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Barbis blasts Barron, BET

Norwalk Board of Education Chairman Mike Barbis speaks to the Board of Estimate and Taxation on Monday in City Hall. Listening at right is Donna Smirniotopoulos.

NORWALK, Conn. – Finance Director Bob Barron is clueless, Board of Education Chairman Mike Barbis said Tuesday.

Barbis was answering questions sent by NancyOnNorwalk late Monday after the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) declined to seek more funding for the Norwalk Public Schools 2018-19 operating budget than was allowed for by the Common Council.

The BoE on Monday requested a total $7 million increase over its 2017-18 budget, although the Common Council authorized a spending cap that allowed a $5.5 million increase. Mayor Harry Rilling said he felt he had a deal with Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski, to bridge that $1.5 million gap by withdrawing $950,000 from the “Rainy Day Fund” contingent on the BoE using its $550,000 health insurance fund reserve.

Barbis and NPS Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton sat in on the BET meeting, saying nothing while the BET deliberated the operating budget.

Rilling noted during the meeting that school employees have switched to a state insurance plan so the $550,000 appears to be available for another use.

NoN asked Barbis why the BoE doesn’t want to spend the $550,000.

“We have answered this question a million times – we have very sizeable contractual increases in 19/20 (this includes employment contracts, health insurance costs, transportation contracts, equipment servicing contracts) as well as 2 key parts of our SOP {strategic operating plan} – the final implementation of the new State high school graduation requirements … as well as the costs of implementing the second set of a ‘longer’ elementary school day (we will go from the shortest number of elementary hours per year in the State to average),” Barbis wrote. “All of this costs money.”

The Board seeks to use its reserve in 2019-20 to soften the blow of those contractual increases and the expense of the strategic operating plan goals, which includes lengthening the school day at the remaining elementary schools and expanding the high school program, he said.

“The BOE has been explaining this repeatedly.  Everyone in the budget process needs to be listening to this – we cannot avoid any of these costs next year so we are planning forward (a characteristic we think is very important and reflects all of our work),” Barbis wrote.

“Next year is an election year,” he wrote, and, “What elected politician wants to be raising taxes in an election year?”

“I am going to call for discussions of our 19/20 budget year to start now – and not in December.  Next year will be very important to all of us and funds will be tight,” Barbis wrote.

At Monday’s BET meeting, Barron was asked what other school districts are receiving for increases.

“For the most part they are all around 2 percent,” Barron said.

The BET authorized a 3 percent increase for the BoE. The mill rate will go up an average 3.7 percent with the tentative operating budget.

The Ridgefield school board requested a 4.23 percent increase, the Ridgefield Press reported. The Westport School Board on Monday cut its proposed budget to make its request 3.36 percent higher than last year, according to Westport Now. Darien Schools were requesting a 2.34 percent budget increase and Wilton schools were looking for 2.24 percent, the New Canaan Advertiser reported on March 6.

The Norwalk Board of Education requested a 5 percent increase.

Barron on Monday went on to mention that, “in many other discussions the superintendent has compared us to our District Reference Group,” but recently has been comparing Norwalk’s spending per pupil to neighboring communities.

Norwalk is spending more per pupil than any other city in its DRG than Stamford, Barron said, continuing, “So we are spending a great deal of money on our students.”

Barbis on Tuesday called it “interesting” that Barron and the BET members didn’t ask him or Hamilton any questions during Monday’s meeting, he said.

Barbis spoke up during an earlier part of the meeting, when Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan was discussing the number of school children coming from new apartments.

Barbis wrote:

“Why they were asking Bob Barron about the BOE when Tom and I were there perplexed me.

“And it was clear Bob Barron is clueless when you consider his answers including:

  1. “Comparing what we spend per pupil versus our DRGs???  I would note that the State Department of Education (SDE) created the concept of DRGs {District Reference Groups} originally but is now doing away with them …. But our cost structure for labor costs, land costs, utility costs is nothing like East Hartford, Norwich and Derby … so why is comparing us to them relevant??  The teachers, administrators, etc. we are competing for live in Fairfield County … thus the relevant comparison is with our neighbors, not with towns in remote corners of the State.
  2. “His discussion of ‘look at what we gave them one year and look at their results the next year’ suggests there is an immediate consequence of funding and results … anyone involved in education knows that this is so far from the truth and a ridiculous connection to even try to make.

“Bob Barron has twice applied for a job to the Board of Ed and was rejected both times.  He has not taken the rejection well.  He clearly does not know what he is talking about when it comes to education.  Why the Mayor and the BET would listen to him on the BOE is sketchy to say the least.”

Rilling in an email responded to Barbis’ comments:

“I am very disappointed that Mr. Barbis would make any such overture. Mr. Barron is a true professional who is paid to put together a fair and responsible budget.  These kinds of backdoor tactics only cause more divisiveness.  The City side of this issue has always been willing to negotiate in order to accomplish funding levels with which we can live.”

