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Norwalk Board of Education should accept Rilling’s offer

Common Council member Barbara Smyth (D-At Large).

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.

11 comments

Bryan Meek April 1, 2018 at 7:34 am

While the new council struggles with faction of percentages, the City of Norwalk has lost billions of dollars in real estate value. The message resonating amongst realtors and perspective home buyers is that Norwalk is interested in packing every last square inch of the city with cheap apartments, while skimping on the school system.

Bruce Kimmel April 1, 2018 at 11:20 am

Excellent column. Well written and clear. Thank you.

There were a few reasons why members of the BOE did not accept the offer of an additional $950,000 last week. Probably the most important was that it was still March, the BET still had a couple more weeks before adopting a tentative budget, and we wanted to continue discussions to see if there was a possibility of finding more funds in the proposed budget. In the past, the BET had found imaginative ways to increase spending on education.

In addition, the week before we had heard that the BET was considering using the $1.4 million unallocated contingency — which is really not necessary when the undesignated fund balance stood, as of June 30, at $51.1 million — to help fund the BOE. Using half of that for the BOE and half for the city would have helped the Board, while possibly lowering the projected 3.7% tax increase.

Regarding the BOE’s insurance reserve, the consultants have advised that we maintain a small reserve in order to avoid what’s referred to as a “hard landing.” This, of course, is a tricky situation and might be discussed going forward.

One final point: The BOE intends to continue funding, to the extent possible, the strategic operating plan. Without the additional funds, we will be forced to cut positions and programs in other areas.

carol April 1, 2018 at 4:13 pm

enough,enough,SAVE THE SENIORS. they are also taxpayers,the boe always wants more and more when is enough enough????

Donna Smirniotopoulos April 1, 2018 at 5:59 pm

Thank you, Barbara Smyth, for sharing this thoughtful perspective. The last Common Council meeting I attended, at which the vote was taken not to fund the BOE’s SOP, did not include any discussion. Members of the audience, who stayed through a long break and presumably a caucus, would have liked to have heard the Council’s reasoning. Hearing that there’s a big pile of money here and a couple smaller piles both here and there is not encouraging to taxpayers. These are not insoluble problems. And the NPS have made great strides. But without a plan focused on growing the economy, the schools are doomed. I don’t believe Norwalk operates under such a plan. I’d like the CC to be more directly accountable to thieir constituents by opening up their dialogue to the public. Very frustrating that big budget decisions are often made behind closed doors.

Beaches April 2, 2018 at 10:13 am

I am a Senior resident living in Norwalk. I am on a fixed income and I cannot afford another tax increase. Trim the saleries at CO! I can’t wait to move out of Norwalk! I have lived here for over 30 years and I am sick of the money that goes to the BOE and and the City of Norwalk for ridiculous projects! Wake Up!!

Beaches April 2, 2018 at 10:33 am

Why is the BOE still paying retirees to work in the Finance and HR Departments? They are fully staffed and they still need retirees to help get the work done. Are the Board Members not aware of this or are they just not doing anything about this wasted money? This has been going on for years.

Lisa Brinton Thomson April 2, 2018 at 11:07 am

Barbara, I applaud your oped and defense of the mayor – but Norwalk seems to be out of step with its Rainy Day fund. Normally, I do not advocate for pulling operating expenses from that sort of fund, but what seems to genuinely be in question, is the amount of money needed. Norwalk is out of step with other cities. City Hall hoards taxpayers dollars. I do not subscribe to the mayor’s excuse, of Norwalk is being more responsible than other cities. Status quo in Norwalk is to manipulate budgets to follow election year cycles. This mayor didn’t invent this process. It’s business as usual in Norwalk and why were are ripe for cherry picking by developers and Hartford.

However, next year, no mount of manipulation is going to save Norwalk because of 1) SALT changes in taxes 2) the reevaluation 3) lack of any other income sources other than property taxes and 4) continued salary increases to city employees which are out of step with the ability to pay for most residents. Per the Census Bureau – median salary in Norwalk = $45K for an individual and $80K for a family. Over 20% of our employees make over $100K and more than 30% make over $45K. This is not a judgement call – this is a mathematical exercise.

Until the mayor and common council get a plan – this is business as usual. We are well on our way to becoming Bridgeport. The lack of any strategic vision or any degree of process management is why we find ourselves where we are.

