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“A challenging process”: Norwalk Board of Education approves plan to meet budget cap

A graphic showing the budget increase in Norwalk
A graphic highlighting how the Norwalk Board of Education budget was changed this cycle. (Courtesy of Norwalk)

Cutting central office positions, eliminating a teacher release plan, working with the mayor’s office to bring in additional funds, and potentially relying on future special appropriations are some of the ways the school district will get its budget down to $233.4 million, the cap set by the city.

“We were funded at 3%, which did not allow us to meet our basic operating requirements,” Superintendent Alexandra Estrella said, adding that this has “not been an easy process.” “We’ll have to make some reductions in special education and put us in a predicament where we might have to engage in conversations with the mayor and council for special appropriations to fully fund our special education.”

The Board of Education unanimously approved the district’s plan to meet the budget cap, although members said they “struggled” with the vote because they believe the district should have gotten more funding.

“I know we need more and particularly when we’re talking about special education, and we know that we’re going in asking for less than we need, so although I do support it, I do struggle because I know it’s a challenge,” said Sheri McCready-Pritchett, vice chair of the Board of Education.

At the start of the budget process in December/January, the BOE approved a preliminary budget of $245 million, an 8.2% increase from the previous year. But after weeks of discussions and deliberations, the Board of Estimate and Taxation officially set the school district’s budget at $233.4 million, a 3% increase over last year.

That left the board with an approximately $11.6 million gap between what it said was needed for the schools and what was approved.

“What we were given to spend definitely does not meet the needs, and it’s a tough decision,” said Lunda Asmani, the school district’s chief financial officer. “Tough decisions do need to be made and people are not happy with those tough decisions and how they came about.”  

Asmani and Estrella said they believed the district needed at least a 5% increase to maintain the status quo. Asmani said they worked to avoid any cuts to the school-based budgets, which are how each school is funded. 

“One of the things that we set out to do this year was to try as much as possible to keep our schools whole,” he said. “We had set out a goal that we would not make any cuts to schools that are budget-related for the existing positions.”

The district is conducting its usual rightsizing, whereby if a grade only needs three teachers in a section and the school has four, that fourth teacher is reassigned to a school with a larger number of students, Asmani said. 

The cuts were made across the district, including:

  • Eliminating teacher release time program: $2 million
  • Eliminating magnet supplement funding: $2 million
  • Cutting seven central office positions: $672,579
  • Saving from position turnover: $597,009
  • Reducing costs across the district in departments that were not school-based budgets: $1.36 million
  • Carrying over healthcare savings from this current year: $1.1 million
  • Reducing budget transfers to the school lunch fund: $840,000
  • Carrying over funds from this year: $500,000

In addition to cuts, Asmani and Estrella said they’ve been having ongoing conversations with the city to receive additional funds. Based on conversations with the mayor, Asmani said they hope to receive an additional $1.8 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding from the state’s last distribution, as well as an additional $1.2 million in Alliance grant funding from the state. 

However, he noted those both are subject to Common Council approval, so they haven’t officially received the funds yet. 

“If they don’t [approve the funds] then we know we will not have enough to fund the school district for the year,” Asmani said.  

Challenges with this year’s budget

A graphic highlighting the increase in MLL students (Courtesy of Norwalk Public Schools)

Asmani and Estrella noted a few specific challenges they faced with this budget, including a 15% increase in insurance premiums for employees on the Cigna plan, as well as growing numbers of multilingual learners (MLL) and special education students. 

Between September 1, 2023 and June 1, 2024, the district saw an increase of 497 MLL students, according to Robert Pennington, assistant superintendent. Pennington called it a “substantial number,” as now, 23% of the district identifies as MLL.

Estrella noted that years ago the board went before the Common Council to ask for a special appropriation for an increase in MLL students that was half the size of this increase.

In addition, Pennington said there were about 200 additional students between October 1, 2023 and June 1, 2024 who were identified as needing special education services. 

“I think it’s important also to know that these increases took place after the finalization of the budget,” Estrella said. “So we weren’t even able to take into account the necessary personnel that was needed for this influx. So in thinking about the budget for next year, we were not even able to take into consideration the personnel required to support this student body.”

Because of this, Asmani said they worked with schools individually to adjust school-based budgets and reallocate some resources, such as adding an MLL teacher to a school with a growing MLL population. Overall, the school-based budgets saw a slight increase of $382,924, Asmani said. 

Future special appropriations

While the Board of Education approved a budget that met the 3% cap set by the city, school officials noted they believe they will be short in certain areas and will need to go to the Board of Estimate and Taxation and Common Council for special appropriations this year. 

“I hope that, as Mr. Asmani presented today, the BET and the Council understand what we have brought forward and asked is because we actually need the funding we’re requesting,” she said. “We’re not asking for more than we need to balance the budget and the importance of funding us as a member of this municipality is very different than funding a private corporation.”

This is particularly true in special education, where Asmani estimated the district will need about $11 million, but only has $9.9 million in its budget.

“We have to be ready to ask the council for special appropriation to [fund] special education because we’re not coming in with the total allotted funds necessary to fulfill the demands of the program,” she said. 

One board member asked what would happen if the special appropriation was rejected. 

“Then the costs associated to the city for not providing services would be exponentially larger,” she said, with other board members saying it could open the city up to litigation if special education services weren’t being provided. 

Estrella and Diana Carpio, the chair of the Board of Education, said they hoped this year was a lesson and that next year there would be more advocacy and support for the BOE’s request. 

“Speak up at meetings, because something like this, when we’re looking at this budget, I mean these decisions are really difficult,” Carpio said.

Comments

3 responses to ““A challenging process”: Norwalk Board of Education approves plan to meet budget cap”

  1. John O’Neill

    Enough with the whining….We’re tired of this. My property tax bill will be going up 15%+, so don’t tell me about tough budgeting cycles. I find it amusing that last year’s budget was difficult but lo and behold we have what amounts to a $ 1.6 Million Carryover?
    Additionally, everyone quoted above surely voted for State and Federal Policies that have created this mess. Somehow their comments about a Biden open border policy disaster didn’t make the story.
    Additionally, I’m curious. Based on 23% MLL Student Body and the unreported but statistically large number of Special Ed kids, are there any kids in the Norwalk school system that don’t need extra help?
    Talking with teachers this week — Mary Yordon is not a leader — Teachers are handcuffed by this administration and she’s placating Central Office. More teachers are on administrative leave than ever. Teachers have zero power in the classroom on discipline. Time for a fresh leader for this Union.
    This administration is not creating a school system, they are creating an expensive babysitting service. AND Teacher’s Union seems to be ok with that.

  2. stephen balazs

    The rise in SPED students is not limited to Norwalk. In Darien, both the HS and MS are hiring an extra AP just to deal with the IEP and 504s- this is a national issue that trascends political orientation. I don’t think Republicans are any less likely than Democrats to request services for their child. Likewise, who the BOE members voted in a national election has no bearing on how to deal with a rising MLL population. I don’t enjoy paying taxes and sometimes it helps to hold people’s feet to the fire but a 3% budget increase seems like biting off your nose to spite your face. Neighboring districts all had increases significantly larger than 3%. This is likely to do more harm to property owners than any savings from the small increase.

  3. John O’Neill

    To put things into better perspective — The Board of Ed budget is up by over 25% since 2019. And that doesn’t include nuanced funding from the city and the state.
    Regarding the explosion of MLL population — Where’s the planning been? Zero support from the state and nonsense from the Feds. Locals need to fend for themselves, yet I hear no outcry from any of the above —
    Unlike some in this town, I don’t have cost of living increases for my future retirement. This is ridiculous.

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