Barron did not respond to an email.

Adamowski on Tuesday explained the selection of neighboring towns to compare spending to as the communities that border Norwalk and “one district over.”

“Those are the districts that we have to compete with for families,” he said.

NPS is preparing a chart to compare the performance of Norwalk high needs students with its neighboring communities, and, “that would put us in fourth place in the area, ahead of Stamford, Easton and I think Redding,” he said.

“As a city that has a very diverse population, I don’t think anyone is expecting us to achieve at the level of a homogeneous town that has no high needs student or very few high need students, but we are getting into a range now where we are going to compete with a number of our immediate neighbors, and not only our DRG,” Adamowski said.

The DRGs are communities that are similar in terms of socio economic structure but the cost structure of the cities in Norwalk’s DRG are different, except for Stamford, as the other cities are not in Fairfield County, he said, concluding, “I think our progress has really served to shift the focus of our competition, to be able to try to compete within Fairfield County and that’s the only way we think we can compete for families and maintain the diversity of our city.”

28 comments

Wondering... April 4, 2018 at 6:46 am

…concerns about civil discourse aside, wondering whether planning to use a health insurance fund as a “savings account” for future non-insurance needs meets the spirit of state laws about Boards of education budgets?

Mike Barbis April 4, 2018 at 7:27 am

And I am very disappointed Mayor Rilling on how you have treated me as an elected unpaid volunteer that is spending 50+ hours a week working for the City. I also don’t appreciate that you would support someone who regularly attacks OUR school district.

Piberman April 4, 2018 at 10:09 am

Does the BOE have a “blank check” on homeowners facing sustained falling property values because of excessive property taxes ? Maybe the BOE should reconsider its policy of matching salaries with the surrounding towns – among the wealthiest in the nation.

Donna Smirniotopoulos April 4, 2018 at 10:18 am

@Mike Barbis, the mayor expresses selective disappointment when it serves his political agenda. His “operatives” and appointees have often behaved poorly on social media and in pubic without apology, attacking private citizens simply for demanding transparency and accountability in city government. Take Rilling’s treatment as a compliment. It means you’re getting under his skin. Or as I like to call it “50 Shades of Red”.

Educator April 4, 2018 at 10:28 am

Barbis’ comments are a clear indication of where the adversarial relationship originates. Play nice kids!

Donna Smirniotopoulos April 4, 2018 at 11:03 am

@Educator, I see your point. Imagine if taxpayers were the kids and Rilling was the parent who withheld the allowance they’d earned for doing chores in a jar and then used that money to settle old gambling debts. Maybe then you’d have a sense of how frustrated the people feel with the folks who have control over their money at City Hall, including Barron and the BET.

Piberman April 4, 2018 at 11:52 am

One of the hallmarks of Mike Lyons Chairmanship of the BOE were that he worked well well with Mayor Riling on public and private levels and vice-versa. That professional relationship ought be restored rather than airing in public. Even in the best of times there are budget constraints on the BOE given that 90% of our City’s Grand List reflects homeowner property. And homeowners in Norwalk, as in many other CT communities, are facing tough times with sustained declines in property values in a State where employment levels haven’t changed since 2000. Even in Wilton, a far wealthier town than Norwalk, their BOE has received a very modest annual increase.

To the casual observer its unclear why the BOE and Supt. keep salaries competitive with our far wealthier towns despite the very large disparities in student achievement. That certainly wasn’t true in the past. And such increased generosity hasn’t been identified with very major improvements in student outcomes. Norwalk remains a City where most students won’t secure 4 year college degrees nor pass advanced placements in math and science. No amount of additional monies will change those results for well known reasons.

At day’s end the BOE is responsible to the citizens and homeowners of Norwalk. Not the public teacher and administrator Unions who mostly live outside the City for well known reasons. Mayor Rilling represents our City especially its homeowers who finance the City budget. Having made its case as always for yet more funding its appropriate that the BOE Chair accept the Mayor’s determination of what is appropriate. And not challenge that determination in public. That serves no ones interest.

DrewT April 4, 2018 at 12:14 pm

@educator It’s more like Barron {…} and refuses to give them a dime more. He has shown this on many occasions. I totally understand where Mike Barbis and the rest of the BOE’s frustration with him, the mayor and the CC.I will also add parents as well. EVERY YEAR we are standing there begging {…}. I’m sure he is happy now and he got his way. But this celebration may last only so long when the fighting really begins when the BOE has to now enact CUTS! I only wish the first cut was Barron!
Edited to remove an insult, a violation of the comments policy.

Jeff April 4, 2018 at 1:29 pm

Rob Barron is clueless. – Mike Barbis

65 percent of students are Latino and … you can survey them, they all live in multi-family housing. – also Mike Barbis

Be better than that Mike.

