NORWALK, Conn. – Funding for later school start times has been removed from the 2019-20 Norwalk Public Schools operating budget request.
Eliminating that $732,056 line item and shifting some items to the capital budget make the NPS budget request $202,184,484, or nearly $11.7 million more than what the Common Council approved as funding for NPS in 2018-19, a 6.1 percent increase.
Finance Committee Chairman Bryan Meek on Tuesday characterized the requested increase as $9.8 million, or 5.1 percent.
“I am using a little accounting sleight of hand, I’ll be honest,” he explained to Board member Bruce Kimmel. “But I’m working off the adjusted budget that we’re operating on right now so that does include a little rollover of surplus funds plus SpEd but since we’re losing SpEd, I think we can in all fairness make that a valid comparison.”
The Board’s Special Education fund, created to ramp up in-district services for students with special needs, is sunsetting after three years, with fanfare about its success. Out of district placements are down from 137 in 2015-16 to 84 in 2018-19, Chief of Specialized Learning and Student Services Yvette Goorevitch said in a presentation to the Board.
Meek said Sunday that he was “trying to paint as positive a picture as possible.”
“The reality is there are huge risks for the city,” he wrote. “There are other factors that may or may not happen including state grants being reduced, population increases exceeding forecast, and more unfunded state mandates being thrown around in Hartford right now that could require additional expenditures.”
Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski’s recommended 2019-20 budget was for $203,324,778. The $1,140,294 reduction announced Tuesday was accomplished by transferring the following items to the capital budget request:
- $160,000 in furniture requested for a hoped-for Montessori school
- $40,000 for district-wide furniture
- $100,000 for “life-safety systems”
- $107,000 for Special Education equipment
“Healthier High School Start Time,” or “budget goal #7,” was also removed, a $732,056 reduction.
Science has shown that early high school start times are a health risk for students, Adamowski said in November, announcing that a committee had been formed to study the issue.
“Given the Committee was still working and didn’t have a number on a budget that we could use for start times, we agreed within the (Finance) Committee to defer that to 20-21,” Kimmel said Tuesday.
The $732,056 was a placeholder, Board member Heidi Keyes said. The School Start Time Committee isn’t sure yet how the actual cost would compare to that figure because “there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”
The committee still needs to obtain feedback from students and from a community survey, she said.
“This will be a huge change for our schools… We are fully vested in this but we realize the budget restraints at this point,” she said. “The Committee will continue to work on this…. It’s not something we want to rush through.”
“I am of course disappointed about the delay partially because, you know, the timing would then be we have a new superintendent to administer the change and that is a tough issue to come into as a new person,” Board member Barbara Meyer-Mitchell said.
“I think it’s unfortunate that the timing didn’t work out, that this was a strategic operating plan initiative that was meant to be executed last year, studied last year, and it was delayed. It’s now being studied but we are not choosing to keep a placeholder…. I do understand the fiscal realities and accept them but hope we don’t abandon this.”
Board member Erik Anderson said he supports later high school start times, but not now.
“I want to be respectful of our partners in the City,” Anderson said. “I want to make sure that we continue to maintain our funding in areas that are going to continue to move forward the amazing work we have done.”
Kimmel emphasized, again, that this is the “last” of the Board’s “catch up budgets,” commenting that three or four years ago Norwalk Public Schools was “not in a good place” and now it’s “nothing like what existed four or five years ago.”
“The City, Mayor (Harry) Rilling, Board of Estimate and Taxation and the Council, despite some of the friction that did occur over time, we have done this together,” said Kimmel, a former Council member. “When we look back on these four or five years we will be proud of what happened in Norwalk. I believe this part of our legacy will last longer, or people will remember longer, than, ‘Oh we got the mall’ or ‘They fixed the Walk Bridge.’ This is really key to the long-term success of the City. So this along with our Special Ed turnaround is something we should be proud of.”
It helps that the Board is now providing the City with a three-year budget projection, he said. “We put the City in a bind last year by presenting only one year, without a multi-year scenario. We asked the City to fly blind, they had no idea what we were going to present this year.”
Congratulations to “those who started this,” he said. “This took a lot of guts because it wasn’t going to be cheap. Mayor Rilling, a lot of money came from your end, we appreciate that and looking forward to working with you on this budget… I proudly support this.”
Former Board Chairman Mike Lyons likened the spending, including the SpEd fund,” to the “surge” definition used by the military, a “short-term increase in spending.” Adamowski had, in his first Board retreat, told members that an incremental approach wouldn’t work on improving an urban school district with a “huge achievement gap,” he said.
“You have had the big surge in funding to fix a lot of the things that were not working and from that point on, you can reach something of a steady state,” Lyons said, recounting his time on the Board of Estimate and Taxation, when the Board of Education would ask for more money without a plan to back it up.
“This is not simply asking for more money so we can have more money,” Lyons said. “It’s asking for more money so we can complete carrying out a strategic plan which already has established Norwalk as the highest performing urban school system in the state and I think promises to get us to the point where we can be exceeding many of the performance levels that are established statewide in Connecticut. It is a big ask. But there’s a lot behind it. It’s not just an ask, it’s an ask with a big substantive plan behind it.”