversary than partner. I have more confidence in the BOE’s budget because they have a plan. Can we say the same for the mayor’s side of the budget?

Norwalk native March 6, 2018 at 8:13 pm

Many people that can afford to leave Norwalk when their children are of school age do so; ask any local Realtor or your neighbors who just left.
That says much more about the perception of Norwalk schools than any dubious “urban” school designation.

How does all this spending benefit taxpayers? The Educational Industrial Complex who authored this article will tell you that it increases property values in the long run. They will tell you this despite the fact that Norwalk’s property values are persistently stagnant and our Grand list is actually declining. In the end, these dollars will be spent to appease special interests. TAXES will continue to increase indefinetly and without restraint (it’s for the children after all) and longtime residents will continue to leave. In turn, Norwalk will continue to have the best school district of only resort.

The real beneficiaries are the politicians and the unions. To these enemies of the people, I say:

STOP stealing my money!

Nonpartisan March 6, 2018 at 9:42 pm

Our student deserve professional city management

Our students deserve to attend schools that are not made overcrowded by the cities lack of enforcement of zoning that allows illegal apartments to be prolific

Our students deserve to have a fair share of money spent on them- and not on the illegal immigrants that have flooded our city with our sanctuary city policies.

Al Bore March 6, 2018 at 9:48 pm

“as Norwalk can now claim to be the number one urban district in the state; not to mention number one in our state reference group” Where is the proof to back this statement up I would love to see it.

TT March 6, 2018 at 10:56 pm

Teacher furloughs??!! Who is going to teach? Have the teachers stay home to save money and have subs come in and give students busy work? Penny wise and pound foolish.

Ron Morris March 6, 2018 at 11:50 pm

Nora K King
You sounds like one the Rilling mouth pieces. If you have no issue with taxes going up year after year then you should make a large donation to the city. It’s pretty clear that the out of control spending has not helped the BOE one bit. Of course we could do away with a few of Rilling’s office staff and transfer that money to the BOE.

Mitch Adis March 7, 2018 at 7:09 am

I know Ron’s story. His kids are out of the school system. He thinks his obligation is over and people with kids should pay up. He neglects to account for the Value of services he has consumed vs what he has contributed to date. If he did, he would realize he has a way to go toward repaying his debt.

There is a saying – If you think education is expensive, wait until you see what ignorance costs. Read the comments from some on NoN and you will get the point.

Jane March 7, 2018 at 8:19 am

Once again they go after the people that make the least amount of money, but have a great impact. The kindergarten paras. Has the superintendent or any of the BOE members spent any time at all in a K class? I can assure you, the role of the para is anything but “custodial”. How unfortunate for the children and parents of Norwalk. How curious that there are NO Central office positions on the chopping block. Take a look at the bloated HR department for example, where the outgoing “chief talent officer” makes more than some principals. I remember when that department had 3 people. For shame Norwalk.

Drewt March 7, 2018 at 8:31 am

So I am curious and maybe some of you people could help me out. The majority on this BLOG claim that the BOE continues to waste more taxpayers money. However you all CONSTANLY FAIL to bring up anything where the waste is! Since Dr A has been here every dime the BOE Saved or has a surplus has gone right back into the schools! We have new programs, our children are succeeding we are building new schools and so many other Wonderful things going on! But success in Norwalk I guess is a $5 Million Dollar WASTE of POKO and now the Wall Street Theater is Bankrupt! But not to fret we are building a wasteful mall that will probably be obsolete in 5 years. So tell me again where the BOE is wasting my precious taxpayer money?!

Piberman March 7, 2018 at 9:38 am

What happened to the old fashioned notion that the BOE is responsible to City taxpayers. Not matching school salaries with surrounding wealthy towns. Once upon a time our BOE understood the connection between spending and housing values which are now sharply declining. Isn’t there a difference between the BOE and its public Unions always wanting more ?

carol March 7, 2018 at 10:03 am

please start thinking about the rest of the city and the seniors,we can not go on with always give me,give me, for the boe.
cut city hall staff, do we really need all those people in the mayors office?