Another Opinion April 4, 2018 at 2:37 pm

It would be helpful to understand what a pro-forma forecast of school budgets and all other city funding expenditures looks like on a multiyear basis vs reasonable projections in grand list growth/decline/stagnation assumptions. Will Norwalk face a higher tax and declining property value squeeze as so many fear or will all the new development bring in the needed revenues? It appears the finance director and mayor are taking a conservative view while the BOE believes otherwise. I think the divide (net net) is helpful for constructive debate, apart from the name calling.

Bryan Meek April 4, 2018 at 10:10 pm

It’s all about Harry 2019 {…} How is he going to defend a record of firing nearly 100 union based employees based on his decisions?
Phrase removed as it violated the comments policy prohibition against harassing the writer.

Rick April 5, 2018 at 12:10 am

Want to thank Nancy and Eric and Harold for great coverage and the board who are also taxpayers , Mike and Bryan for all the numbers facts and common sense you bring to the table and all the others who leave great facts showing the city what shape we are in and who got us there.

A special shout out to Bob Duff driving The state is about to end the fiscal year with a $197.7-million deficit.

Im still suggesting we get a food truck park it in front of city hall and all meet at city hall and simply take over a meeting where most of the players are doing the city wrong. Lets give the fire marshal a reason to shut it down peacefully. Lets show some of these players how it feels to leave our lives go to city hall and leave where nothing gets done no one gets to be heard.

The city spends most of the time dividing us up, plan meetings on same nights in all corners of the city and plots what works for them thinking they can wear us all down.

Im finding this is not political anymore the city is full boards who are making decisions on taxpayers investments while protecting their own.

This Stantec and mall thing has to some sort of conflict of interest, One lawyer is used to grease the fist another to run interference in their own party and Developers who simply plan projects based on the flavor of the month and architects who use pencils with lead who stress green construction. Departments with heads and employees that live out of town and now out of towners taking over city property running it as investments disguised as housing.

I hear now some old complexes in the city is now under new management and not the housing authority how can that be?

Cant we at least take back city hall while its still ours?

Back to the coffee truck Id enjoy buying coffee for most of those who have given up their lives to fight what was suppose to be our city hall.

Donna Smirniotopoulos April 5, 2018 at 12:25 am

Rilling has to protect the general fund now to hedge against future drawdowns in 2019 needed to protect union contracts. Blink once @Meek if this is what you meant.

Educator April 5, 2018 at 8:49 am

@Donna, we are not talking about an allowance but 60%+ of the city’s revenue. @DrewT, why do you think the BOE is entitled to the funds they requested without any form of scrutiny from the city? There is an old saying: “don’t bite the hand that feeds you”.

DeepThoughts April 5, 2018 at 9:56 am

The behavior of these elected officials is awful. They attack and berate people who disagree with them. Do these officials have any way of being held accountable during their term, ethics violation perhaps? Do these elected officials also allow like minded individuals blast away here and on Facebook if anyone offers a differing opinion.
I truly believe that if the BOE was willing to turn down their tone they would put themselves in a better position. I am a tax payer and teacher. I fear for my job at times because of the behavior and comments of some BOE members. A one way conversation serves No-one!

DeepThoughts April 5, 2018 at 10:50 am

@DrewTodd,

Please stop with your constant negativity toward all things that are not Drew Todd. Yelling screaming is rude and does not make your point any more valid. This behavior should not be tolerated. This is what our students and children model themselves after. I suggest you be more present and understand your tone and negativity push away more people than it gathers.

Donna Smirniotopoulos April 5, 2018 at 1:22 pm

@Educator, you may have missed my point. I was referring to the mayor holding onto the people’s money in the General Fund, whose balance stands at well over 50 million dollars—much higher than Stamford’s General Fund balance. And Stamford is a much bigger city with a bigger annual budget. So if we’re looking at the GF as a function of annual budget, City Hall is hoarding taxpayer money. The only reason I can figure for this is the need to hedge against continued cuts from Hartford that might impact Union contract payouts in an election year. Hard to be Harry the Hero when the General Fund has been used to pay for education and sidewalks.

Also I don’t believe the BOE budget is 60% of the city’s revenue. More like 51%. And the word “revenue” is perhaps not the right word. Revenue implies the city earns this money. These are tax dollars we are compelled to surrender as property owners. It’s Grand List revenue. I just don’t have the impression that the person who holds the highest paid elected office at city hall has worked to “earn” more money for the Grand List.

Another Opinion April 5, 2018 at 2:23 pm

In agreement that the city’s reserve accounting deserves another look/outside opinion. The state is broke and Norwalk’s healthy reserves could be used against it in reallocating taxpayer funds from Hartford in the years to come. What is shortchanged now could likely turn worse. As such, some financial engineering may be warranted in optimizing this account to ensure the city receives its fair share from futire state income tax receipts.

