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Norwalk BoE will tout successes in request for $12.9 million boost

A sign in the third floor City Hall lobby on Jan. 8, left, and Thursday, right.

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.”

31 comments

Pros & Cons January 15, 2019 at 9:37 am

No doubt about Norwalk’s funding needs for teaching and learning. Drilling down it might be interesting to compare Norwalk’s post-retirement medical benefit costs with same towns listed in the per pupil spending chart in the photo. Could be wrong but I think Norwalk is the only town/city that has this benefit in collective bargaining agreements.

Piberman January 15, 2019 at 10:12 am

With about 15,000 homes the BOE budget request comes to about $1,000 per home. Why would any homeowner protest with higher taxes in a City where housing prices declined about 10% amidst a decade long stagnant Grand List and a convujoluted Reval increasing taxes on many homes.

No amount of new BOE funding would narrow the huge differences in student outcomes with surrounding towns. But the BOE is committed to maintaining competitive school salaries with surrounding town school teachers. Even with major new funding most City school grads will not secure a college degree. In contrast to surrounding towns where most every student secures a college degree and more. That sharp disparity in school outcomes together with punitive property taxes serves to severely depress City housing values.

Norwalk needs a BOE committed to its homeowner taxpayers. Not its public Union school employees. As Norwalk becomes an ever more renters City – now 40% up from 30% – ever bigger BOE budgets add further pressure for homeowners to depart securing a Bridgeport solution on remaining homeowners. City renters do not pay their full share of City budgets.

But its an old story in Norwalk. Housing values will continue to decline as both the BOE and City Hall reward City employees with higher salaries for doing the same job year after year after year.

carol January 15, 2019 at 10:17 am

Please,some benefits for seniors,we cannot afford these increases year after year. it is becoming food or medication.

Patrick Cooper January 15, 2019 at 11:45 am

Curious about a state law I’ve seen mentioned, wonder if a BOE expert could explain both the law, and how it pertains to the current budget ask. The phantom law is – the state of CT does not allow municipalities to cut their education budgets from year to year – meaning (as I understand this) – each year is a baseline budget. So even if union contractual wages increase by X, and the town finds savings greater than X – they can’t go below the prior year’s outlays.

Can anyone site the law – the rationale, and how that works in cities going bankrupt?

Then – how does this apply to our current budget? Meaning – if our budget is 30 million more than what it was in 2014, and our student population somehow drops – are we tied to this new baseline in perpetuity?

alan January 15, 2019 at 11:51 am

At least you will be getting something for your money! In Stamford they are doubling the borrowing “limit” and spending millions to clean up mold.
So much for the concept of “LIMITS”.

steve January 15, 2019 at 12:08 pm

it’s too bad that first responses to this have nothing to do with the article (in the words of Spiro Agnew, “the nattering nabobs of negativity”). I’ve worked in the education field for 25 years, as does my wife. We both grew up in mixed income small cities and attended public school. We both have experience in some of the wealthiest school districts in the country. We have been overwhelmingly pleased with our children’s experiences in the Norwalk public schools. For all the red-button words- ie unions–our children’s teachers have been bright and hardworking. More than one is at school more than 10 hours a day! The schools have responded flexibly and sensitively to issues that have arisen over the past years. Many to most of their teachers grew up in Norwalk, attended Norwalk schools and still live here. My children have had the wonderful experience to sit, eat and work with others from every income, racial and ethnic background. We’ve met loads of Norwalk grads who’ve been happy and successful in a variety of fields. Because it is a big district with people from less advantaged homes, test scores are no where near what you’d see in the neighboring towns, but my guess is that if you control for income and wealth the test score disparity disappears (wealth is often a bigger factor than income in test scores). Pliberman and others, no one likes taxes and everyone wants to see their asset values rise but good schools make good communities and are the critical factor in home valuations. Most of our neighbors chose our neighborhood after their kids graduated from nearby towns. All other things equal, they’d prefer to live in Norwalk over where they were living. Once Norwalk schools are perceived as providing the same opportunity as Greenwich, Darien, Wilton, Westport etc…the home values will soar. I hope the Norwalk BOE finds a way to publicize students, programs and employees in the District that are soaring.