Kevin Kane March 7, 2018 at 12:19 pm

This explains it all: “State law prevents Norwalk from reducing the education budget from what it was the previous year”. What am I missing? It is essentially illegal to cut a budget? I can see some arguments and need to increase spending here and there but fundamentally not being able to reduce a budget even if it is required to do a 3 or 5 year catch up is insanity. What private company would EVER consider making it illegal to cut a budget vs. prior year? Is that how these politicians run their own finances? Their budgets for vacations, cars, music lessons, sports, groceries can never be cut? That’s insane. Bob Duff, when are going to unwind the law that says education budgets are baked and immune from the knife?

Nonpartisan March 7, 2018 at 12:29 pm

@kevin
Welcome to the people’s republic of ct.

@Drew- the largest amount of the water wasted money is in spending on ESL and SPED for illegal immigrants and their children.

@ Norwalk Native- agree- comparisons against peer groups is irrelevant for a person buying a home. It’s all about absolute test scores- which in Norwalk are deflated by the lower test scores of our illegal immigrant population.

Nancy Chapman March 7, 2018 at 12:38 pm

Dr. Adamowski’s recommendation includes cutting two Central Office positions, a savings of $194,498. He didn’t know what positions would be cut but mentioned merging the talent officer role with another role.

Educator31years March 7, 2018 at 4:02 pm

The most disgusting comment from last night’s BOE meeting was Adamowski referring to kindergarten aides positions as “custodial.”
Jane, you are 100% correct. It’s always “cut out the little people who have the greatest impact on the kids.”
Get rid of the elementary school AP’s instead! They have little direct impact on the students.

Ron Morris March 7, 2018 at 6:49 pm

Mitch Adis
You have no idea what my story is or who I am for that matter. Also you observations are 100 percent wrong.
However we need to cut much more from the BOE as they are a complete and total failure.

DrewT March 7, 2018 at 7:33 pm

For those of you that continue to criticize the BOE and Central Office for being too top heavy or the BOE Is a waste and should be cut haven’t paying the LEAST BIT ATTENTION!! {…} Its amazing that I’m living here over 10 years and to this day I’m still hearing the same old BS about the schools and BOE is this and that. ITs time you all WAKE UP and find out what is really happening in the schools and the VERY RECENT Successes we have had. You all want everything for free and the best of everything. Then you moan and groan because taxes will have to go up. Well, heres an idea: Maybe the City should get an operating plan, stop this moronic not needed mall and Thousands of apartments. And lets not forget $5 Million wasting away on Wall Street..The schools are and have been moving in the right direction. And this is why people WANT to come here not leave. But once the schools go down then everything else will follow. We need to continue funding our schools PERIOD!
Edited to remove an insult, a violation of the comments policy. https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/comment-guidelines/

John Miller March 7, 2018 at 11:32 pm

@DrewT

You are either employed by the Norwalk Public school system or by the Teacher’s Union. You clearly know nothing about Economics. No one that can afford a better solution (Private school or wealthier neighboring town) comes to Norwalk or stays in Norwalk for the schools. Those that do come for the schools do so because the current environment in Norwalk is marginally better than the one in Bridgeport or in Honduras. Even that comparative advantage will continue to erode as longtime residents leave.

The best thing the City can do now to improve the schools is to start enforcing zoning laws and residency restrictions. Illegal apartments don’t help pay the collective education bill, though they certainly add to the collective expense.

Drewt March 9, 2018 at 9:28 am

@johnmiller I am actually not employed by either and I’m sure I’m not loved by the Union. However what I am is a tax payer who has seen first hand a HUGE Turn Around and success in our schools! And though the City doesn’t have a plan except wasting $500 Million and a Mall why should the children and education be made to suffer? Here’s an idea maybe the City actually do something to help raise revenue?! I mean besides the $19 Million it made From fees and permits last year. How about maybe a Beach & Dump Pass and those funds go directly to the schools? Or maybe and this is a good one USE THE RESEVE FUND !! That is our money and we have more then a few shekels in there to the tune of $40 Million… The BOE has a plan and is in full execution of it! Why should the future of our City Children’s Education be made to suffer because the City has no leadership or direction?!

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