The Norwalk public school system has been ranked number one in Connecticut among large urban districts the last two years, according to the state’s Accountability Index. By a variety of measures – improved test scores, award winning schools, transformed special education services, a host of curriculum updates, reworked counseling services, a digital literacy curriculum – our schools are moving in the right direction.
Which brings us to the 2019 mayoral election between the Democratic incumbent, Harry Rilling, and Lisa Brinton, who was endorsed by the Republican party.
During his terms in office, Mayor Rilling has worked with the BOE to fund the district’s special education turnaround, its five-year facilities plan, its strategic operating plan, and its new health insurance program. I believe his challenger supports these initiatives. The difference between the two is Brinton’s contention that Norwalk’s grand list is not growing fast enough to support educational initiatives in the years ahead. She also contends that population growth will make school funding a burden the city cannot bear. So far, Brinton has not backed up these points with compelling evidence.
Regarding the city’s financial position, Mayor Rilling has offered an array of benchmarks that indicate the city is indeed equipped to meet the needs of our schools in the years ahead. He has noted that:
- The city’s reserve funds are the highest in the state and are increasing at a healthy rate; put differently, revenues are up with no sign of decreasing.
- The grand list grew by 16% last year; plus, the aggregate value of commercial properties increased, which will reduce the property tax burden on homeowners.
- Despite funding essential services, including most of the BOE’s recent budget request, property taxes this year went down for most Norwalk residents.
- Norwalk has maintained a AAA credit rating, which enables it to fund expensive capital projects, such as new schools, at the lowest possible interest rates.
- Our yearly audits indicate the city’s financial procedures conform to national standards; that there are no concerns related to the city’s various financial statements.
Brinton recently introduced a list of initiatives that, in her view, would begin to generate additional revenue for the city. Interestingly, Mayor Rilling has already initiated some of these ideas. More importantly, Brinton has not refuted the Mayor’s basic argument: Under his watch, Norwalk is thriving when it comes to fiscal matters and is well-prepared to continue funding the city’s educational needs.
Brinton has also made “population density” a key issue. In her view, Norwalk’s population is growing too quickly and will create funding pressures on city services, including education, that the city cannot meet. The Mayor has argued that he is a proponent of “smart growth,” in which development is concentrated in downtown areas while the more suburban portions of the city maintain their existing population densities.
The Mayor’s smart growth view is based on the need to create “foot traffic” in our urban areas through market rate and affordable housing developments. He believes the city’s sound financial circumstances, especially with revenues increasing each year at a steady rate, will enable the city to easily absorb, if necessary, any additional financial pressures. He also makes an interesting case about the need for population growth in our urban areas, which are, ironically, among the least populated sections of Norwalk.
Increased population density in our urban centers, according to Mayor Rilling, is long overdue and will lead to substantial revenue from property taxes on new apartment buildings as well as families spending money in Norwalk, thereby supporting small businesses that, currently, are having a tough time making it in the city.
Candidate Brinton has a tough road ahead: Under Mayor Rilling, our schools have been recognized by the state for their steady improvements; the rating agencies, using a broad array of fiscal and demographic metrics, have deemed Norwalk worthy of AAA status; increased revenues have enabled the city to hold the line on property taxes; and there is development going on in our long-neglected urban centers. In addition, after years of inaction, we have begun to seriously address flooding in residential neighborhoods, and we are in the process of totally revamping our zoning regulations.
At this point in the campaign, I believe the choice is clear.
Board of Education member
Former Common Council member