Norwalk Lost January 15, 2019 at 1:04 pm

Tossing out large school budgets for shock value or for an advertisement for better “potentially” performing schools is simply unproductive. A school system must not only be judged on performance but also on presenting sustainable budgetary increases commensurate with the financial means of the average taxpayer. For the latter, the school board is failing. With more state funding cuts likely coming down the pike, the superintendent and school board are demonstrating a lack of grasp with the city’s financial fundamentals/grand list projections. Norwalk must do better.

Hello I Must Be Going January 15, 2019 at 1:11 pm

“Most of our neighbors chose our neighborhood after their kids graduated from nearby towns.”

The key word here being “after.” That says it all.

Debora Goldstein January 15, 2019 at 1:21 pm

Patrick,

As always, good question. I only wish this information was made readily available to the community at large.

I THINK the answer is in this section of the CGS:

Sec. 10-262i. Equalization aid grant payments. Expenditures for educational purposes only. Prohibition against supplanting local funding. Aid increase. Aid reduction. Penalty.

Paragraph C states [EMPHASIS MINE]:

(c) All aid distributed to a town pursuant to the provisions of this section AND SECTION 10-262u shall be expended for educational purposes only and shall be expended upon the authorization of the local or regional board of education and in accordance with the provisions of section 10-262u. For the fiscal year ending June 30, 1999, and each fiscal year thereafter, if a town receives an increase in funds pursuant to this section over the amount it received for the prior fiscal year, such increase shall not be used to supplant local funding for educational purposes. THE BUDGETED APPROPRIATION FOR EDUCATION IN ANY TOWN RECEIVING AN INCREASE IN FUNDS PURSUANT TO THIS SECTION SHALL NOT BE LESS THAN THE AMOUNT APPROPRIATED FOR EDUCATION FOR THE PRIOR YEAR PLUS SUCH INCREASE IN FUNDS.

Section 10-262u has to do with alliance districts
https://www.cga.ct.gov/current/pub/chap_172.htm#sec_10-262u

https://portal.ct.gov/SDE/Alliance-Districts/Alliance-Districts

Norwalk is an alliance district
https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/SDE/Alliance-Districts/list_of_alliance_districts.pdf

If anyone on the BOE wants to weigh in on this and correct me if I am wrong, please do. We’d all benefit from having this question answered.

Another Opinion January 15, 2019 at 1:58 pm

The large year on year NPS budget increases should be a catalyst for more Charter Schools in Norwalk.
I am also having challenges reconciling the mentioned improved school performance the superintendent and board touts with some metrics advertised last year from a third party.

“Quentin Phipps, the director of advocacy and policy at the Stamford Charter School for Excellence” (Per The Hour)

“They said that Norwalk Public Schools is in its fifth year as an Alliance District, making it one of the 30 lowest performing districts in the state, and noted performance gaps among subgroups of students who are English Language Learners, who have a disability and who are of a minority”

https://www.thehour.com/news/article/New-charter-school-proposed-in-Norwalk-12747792.php

The city’s financial means may warrant expanding and welcoming Charter schools as a means of curtailing the spending on school budgets.

Bryan Meek January 15, 2019 at 3:02 pm

@Patrick. You speak of the MBR and are essentially correct, but it never really comes into play thanks to other state mandates society can not sustain. Binding arbitration guarantees above market increases for labor as long as the state places a higher value on this than the actual outcomes for our children. So we struggle to keep up with what’s contractually obliged and then work towards program improvements in an effort to keep other costs from exploding like Special Education. Before we invested $3.6 million in improving special education it was on a 30% annual growth rate, doubling every 3 to 4 years. Had we done nothing that little 8 figure line item would have mushroomed and made this request look small. Now we have sustained that to low double digit increases. Still not ideal, but with the state continuing its break neck speed on more and more unfunded mandates year after year this is all we can do to try and stay ahead. Liberal blue Massachusetts has put in reasonable labor reforms, costs are sustainable, and they are ranked #1 in education, but for some reason our Legislature is preoccupied with things like protecting ducks at Calf Pasture and taxing the internet..

