NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Common Council members got a more-in-depth look at the Board of Education budget request Tuesday, asking questions that ranged from middle school sports to per-pupil spending.
The budget process began in December with a $207 million aggregate, which Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski reduced to $203 million before the Board got it down to the $202 million request that’s been presented, Board of Education Finance Committee Chairman Bryan Meek said, explaining, “We realize it’s still a big ask, looking at it, but we hope you see that a lot of the things we are asking for are items in line with our strategic operating plan that we kicked off two-three years ago.”
The $202.184,484 request for 2019-20 is $11,690,267 more than the 2018-19 approved budget, a 6.1 percent increase.
Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton, who is also helping the City with its budget after the sudden departure of Chief Financial Officer Bob Barron, revealed that there are talks going on behind the scenes.
“The district and the City are engaged in further discussions, over trying to reach a compromise solution that will work for all parties,” he said. “I think those discussions have been fruitful, and ongoing I am hopeful that there will be some sort of announcement soon, that will maybe shed additional light on a final budget recommendation.”
It’s possible that some items might be deferred, but, “I will say there are items in here, like expanding security guards to the middle school, that we think are things we kind of need right now,” Meek said, also mentioning “investments in better systems for security background checks” because “we are antiquated in our approach right now and we need a few dollars to invest in that.”
He said that “not having a modernized background check system” leads to “hiring bad apples” and additional costs, so “having that up front will make sure we have more solid hires and in return lower recruiting costs and other problems that can happen.”
Hamilton touted the success of the switch to the state health insurance plan two years ago as saving a substantial amount of money but said the costs are going up, and said “a $1.4 million increase in health insurance is more or less in line with where we might expect it to be based on general healthcare trend.”
Hamilton and Norwalk Public Schools Budget Coordinator Kristen Karzcmit emphasized the expected trend of declining budget increases.
“We think this is a very important point for us to make and for you to understand, which is the district has historically lived with very small budget increases, some years actually no budget increases, over an extended period of time. As a result of that, the district fell behind in terms of what we were able to offer to our students in comparison to comparable districts here in Fairfield County,” Hamilton said. “…We are trying obviously to raise the performance of our school system and our mission in our strategic operating plan is to be the best city school system in Connecticut. In order to get there, it does require additional City resources.”
The Common Council sets a budget cap on Feb. 26.
Finance Committee Chairman Greg Burnett (D-At Large) asked what the priorities are; Meek said the switch to 26 credits for graduation is state mandated and called not giving magnet schools more money per pupil “false advertising.”
Board of Education Chairman Mike Barbis and Finance Committee member Bruce Kimmel were not present. Meek said they had prior commitments.
Council Majority Leader John Kydes (D-District C) said he recognizes that the Board decides how to spend the money it is given by the City, but requested that middle school sports and home economics be restored “before hopefully starting something like a Montessori school or something else.”
“Home ec, that takes me back,” Meek replied.
There was a home economics class two years ago, Kydes said.
The budget for middle school sports was cut in half in last year’s budget reconciliation.
“There is a redesign effort,” Meek said. “The idea to get more children involved and to have more public private partnerships. I know we are working hand in hand with like NJSA for one, some others, and not just from the operations standpoint, I know we are also getting field work done over at West Rocks.”
There’s talk about parents getting involved and starting interschool activities but, “kids that don’t have access to the leagues, the programs, the travel leagues, they relied on West Rocks as source to get out there in team sports,” Kydes said.
“We are definitely looking at the sports,” Meek replied. “I don’t know about home ec.”
Minority Leader Doug Hempstead (R-District D) said he’s “always been very perturbed” about the sign promoting the differences in per-pupil spending between Norwalk and its Fairfield County neighbors, including Stamford.
“I don’t know if that’s an apple versus an orange versus a pear because those school systems charge things differently than Norwalk does,” Hempstead said. “The Norwalk school system doesn’t get charged, computers and fields go through capital budget, maintenance of all the fields is done by Parks and Rec.”
BoE member Mike Lyons and Meek told him that the state calculates the per pupil expenditures, and Hamilton said the state requires every district to detail in-kind services and debt obligations, and other items.
Kydes asked about Central Office, and Meek assured him that Norwalk Public Schools is “not top heavy.”
“There was an initial buildout to get the positions we needed when Dr. Adamowski joined the district but I bet if we looked at full-time equivalents in the last two or three years, it’s probably very flat,” Meek said.
Karzcmit and Hamilton promised to send him information.
There’s a need for tradesmen, jobs that pay well, Hempstead said, asking why NPS isn’t investing in those learning opportunities.
Adamowski came in with a big emphasis on getting students ready to go to college but the Board pushed back and that’s why there’s a medical academy and a marine pathway, Lyons said.
NPS pays to transport students to Stamford for Wright Tech, Meek said, with Hempstead saying, “That’s more expensive, more time on the bus.”
Parents are already asking for the Norwalk Early College Academy to be expanded, Meek said.
“I don’t know how we ever compete with Wright Tech, other than just being here in town. But how do you do it more cost effectively?” he asked, with Hempstead suggesting that one of Norwalk’s magnet schools be a tech school.
Council member Darlene Young (D-District B) asked if the more job-oriented programs could be provided in both high schools; Lyons said Norwalk is moving toward a choice model, and as the model evolves students could choose which schools they want to attend.
“Seats are limited,” Young said.
“If you double our capital budget we can solve that problem,” Lyons replied.
Burnett ended the meeting by observing, “I think it was very informative. That we got a very detailed view of the makeup of the Board of Ed’s proposed budget, that we have some follow up pieces of information that will be sent to us.”