Updated, 8:35 a.m.: Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. – Board of Education members are taking a new tone as they plan to request a $12.9 million budget increase for the 2019-20 school year.
“We’ve had several years of catching up for the school district, filling out programs and needs. The city has been very generous in what they have given us to go forward with our strategic operating plan,” BoE Finance Committee Chairman Bryan Meek said Thursday. “We’re not all the way there yet. This budget is very aggressive. It’s a big ask. And it is just that right now, it’s an asked to have a discussion about the school system needs.”
The Board will vote on its 2019-20 operating budget request at Tuesday’s Board meeting.
Meek, as last year’s budget cycle drew to a close, repeatedly decried what he called “cuts” being forced on Norwalk Public Schools as Common Council members worked to authorize a $6.4 million increase in school funding. Last week, Meek, with no trace of anger, requested that Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton prepare a three-year projection of upcoming budgets, to reinforce the Board’s opinion that the budgets will “level off,” with smaller increases.
“We have this big ask this year, that’s why the three-year projection is so important to show that this really is the peak and it’s going to be declining,” Board Chairman Mike Barbis said.
Meek and others are also touting the Board’s success in lowering Special Education costs.
Last year’s budget increase was $6.4 million; the Board had asked for $9.9 million. Mayor Harry Rilling in April said the NPS operating budget had increased by $22 million in the previous four years, including a near-$8 million increase in 2017-18 and an increase of more than $5 million in 2016-17.
The $203 million recommended NPS budget has “no surprises” in that it is “extremely close” to the budget estimate presented to Board members in July at their retreat, Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski said last week. “The base (budget) this year is larger as predicted due to the loss of your medical insurance reserve which the city required you to use for 18-19.”
Meek said Thursday that the budget discussed Jan. 8 “isn’t necessarily what we envision getting from the city. It’s just what we want. And you know, there are some, you know, there’s been some backdoor conversations and good cooperation with the Mayor’s office on realizing a lot of these goals. We do realize at the end of the day we are probably not going to get everything we asked for. But in fairness to the City, all the stakeholders in the City, this is an open and transparent process on what the actual needs are.”
“We believe that we have shown fiscal prudence over the years and the monies that we have asked for have shown good returns,” he said.
Board member Mike Lyons suggested on Tuesday that the Board lead with its Special Education results; while Lyons was Chairman, the Board persuaded the City to contribute $2.3 million to a $3.6 million three-year fund to reform SpEd, address scathing criticisms, and reduce outplacement costs.
Hamilton has reported a $500,000 reduction in outplacement costs in the first year and a $800,000 reduction in the second.
“We have a track record now,” Lyons said. “We told (them) if (they) gave us a surge in funding for Special Ed we would use it in a way that would not only improve Special Ed but cut our long-term cost structure. And we did.”
“I think it’s extremely important to show the stakeholders of the city that we have a clear goal of bending the cost curve down,” Meek said. “One of the highlights I’ve heard here tonight – and I don’t think it should go unnoticed – but an $800,000 annual savings on SpEd is a $40 million perpetuity in savings for the city…. Anything like that, where we can forecast that cost curve coming down is going to be helpful…”
Board member Julie Corbett added that NPS has seen results in its Next Generation Accountability Report.
On Thursday, Meek had the pitch refined.
“Three years ago, when we went forward with this, we had a plan, we executed, we expected savings and we delivered those,” he said. “In the same respect, the asks out of this budget are similar investments that we see broadening out the school system, bringing it to where it needs to be, and achieving our goals in what will eventually save the City money, over time.”
Meek also lauded the chart Hamilton prepared, which projects “a declining trend” of increases:
- 2019-20: 6.74 percent
- 2020-21: 4.11 percent
- 2021-22: 3.36 percent
- 2022-23: 2.83 percent
Meek called the chart “perfect.”
Board member Bruce Kimmel cautioned that the projected increases assume that the Board gets the entire increase it is asking for this year. If strategic operating plan initiatives are moved into future budgets, then the numbers will shift, he said.
Adamowski last week cautioned that the Board will develop a new strategic operating plan under its next superintendent. The discussions assume the completion of this plan, he said.
The detail in Board budgets has improved, Board member Heidi Keyes said.
“I am thinking years past, when I first came on the Board until now… it’s come a long way,” she said. “It was line item and you check it off quickly, but this is really comprehensive and detailed enough that you can really look at it and understand it.”
The budget anticipates a $900,000 increase in Alliance District funds, as laid out in the 2017 reworking of the Educational Cost Sharing formula, with a 10-year phase in, Hamilton said last week.
Barbara Meyer-Mitchell mentioned a Connecticut Association of Boards of Education gathering where, “there was a lot of signaling to be prepared for cuts from the state.”
“We now have new legislators who are talking about changing the formula. So if the formula were to change again this is anyone’s guess as to what would occur,” Adamowski said Tuesday, in response to Meyer-Mitchell.
The 2017 changes to the funding formula were “somewhat favorable” for Norwalk, while, “of course, not what anyone hoped for in terms of equity,” Adamowski said.
Barbis said in a Monday evening email, “As the legislature just got sworn in last Wednesday, we have heard little … I was at a CABE Legislative Breakfast last week and there was some chat about this but nothing specific.”