Bryan Meek January 15, 2019 at 3:07 pm

MBR = Minimum Budget Requirement. Indeed it requires a school district to fund at least 99% of the prior years operating budget, assuming a 1% surplus was rolled forward. There are exceptions for steep declines in population. But again, when contracted costs are $6.7 million this year, going up at least another $6.7 million next year….we have already exceeded this years request and where we will likely end up landing. It’s more of a psychological barrier and something convenient to hide behind when deciding to short change the rapidly growing school district. I’m all for sound reasons to keep costs low, but the conversation needs to move beyond this red herring item.

MarjorieM January 15, 2019 at 3:24 pm

Adamowski, with the help of this BoEd will bankrupt Norwalk. I’ve said this before, and repeat it again.

Debora Goldstein January 15, 2019 at 6:22 pm

Bryan,

Is it correct that the MBR only applies if you are taking state money? Would you still have that restriction if there were no ECS and/or Alliance funds?

Bryan Meek January 15, 2019 at 8:13 pm

No, it’s state law. I think it’s actually a good law to prevent districts from pulling the rug out from under a school districts operations. But, it’s moot in Norwalk due to our ever increasing population, unless the city were to take draconian measures. I don’t think that will happen even in the hardest of times because it would mean having north of 30 children in every classroom. No one wants that and it would really damage the city’s ability to attract home owners which we know are the backbone of our funding system.

Al Bore January 15, 2019 at 9:47 pm

We compare the per pupil cost of our surrounding towns to Norwalks, do we compare Norwalk schools quality of education to our surrounding towns as well. How does Norwalk compare in the state for quality of education? We throw a lot of money each year at our school system however although it is getting better it is not close to great.

Debora Goldstein January 16, 2019 at 7:36 am

Bryan,

Please point out where in the law that requirement appears then. Patrick asked. I looked. Somebody should answer his question correctly if i haven’t.

Thanks,

Deb

Isaiah Atkinson January 16, 2019 at 12:47 pm

I just found out that Naramake Elementary DID not have heat in the building on Monday/Tuesday. Also, that the children were exposed to fumes near the cafeteria while the boiler was being worked on! Then, they had to sit in a COLD gym to have their lunch.What about my child’s health? Perhaps, our children’s health does not matter.Maybe the 12.6 Millions can fix this? Why wasn’t the parents notified? Taking about transparency! Way to go..

Bryan Meek January 16, 2019 at 6:12 pm

@Deb. Ct general statute 10-262j codifies MBR. You are in the right neighborhood a few paragraphs ahead. Start from sub chapter j.

Debora Goldstein January 16, 2019 at 11:40 pm

Bryan,

I looked at 262j and you’ll have to forgive me for skipping it it because it refers only to specific budget years ending in 2016 and 2017. There are no “and thereafters” anywhere in the whole J section.

https://www.cga.ct.gov/current/pub/chap_172.htm#sec_10-262j

I will also note for everyone’s benefit, that among the many, many exceptions listed that enable reductions to the MBR, there is this one (FOOD FOR THOUGHT):

(e) For the fiscal years ending June 30, 2016, and June 30, 2017, the provisions of this section shall not apply to any district that is in the top ten per cent of school districts based on the accountability index, as defined in section 10-223e.

However, we are an alliance district, which the state defines as: (1) “Alliance district” means a school district that is in a town that is among the towns with the lowest accountability index scores. And it’s pretty clear that we can’t make reductions while we are getting Alliance funds from the state for the budget year in question and for each fiscal year thereafter.

And we are rated that way, even though CERC points out that we have a 93% 4-Year Cohort Graduation Rate (2016-2017).

