Updated, 6:00 a.m.: Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. — Next year’s education budget talks haven’t yet begun and already they’ve led to discord between a school board member and Mayor Harry Rilling.
On Wednesday, Board of Education Member Bryan Meek sent an e-mail to the press claiming Rilling’s work on a task force to study education funding has “obviously stalled.” Rilling responded by calling Meek “uninformed.”
BoE members at their annual retreat in July said they expect to request a $12.7 million budget increase next year, which would represent an increase of 6.7 percent over current levels. Due to the size of the increase, it’s important to begin 2019-20 budget talks early, they said.
“Ordinarily we do not discuss the budget this early in the school year, but given the forecasted increase, this year we are getting a jump on things,” Meek wrote in his Wednesday email. “And given that the Mayor’s commitment to creating a task force has obviously stalled, we can’t keep putting off the needs of the city’s schools only to have his finance person recommend a zero percent increase like he did last year.”
“Again Mr Meek shows how uninformed he is,” Rilling replied in a Wednesday e-mail.
“We have e-mailed and met with (Board of Ed Chairman) Mike Barbis and are in the process of selecting the persons who will be on the committee. Mr. Barbis has been out of the country and then out of the state during several weeks in the past. He is currently away. Mr. Meek could have simply conferred with Mr. Barbis and he would have been updated.
“We were a bit surprised however, that the Board announced their request of $12.7 million for the upcoming year. We felt it was premature given the committee process upon which we agreed.”
“My original email to the Mayor about this was on April 10th and then again on June 14th and we have met in person to discuss,” Barbis said early Thursday in an email. “In our last meeting, I deferred to the Mayor due to my travel schedule on the timing of the Committee.”
Thursday’s BoE Finance Committee meeting will review the 2019-20 Norwalk Public Schools budget projection, just as 2018-19 gets underway.
Barbis in July said that the current budget formation structure requires the Board to work through the holiday season to form a budget, then vote in early January, initiating a “whole protracted battle” that “doesn’t help” the Board of Education.
After contentious discussions regarding the 2018-2019 education budget, the City and BoE agreed in April to create an Ad-Hoc Committee on School Funding, a task force which would study “the historic underfunding of Norwalk schools and long-term education financing in Norwalk,” a statement said at the time. “The Committee will work together ahead of next year’s budget season to better align goals, expectations and communication regarding school financing in Norwalk education funding.”
Norwalk Finance Director Bob Barron in February presented the Common Council with a recommendation for zero increase for the BoE, saying he was leaving the school district budget entirely up to the Common Council.
Board members discussed Barron’s recommendation at the July BoE retreat.
“We can’t have another zero percent finance recommendation and expect these outside donors to take us seriously. We will lose that money,” Meek said, of the foundations donating money to Norwalk Public Schools.
Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski agreed. “The donors have made that very clear,” he said.
Meek, in his Wednesday email to the press, wrote, “While the city government struggles with scoping an ‘innovation district’, it should be noted we already have an Innovation District and that is Norwalk Public Schools, where real innovations have occurred. This hasn’t happened by accident or hoping for them to materialize. They are planned with real targets and staff has been held accountable for measurable results as defined by our Strategic Operating Plan.”
Much of the projected increase is due to contractual obligations; the balance arises from the board’s strategic plan designed to close the achievement gap and make Norwalk Public Schools the most successful city school district in the state.
Meek and other Republicans have pointed to a shortage of state funding for Norwalk and state collective bargaining laws as reasons why Norwalk residents must face tax increases to fund education.
An August report by the non-profit Center for Public Integrity found that Connecticut’s state government sent 24 percent of its revenues to local governments, a third less than the national average of 36 percent. The report noted that heavy reliance on property taxes to fund schools created major disparities in funding for education between municipalities. At a recent Norwalk town hall, Norwalk’s Congressional Representative Jim Himes (D-Greenwich) noted the disparity. “This is a question that’s tough for a federal official to address … These are really issues that will be struggled with both with (Sen. Bob Duff) and his colleagues in Hartford,” together with local officials, Himes said.