Piberman April 2, 2018 at 11:56 am

Bryan Meek:

Billions in lost real estate value certainly reflect our punitive taxation levels on homeowners providing 90% of the City’s Grand List. But its hard to understand the argument for “skimpy school funding” when the Supt. publicly claims to match salaries with our wealthy surrounding times with per capita incomes 4 to 5 times Norwalk’s. Especially for an underperforming school system where most grads never secure college degrees and few students take advanced math and science placements required to secure college acceptance.

No amount of additional monies will give Norwealk a high performing public school system given its demographics and income levels. But additional funding will certainly further depress homeowners values and encourage a further exodus of long time homeowners. There’s a reason newcomers are avoiding buying homes in Norwealk. And its not because of underfunding schools. Just ask the real estate agents.
Punitive tax levels and further prospects of major property value declines are powerful disincentives.

Donna Smirniotopoulos April 2, 2018 at 2:59 pm

@Peter Berman, Norwalk finds itself in this budget impasse year in and year out because Norwalk fails to plan for its future and Norwalk has not attended to structural government problems. The last Common Council was not willing to re-empanel a Charter Revision Commission to address longstanding planning and zoning problems.. Meanwhile, the existing Planning and Zoning Commissions continue to approve projects seemingly based on a vision of Norwalk as bedroom community. In spite of years of approvals by these commissioners, all appointed by Rilling and approved by the Common Council, the Grand List has not seen commensurate growth. That’s why our taxes keep going up. And that’s why some of us—increasingly more of us—find ourselves either fighting to fix Norwalk or putting our houses on the market. So I’m going to circle back to @Barbara Smyth, who as a newcomer to the Common Council, might be imposed upon to give her opinion on the role she and her fellows play in growing the grand list. I wrote to the entire council last week with regard to Mayor Rilling’s process of appointing land use commissioners. I received no response. And the item did not come up for discussion. Since land use decisions have not resulted in the desired grand list growth, and since the BOE will necessarily continue to come to the Common Council (elected) and the BET (all appointed by the mayor) next year for budget approval, what can individual members of the Common Council do to insure the Mayor’s process for filling Planning Commission, Zoning Commission, BET, RDA, Parking Authority and other vacancies be scrupulously open, honest and transparent and not merely political? After all, our schools, our taxpayers and our local economy are all at stake.

Steve April 2, 2018 at 4:48 pm

Barbara I applaud you. In the words of John Kinsella, “if you build it they will come”. Good school districts influence property values more than anything else. I don’t know where Bryan Meeks gets the idea the new apartments are cheap- my understanding is they are quite expensive. In a takeoff from Woody Allen, Cities are like sharks, if they stop moving they die”. I agree that the City’s Willy-nilly building has some real negatives but it’s clear that developers have research to show that there is a real and sustainable demand for housing. The new housing is overwhelming fair market value and the prices start high. As for pliberman; if you want a school district with tons of new teachers with few experienced ones, pay the teachers here cominserate with the per capital incomes in Norwalk as opposed to trying to compete with neighboring districts. Norwalk will become the minor league proving grounds for teachers. If you want talented and experienced teachers you can’t pay them $40k here while next door they pay 60k or better for starting teachers (Westchester pays even better!!!).; that’s basic Econ 101. Norwalk will never have the test scores of Darien or New Canaan, we proudly advertise our diversity. Many parents would love to stay in Norwalk (where houses are cheaper and students can experience living and working with students of all different colors, ethnicities and income levels) so long as they don’t feel they’re sacrificing opportunities for their children. Loads of my neighbors are empty-nesters who raised their kids in Wilton, Westport, New Canaan and Greenwich. Build it and they will come (and stay). We have some extraordinary teachers and administrators in Norwalk who come in hours early and stay hours late. Don’t be penny wise and dollar foolish

Claire schoen April 2, 2018 at 10:23 pm

Thank you Barbara, nice column. This is such a familiar argument, and it’s always a good one to have – to an extent. We must find education, we must also spend tax dollars wisely. What I don’t understand this time around is the argument that taxes will go up. Why, if the increase is coming from a rainy day fund? That fund IS our tax dollars, our savings. What better place to invest it than in education?

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