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Norwalk 2019 education budget already a source of friction

Board of Education Finance Committee Chairman Bryan Meek. (File photo)

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.

Rilling continued:

“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.

11 comments

M. Murray September 13, 2018 at 7:38 am

That is the problem with our current system.” Connecticut’s State government sent 24 percent of it’s revenue to local governments”. Why is the state collecting excess revenue and disbursing it back to local government. Let’s not forget the money wasted administering the distribution of this money. Maybe the state should “collect” 24 percent revenue from it’s citizens and the cut state taxes and let local government collect that money on their own and do what they need with it. And think how low your federal income tax could be if the IRS did not collect excess money to distribute back to the States with all their strings attached and administrative cost.

Piberman September 13, 2018 at 10:52 am

Given only modest involvement in BOE affairs – how often does the Mayor attend meetings – and relatively high standard of business and financial management exhibited by our BOE it seems strange, especially during an election year coming up, for the Mayor to challenge the BOE early in the season on budget matters and do so publicly.

For City Hall to recommend a zero budget increase for our BOE in light of adoption of the Mayor’s Reorg Plan calling for almost $200k additionally each year seems a bit odd. Our School Supt manages without a “Chief of Staff” and oversees a 1,000 plus employees and 2/3rd the City’s budget.

Be interesting to see if any City Hall Department is recommended for a zero budget increase.

EnoPride September 13, 2018 at 11:40 am

“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.”

NPS in how it is currently being managed is indeed an Innovation District and should be recognized as such in the way of procedures and program implementation, and accountability with measurable results. It should NEVER be taken for granted how hard this group works, and how the hard work is setting NPS in the right trajectory. What a champion Mr. Meek is. One only need see him in these meetings fighting the good fight for our children and our educators to realize how very fortunate we are to have him. He clearly is a passionate perfectionist. But Mayor Rilling, whom I hope grasps the big picture value of this man to NPS, chooses to create an adversarial tone and level Mr. Meek for all his laborious work in researching, analyzing, advocating, and in this particular scenario, time managing and being ahead of the curve for the best possible outcome for budgeting, with the insulting comment of, “Again, Mr. Meek shows how uninformed he is”. Ironically, Mr. Meek is clearly one of the more informed public figures fighting for us in City Hall on a regular basis.

A zero percent finance recommendation from Mr. Barron, yet we have DONORS ready to go with what is needed if we can only get it together here? Here again we have Dr. Adamowski and Mr. Meek doing back flips and trying to mobilize City Hall to proactively secure donor money and there appears to be no sense of urgency on City Hall’s end to get a plan together yesterday for DONORS! It is glaring here that Mr. Barron and City Hall are jeopardizing progress.

David T McCarthy September 13, 2018 at 12:12 pm

I am a distant observer now, but if I am correct, and Nancy you check me…our mayor, Harry Rilling, has attended precisely 1 Board of Education meeting since he was re-elected a year ago. Seems odd, in that he is the only one there that is getting paid.

I can’t imagine a more pressing issue for him (or for his Chief of Staff!) than going to the meetings that determine how $200 Million will be spent. Maybe constantly campaigning rather than actually doing anything related to the city is his focus, but what do I know.

I also react to a sitting mayor name calling a parent volunteer. He did it to me, and now he is doing it to Mr. Meek. Instead of showing effort or results, name calling of critics is the hallmark of the oh so civil Harry Rilling.

Kevin Kane September 13, 2018 at 12:46 pm

Donors? Do you mean taxpayers? I would not have thought there are donors giving money to NPS. That’s great if there are in the traditional sense of a “donor” but news to me. Who are the donors and how much does each donate? What percent of the total budget is from donors? Can a donor earmark where their donation goes or is it in the slush fund?
Quote of the day regarding the innovation district – mow that idea before it grows and put the $ toward innovation in the schools. Let the private sector determine if they want to move their business to Norwalk, sans handouts.

Mitch Adis September 13, 2018 at 8:33 pm

So, what Harry is doing is making a grab for the donors money by pushing for a zero increase the BOE. It’s plain and simple. Can’t imagine what their reaction will be next time these donors are considering who to give to.

Joe September 13, 2018 at 11:32 pm

A $12,700,000.00 Norwalk public school budget INCREASE is obcene and cruel to Norwalk seniors.

These are the same people who seriously considered forcing liens onto Norwalk home owners to pay for city sidewalks in front of their homes. ( I kid you not. It’s in the common council minutes).

We’re being ruled by maniacs.

They’ll take ALL your money if you let ’em.

Rick September 14, 2018 at 3:05 pm

Joe the Mall was going to solve all of Norwalks problems, tell the city go back and get the money Norwalk needed not what the settled for.

That suit on Wall st and the one the Housing authority has going on along with the two courthouses that have Firetree in front of them was a solution ?

Its all costing in most cases unrecoverable money, or at least the drug company one.

Your right Joe its not right.

Mitch Adis September 15, 2018 at 8:28 am

@Joe. The way you feel about the BOE is how I feel about Social Security. Why should I pay for something I don’t or won’t get to use? So how about Seniors pay for Social Security and the young pay for education. Let me know if you can get the numbers to work. Good luck.

ConcernedToo September 15, 2018 at 10:59 pm

The 12.7 million increase sounds like a very big number, but let’s do some simple math to make it clearer:

1. This year’s budget was buttressed by a 1 time 2 million dollar surplus in the teacher health insurance fund. That leads to a 2 million dollar hole next year.

2. Enrollment in the schools is several hundred higher than projected several years ago. Each 100 students adds ~1.7 million to the budget. This year they said that 2-3 million of the increase is based on increased enrollment.

3. Inflation is 2.5%. That an increase of about 3 million in the budget to keep even with inflation.

So all three of those things explain substantial chunks of that 12 million (about 8 million dollars). Then let’s also look at spending per student. The most recent data I can find is from 2016-17, where Norwalk spent 16,900 per student and Stamford spent 18,500 per student. Westport Darien New Canaan and Wilton were all around 20k per student. Relative to the area, our spending is low, so it’s not crazy that we need to increase it.

There are also several smaller costs forced on us by the state, like the out of school suspension program.

So it’s not just random things increasing our spending. It’s mostly explainable.

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