NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski began making his pitch Tuesday for a $14.3 million increase in the Norwalk Public Schools operating budget.
The 7 percent increase would make Norwalk’s per pupil expenditure equal to Stamford’s, even as, for the first time, Norwalk has a greater percentage of high needs students than Stamford, Adamowski said in the Board of Education meeting.
NPS Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams on Wednesday clarified that comment: Norwalk’s 2020-21 expenditure would be equal to Stamford’s 2019-19 expenditure, should the recommended increase be approved in its entirety.
The Board is expected to vote on Adamowski’s recommended budget at its next Board meeting. Common Council members will get their first review of the budget Thursday. Council members approve a budget cap in February and can revise the cap in April with a two-thirds majority vote, if they so desire.
The recommended budget assigns dollar figures according to goals:
- Salary and benefit increases due to contractual obligations, $5.6 million, or 2.8 percent
- Enrollment growth costs, $3.3 million, or 1.6 percent
- Expansion and enhancement of the English Language Learner (ELL) program, $1.9 million, or .9 percent
- Program support for students enrolled in choice, $700,000, or .4 percent
- New student transportation contract, $800,000, or .4 percent
- Implement phase II of Counseling and Social Emotional Learning, $400,000, or .2 percent
- Partnership with Carver Center for before- and after-school programs, $300,000, or .2 percent
- American Sign Language, $200,000, or .1 percent
- 7th grade summer school, $200,000, or .1 percent
“In our society, talent and intellect distributes itself but opportunity does not. , ensuring opportunity through equity is the job of the board of education and other leaders of our city,” Adamowski began, explaining that Norwalk’s high needs student population has grown to an “historic 66 percent of enrollment.”
“Currently, virtually seven out of 10 students attending our schools are from low income families, are English Language Learners or have special leaning needs,” Adamowski said. “Many are in two or three high needs categories and require additional support to receive an adequate education.”
Stamford has 64 percent high needs students, he said, noting that Norwalk spends $1,245 less per pupil than Stamford.
The per pupil comparison has been a feature of budget battles in recent years. Then-Council member Doug Hempstead in April 2018 called the comparisons “inflammatory” and a year ago speculated that it was an “apple versus an orange versus a pear” comparison. Mayor Harry Rilling has in the past noted the increases in school funding under his administration.
Rilling attended Tuesday’s BoE meeting but said nothing. Adamowski took pains to throw him a bouquet, noting that “during the past three years our budget increases have exceeded the state average and the city has committed significant to building new schools and renovating those in disrepair.”
But, “This funding gap our students are still experiencing is historic in nature,” Adamowski continued. “Over at least the past 15 to 20 years, while other communities invested in their schools, Norwalk’s municipal government was concerned with building its unallocated fundamentals, also known as the Rainy Day Fund, now the largest of any municipality in Connecticut.”
Adamowski also highlighted what he called the “known inequity” of Kendall Elementary School funding, Norwalk’s lowest performing school for “several generations of students.” It’s the “normalization of failure,” he said, advocating for a complete redesign to make Kendall a year-round school and comparing the costs to Norwalk’s highest performing school, the Center for Global Studies, as “a little less than what is currently being spent per pupil annually” at CGS, a high school with only 34 percent high needs students.
Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton and NPS Budget Coordinator Kristen Karzcmit then went on to detail the proposed expenditures.
The proposed $216.5 million is about $3 million less than what would be spent if all the “various central office departments” got what they wanted, Hamilton said.
“The bulk” of the employee cost increase “has to do with benefits, the net insurance increase that’s projected for the 20-21 school year,” Karzcmit said. The increase for projected enrollment jumps could go up, because it’s based on a per-pupil calculation from this year’s budget.
The ELL population has increased “even more” since November, she said. The “choice” line of the budget includes $470,000 for Kendall.
The student transportation contract?
“This is consistent with the city’s efforts towards a cleaner environment… a transition to clean propane fuel buses and smart buses,” Karzcmit said.
That’s $125,000 and then there’s $457,000 to facilitate later high school start times, thought to be “healthier,” according to Karzcmit. Plus, there’s $265,000 to transport Jefferson students to Ponus, given that the new school there is expected to be complete, allowing renovation work on Jefferson to begin.
Adamowski stepped in to recognize Board member Erica DePalma as the spark plug behind the smart bus concept.
“This essentially is equipping school buses with WiFi so that it can do their homework while on the bus,” Adamowski said. “This will be particularly helpful to our high school students, as well as our South Norwalk students who spend longer periods of time on the bus.”
Karzcmit continued, pointing out the recent dissertation on social and emotional learning showing the proven results. Next, she said the $337,000 for Carver is an estimate based on “the best of our knowledge at this time.”
Adamowski recognized Board member Barbara Meyer-Mitchell as the inspiration for this initiative, a response to her concerns about the changed school start times and the need for before- and after-school programs.
“There was a time when we had a variety of after-school care providers. There were five or six,” but it’s “very hard to make money on after school programs or even sustain, because there’s a parent contribution,” Adamowksi said. “…So they have all dropped by the wayside.”
Labor contract complications have made it impossible to continue the After the Bell program as part-time paraprofessionals allege that their second job in After the Bell makes them eligible for full-time employee benefits, Adamowski alleged.
NPS was sued in July and accused of wage theft. The matter was transferred to federal court.
Given the contractual issues, NPS needs a third party “actually employing the folks on an hourly basis who work in the program,” Adamowski said Tuesday. The proposed $337,000 for Carver is “our skin in the game” and comparable to the money spent to cover the After the Bell deficits created by parents who couldn’t pay.
The goal with Carver is to develop a pilot program and establish a baseline for per pupil allocations, Chief of Digital Learning and Development Ralph Valenzisi said.
As for sign language, Karzcmit spoke of recommendations made by a world language task force. Adamowski said NPS is required to have three years of languages, in line with the University of Connecticut’s requirements.
“We are going to be in need of new languages that appeal to different learning styles,” Adamowski said.
Lastly, NPS seeks to expand its summer school to include students exiting seventh grade and entering eighth grade in an effort to close the achievement gap, at a cost of $245,00, Karzcmit said.
In pushing for his recommendation, Adamowski said, “Like John Winthrop’s ‘City upon a Hill,’ Norwalk has become a beacon to those who wish to earn a better life for themselves and their families.”
“It is a great place to raise a family, our schools serve as the engine for achieving the American dream of going to college for countless children and their families without regard to race, ethnicity, or economic status,” he said. “Our students have demonstrated that given the same opportunities, they will do as well if not better, than their homogeneous economically segregated neighbors.”
This story was updated at 2:54 p.m. to include more information and a clarification from Norwalk Public Schools Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams.