Updated, 6:17 a.m.: Copy edits, revised headline
NORWALK, Conn. – The Norwalk Board of Education finalized its 2018-2019 budget at a “peaceful” meeting Tuesday, with some members noting tough challenges ahead and one looking back to remark on the moment’s significance.
The 2018-19 Norwalk Public Schools operating budget cuts 22 positions while adding more than 24 fulltime positions in other areas. Total spending of $190,494,217 represents an increase of $6.4 million, or 3.5 percent, compared to the 2017-18 budget of $184,084,348.
“I think that it’s worth noting a milestone that we have reached. We are with this budget completing the implementation of our strategic operating plan,” former BoE Chairman Mike Lyons said.
With this budget, Board members are lengthening the school day at six elementary schools, increasing the high school graduation requirements to 26 credits, and eliminating most study halls, Lyons said. The Board is also piloting music lessons for fourth and fifth grade students.
But the population is growing, members said, with Finance Committee Chairman Bryan Meek noting, as he did last week, that there are 11,700 in the schools now, 300 more than projected by consultants Milone and McBroom “only two years ago.”
Barbara Meyer-Mitchell asked for the per-pupil expenditure, speculating that, based on back of the envelope math, it’s $16,288 per pupil. That figure would be Norwalk’s lowest per-pupil spending since 2012-13, according to state data.
Norwalk was listed by the Connecticut School Finance Project as spending $16,989 per pupil in 2016-17.
Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski told Meyer-Mitchell that NPS won’t have the per-pupil spending statistic until Oct. 1, but agreed with her that it’s likely that the per-pupil figure going down.
“I hope that our city officials can keep that in mind as we go into next year’s budget cycle, that, obviously we look for efficiencies but at a certain point we have to be realistic about our population growth,” Meyer-Mitchell said.
“We are on an untenable trajectory,” Bruce Kimmel said, pointing out that the district is growing while getting less funding from the state. “We still have quite a bit of problems, that go way back, of underfunding the school system. So we’re going to have to figure out a way to make this work going forward.”
Meek said the Committee promised by Mayor Harry Rilling to study school finances is “really necessary.”
The new budget cuts 12 paraprofessional positions, four middle school guidance secretary positions and two Central Office positions, and eliminates the Pathways at Briggs Academy and the Naramake School Resource Center. It consolidates four high school assistant principal secretary positions and keeps two guidance counselor positions vacant and cuts the middle school sports budget in half.
A retirement incentive mitigates the paraprofessional cuts at least partially, NPS Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton said last week.
The budget also authorizes the hiring of 18 teachers “to eliminate study halls,” in the high school program expansion, and six specials teachers for the six elementary schools that are getting a longer school day. The $250,000 listed as salaries for the music pilot is “intended to add up to 3 full time music teachers to cover the addition of band instruments at the elementary level,” NPS Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams said in an email.
It includes $225,000 for an unfunded state mandate requiring a full day program for expelled students, with the funds covering employees and programmatic costs, Wilcox Williams wrote.
“The expulsion program will be paid via hourly wages and not necessarily by full time employees added to the roster,” she wrote. “There will be a certified staff member who will direct the program and teach as well, and 4-6 certified teachers depending on the size and needs of the program. We anticipate that this program may be able to offer services and collect revenue from other districts in the future.”
The budget was unanimously approved, with Julie Corbett voting by telephone and Erik Anderson absent.
“This was a very tough budget reconciliation,” Meek said Tuesday. “It took a long time but it was well thought out. It was done with the utmost respect for our staff, our students, faculty. No decision is ever easy to cut $2.4 million but from where we started with the city’s finance director recommending zero percent, which would have resulted in 100 bodies being let go, to end up where we are with about 22-net of some early retirements is quite an accomplishment and it wasn’t done haphazardly. It was done in the framework of the strategic operating plan.”
Norwalk Finance Director Bob Barron in February presented the Common Council with a recommendation for “0” increase for the BoE, saying he was leaving the school district budget entirely up to the Common Council and recommending that “you give them as much over the base as possible.”
“What we have seen over time is when we have dedicated resources to that operating plan we have picked up efficiencies that in turn minimize these hard decisions that are placed on us by the realities of what the city is willing to fund for education,” Meek said Tuesday.
Norwalk Public Schools’ operating budget has increased by $22 million over the last four years, Rilling said in April. That includes a near-$8 million increase in 2017-18 and an increase of more than $5 million in 2016-17.
State documents show Norwalk’s record of per pupil expenditures:
- 2016-17 $16,989
- 2015-16 $17,548
- 2014-15 $17,220
- 2013-14 $16,839
- 2012-13 $15,878
- 2011-12 $15,834
Lyons said the Board and NPS administration “have managed to implement the most extraordinary feat of governing I have ever seen in the face of all of these financial constraints.”
Unlike master plans adopted by the Zoning Commission, the “strategic operating plan is actually being implemented,” he said.
“We had too many study halls when I went to Norwalk High in 1973 and that’s being fixed in this budget,” Lyons said. “We are lengthening the school day for the first time in ever. We are extending the school year, we are piloting music programs… without having too many pullouts in middle schools.”
“I think it’s worth remembering, for those of us who have been through the wars, this peaceful meeting that we are having tonight to adopt this budget… is not what it was like when we were fighting to get this stuff initiated,” Lyons said, recounting a series of five to four votes to authorize the plan, to hire Adamowski and to approve the facilities plan and concluding, “As a person who was part of that group of five, it is enormously pleasing to me to get to this vote where we complete this process and surrounded by a bunch of people who are dedicated to make it happen.”