Piberman April 5, 2018 at 5:51 pm

This is the first time I can recall in 4 decades that Norwalk’s Mayor is being criticized severely for maintaining a healthy reserve fund. Given the challenges facing the State that ought be commended.
Not criticized. Nor used by the BOE as another source of funds for its underperforming school system that pays top salaries to its administrators always looking for more funding. But never being held accountable. Here’s a good example where Mayor Rilling’s team gets it right. And it ought be recognized by those concerned about the City’s fiscal affairs.

Drewt April 5, 2018 at 6:17 pm

@deepthoughts please explain to me where I’m being negative that our Mayor, BET and the Common Council are screwing our children’s educational needs?! You don’t like my screaming or yelling to freaking bad! When it comes to what is right I will scream and yell anywhere I need to. We tried it the Snowflake way and it doesn’t work! You don’t like it too bad don’t listen

@educator PLEASE would you for once get your researcher and information down before posting. We have posted and discussed numerous numerous time regarding the BOE “Scrutiny” But while we are at does the City Scrutnize every department. The BOE isn’t hiding anything from anyone it is all posted on their website. Further you don’t think Barron & The Mayor ever look at the BOR’s books? And yes the children deserve even more then we are giving them along with the teachers to do their jobs!

Donna Smirniotopoulos April 5, 2018 at 7:10 pm

@Piberman, my criticism is directed at the needless hoarding of the people’s money. This is not a healthy reserve. This is a gluttonous excess reserve. Stamford maintains its AAA bond rating on far less. And Stamford’s budget is much higher. Sorry, but no. This isn’t about the BOE budget for me. This is about Baron and the BET and the mayor hoarding cash under the bond rating argument when in fact there’s probably some other reason they’re not talking about—like next year’s budget and union contracts.

Loathing for Trump guaranteed line A voting last November. November 2019 will not be a sure bet. It took $150,000 to eke out the last win. Don’t be so naive as to believe the excess reserves are there out of fiscal prudence.

cc-rider April 5, 2018 at 10:21 pm

Piberman is like a robot spouting out the same comment over and over and over again. We got your point the first thousand times….try and change you standard answer. It is nauseating to read the same reply on every single article no matter the subject.

Susan April 6, 2018 at 9:33 am

@ Mr. Todd, I find your comments rude and disgusting. If that is the example you wish to set for your children and others than so be it. However note it truly is not acceptable and doubt you would find many people who deem that kind of responce and language appropriate.

Matt Harbilas April 6, 2018 at 10:10 am

@DrewT, the way you behave on this message board is by far the most childish and embarrassing thing I have seen from an “adult”. My 4th grade students have more self control and behave much more civilized than any way you do while you ramble around (often incoherently)on this message board. I think by the several negative responses you received on this thread should show you exactly what people think of you. Childish and negative. That is a great example you are showing the youth that you may be around. I think I am not alone when I say this final thought: If you don’t like the education system in Norwalk, pack your bags and go somewhere else. There a lot of people who are fighting for good education reform and practices in Norwalk. People who are highly educated in this field. Go stick to complaining about something else. While you are at it, go buy the newest edition of “Hooked on Phonics” because not only do you behave more immaturely than my 4th grade students but you also articulate yourself in an incoherent, babbling manner in which that type of “grammar” (if that’s what you want to call your run on sentences)is fixed by the time they finish 3rd grade. So once again, if you don’t like it in Norwalk then back your bags and go somewhere else. {…}
Edited to remove an insult, a violation of the comments policy. https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/comment-guidelines/

Donna Smirniotopoulos April 7, 2018 at 10:23 am

@Matt Habilas, I have found Drew to be one of the most vocal supporters of the Norwalk Public Schools and the BOE budget.

Point of Information: “Hooked on Phonics” is designed to facilitate early reading, not grammar and usage. I count no fewer than eight errors in your own post, either related to grammar or usage.

With regard to full funding of the BOE budget, consider that the City side of the budget is heavy with payroll obligations. The City would do well to trim judiciously from their end in order to facilitate the BOE’s Strategic Operating Plan.

Kathleen April 7, 2018 at 2:56 pm

This discourse is detrimental to anyone gaining insight and information. Demeaning comments, snide remarks and outright rudeness is at best rude, and at worse bullying. You know who you are. Enough is enough.

Bryan Meek April 7, 2018 at 4:38 pm

@P.Berman. Recall a few years ago, Apple was admonished by the investment community for hoarding cash and not using it for a better purpose ROI vehicle. The same applies here. We are overfunded and could be using the money to improve the city’s well being. The city is limited by law in the types of investments it can put this money into, so we are barely above money market returns, which is effectively losing money in the face of inflation. The money should be invested into worthy projects or returned to taxpayers. What would FEI say?

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