Correction, 7:30 p.m.: NHS. Barbara Smyth is an At-Large Common Council member and a teacher at Norwalk High School.
There has been some confusion and misinformation about the Board of Education budget since the Common Council’s vote to set the city’s Operating Budget cap for 2018-2019. As a taxpayer, parent, teacher in the district, and newly elected Council member, I want to offer some perspective to help create a better understanding for all of us.
The night of the vote, Mayor Rilling and members of the Common Council were moved by the pleas to dig deeper into our reserves to fund the BOE budget. By a unanimous vote, we passed a 3.7 percent mill rate increase (which specifically allows for a $5.5 million increase in the BOE budget over last year), putting a burden on all of Norwalk’s taxpayers – many of whom cannot afford this increase, most of which do not have children in our schools. We heard from BOE members during this meeting that the minimum amount they needed to implement year two of the Strategic Operating Plan was $7 million. The Mayor’s budget includes a $2 million draw down from the Rainy Day Fund to ease this tax burden. He also included a $1.2 million draw down from the Rainy Day Fund to cover the necessary Special Education allocation. Additionally, I left that meeting feeling confident the Mayor would reach out to Dr. Adamowski to offer a deal in which we would draw down even more. I felt good that we would get the Board of Ed to the bottom line $7 million they need to implement their plan.
Mayor Rilling made his offer in a meeting with Dr. Adamowski. The city would draw down an additional $950,000 from the Rainy Day Fund, if the BOE would draw $550,000 from its insurance reserves that are no longer needed, since all city employees are now on the self-funded state 2.0 plan. I was not in this meeting, but I have been made aware that the deal was accepted by Dr. Adamowski and then later rejected by the Board of Education.
Now I find myself trying to calm my students, sophomores at Norwalk High School, who are worried they cannot register for next year’s classes because we don’t yet know which classes and how many teachers there will be to instruct them. These sophomores are the first in our district who are required to graduate with 25 credits; the freshmen, 26. How will we get them there? How do we insure we keep our kindergarten aides and fill the much-needed open guidance positions? Our kids need this additional $1.5 million.
As a teacher and a parent of one more child in our school system, I’d like to thank Mayor Rilling for his remarkable support of Norwalk Public Schools. Since taking office in 2013, he has led his administration to increase funding to our schools by 2.6 percent for 2014-2015, 2.7 percent for 2015-2016, 3 percent for 2016-2017, and 4.5 percent for the current year. The Mayor and previous Common Council had also allocated an historic $130.5 million from the Capitol Budget over the next five years to build new schools and repair our schools which had become run down and, in some cases, nearly dilapidated because prior administrations were either managing our city when it was not financially healthy or were more focused on breaking unions than the health of our schools and students. To imply that Mayor Rilling and the Common Council are not committed to our public school system is not at all helpful and clearly not true.
As a newly elected Common Council member who is still learning the ins and outs of the budgeting process, I want to share my personal story. When my family moved to Norwalk in 1999 and my children entered the school system, I did not follow city budgeting closely. I just knew that I was happy with my children’s experiences at West Rocks Middle School and Norwalk High. Personal reasons propelled me into teaching and I began my new career at Ponus Ridge Middle School in 2008. My classroom had no books, no supplies, often we had no paper and our copy machines did not work, so I would find myself at Staples many weekends. That first year, I spent nearly $2,000 on my classroom and the second two years, $1,000 each, just to have the basics my students needed to learn. This is when I started to pay attention to school budgeting.
In 2012, I had an opportunity to take a teaching position in Ridgefield, and it was during that year, when our city ended up with a $10 million financial shortfall and accounting error with proposed devastating cuts to our schools, that I really began to take notice. Knowing from my classroom experience what those cuts would mean for my then young child’s education, and taking advantage of my parent-only status, I organized and ran rallies on City Hall. Many of you were there, marching with me and speaking to the Common Council, BET, and BOE, just like you have done this year.
I was fortunate to come back to teach in Norwalk five years ago and I see every day the significant shift in the city’s commitment to education. Do we need more? Yes. Our schools are still struggling to right the mistakes of past administrations. But elected officials must make responsible decisions for all our citizens and keep our city financially healthy. I still have much to learn about the complicated budgeting process and AAA Bond rating, but I have learned enough to know that we are indeed making responsible and healthy decisions for our schools and our citizens.
We live in an exciting city, on the verge of greatness in many areas. I am committed to finding additional sources of revenue to better fund our schools in the future, and to bring us closer to what our neighboring towns can afford to educate their children. We have been and will continue to move forward, but for now, we need quick action before the BET’s vote on Monday night. Please join me in urging the Board of Education to accept Mayor Rilling’s offer.