Mike Lyons January 17, 2019 at 7:39 am

Marj says “Adamowski, with the help of this BoEd will bankrupt Norwalk. I’ve said this before, and repeat it again.” Just because you state a ridiculous falsehood often doesn’t make it any less ridiculous or false, Marj.

“Bankrupt” – when “an organization is declared in law unable to pay outstanding debts.” Norwalk has a Triple-A credit rating. How many cities driving towards ‘bankruptcy’ have such ratings? Does Marj know something none of the rating agencies have spotted? Norwalk also has the largest reserve fund of any municipality in Connecticut – even larger than super-wealthy Greenwich’s. Not many organizations close to ‘bankruptcy’ have bulging bank accounts.

Our school system spends thousands of dollars per child per year less than all of the surrounding towns, yet has made great strides in improving student achievement, despite Marj’s perpetual nay-saying. This budget will keep that progress in gear.

alan January 17, 2019 at 8:10 am

Mike Lyons…many highly rated borrowers go into bankruptcy all the time.
Do you really believe rating agencies?
Hartford can still borrow.
Bridgeport can still borrow.
Waterbury can still borrow.
Most of this state is full of communities that rating agencies will green-light (for a fee, of course) for borrowing.
I think very,very little of Mr. Adamowski’s abilities and thought he was a horrific hire. Given the opportunity he would bankrupt the system but there hopefully are some checks and balances.

Pros & Cons January 17, 2019 at 9:54 am

….and the answer to the relative costs of post-retirement health benefits as part of total per pupil spending in the BOE comparison chart is…?????

Bryan Meek January 17, 2019 at 11:53 am

@Deb. The hard copy of the law I have says thru 18/19. I think this gets renewed every year and you are looking at an old URL.

Mike Lyons January 17, 2019 at 12:09 pm

Alan, can you cite any fact that would indicate that claiming Norwalk is near bankruptcy isn’t hallucinatory?

Mike Lyons January 17, 2019 at 12:42 pm

Al Bore asks “How does Norwalk compare in the state for quality of education?

Here are some relevant facts:

1. Norwalk ranks first in its District Reference Group (DRG), ahead of all other districts similar to ours, with the highest student achievement of any urban school district in the State (interestingly, even though Stamford spends $1,284 more per pupil per year than Norwalk does (to illustrate, for a typical class of 22 students, Stamford spends $28,248 more on that single class each year than we do)), Norwalk’s students achieve higher results. [To show the stark contrast with our wealthy neighbors, Weston spends $105,270 more each year per classroom than Norwalk does.]

2. Norwalk’s 4-year graduation rate of 93% has now exceeded the state average (87.9%) for the third consecutive year.

3. Our State Accountability Index Score showed the second largest gain of any K-12 district in the state last year.

Our English Language Learners now have a higher graduation rate than their statewide peers.

Fifteen Norwalk schools achieved meaningful student growth in a year-over-year comparison, with Rowayton Elementary and the Center for Global Studies designated as category 1 (top tier) schools; other Norwalk schools are closing in on that level.

Rowayton was named Norwalk’s first Connecticut School of Distinction.

And the Achievement Gaps in English Language Arts and math have been closed.

All this in a school district that has to address problems of severe poverty and other socioeconomic impacts on our children that are virtually unknown in the surrounding communities (the percentage of high needs students in Norwalk is 61%, versus an average of 17% in the surrounding communities).

So yes, for the relatively low amount we spend, we are getting pretty impressive results. See https://www.norwalkps.org/UserFiles/Servers/Server_71596/File/departments/Communications/State%20of%20the%20Schools.pdf

Norwalk native January 17, 2019 at 8:25 pm

The Norwalk public school system exists to teach illegals English and overpay otherwise marginally qualified Union employees: period. Anyone who can afford to avoid sending their kids to Norwalk schools.

Pros & Cons January 18, 2019 at 12:10 am

Mike & numbers guy Bryan weigh in but still no info about comparative costs for post-retirement benefits….

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