NORWALK, Conn. – Questions about fuel oil, unemployment compensation and other things that might inflate the Norwalk Board of Education budget dominated Monday’s Board of Estimate and Taxation meeting, but Mayor Richard Moccia went in the opposite direction with one item.
The mayor, who says his concern for middle school children is the reason the city is spending money for three new police officers, wanted school officials to consider reinstating intramural sports at a cost of $60,000.
“We need something for the intramural sports so we don’t keep losing these kids because they don’t have anything to do,” Moccia said. “To my way of thinking, $60,000, when we look at this budget, and there’s many areas we can change, I would think that would be one of the most important.”
Intramural sports were cut last year, BOE Finance Committee Chairman Mike Barbis said. On Monday, he told Moccia that middle school sports “haven’t been abolished completely” as “several of the schools have risen to the occasion” with fundraising to compensate for the cuts.
It doesn’t seem likely the BOE will take the mayor’s suggestion. “I’m not beholden to supporting these programs,” Barbis said in an email.
“There used to be teams for various sports at each middle school,” he said. “The coaches were teachers who are paid a stipend set in the teachers’ contract. As part of the budget cuts last year, we eliminated the bulk of the funding for these programs.
“Personally, I did not think they had much value, as they were not year round but for only parts of the school year.” Barbis said. “In addition, you had to compete for the teams so they were not inclusive – in my personal experience, I witnessed plenty of favoritism.”
Barbis said he wasn’t sure, but he thought the participation of students in the programs was less than 50 percent.
“At the same time, the Carver Center has an amazing program at each of the four middle schools. Their program is having a much bigger impact on these at-risk kids than the intramural program ever did. I think, on average, 25 percent of the student body is participating in their program of after-school work, tutoring and enrichment.”
Moccia had many questions at Monday’s meeting as he looked for “areas to change.” The mayor asked why heating fuel costs were so high when four schools had switched to natural gas and, in his opinion, this winter had been warmer than last year’s. He wondered why textbooks and software were in the school’s operating budget instead of the capital budget.
BET Chairman Fred Wilms said, “It’s a gray area.”
Barbis said the “really technical” nature of some of Moccia’s questions would require a reply from Chief Financial Officer Richard Rudl. But he said every school that could be switched to natural gas had been switched. He also doubted the perception that this winter has been warmer; it hasn’t been, according to NorwalkWeather.com.
Moccia and Wilms also thought the BOE might benefit from the unusual number of teachers retiring this year – at this point, three dozen teachers, three times the average, according to Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Bruce Mellion.
Barbis refuted that, too. “Retirees don’t save as much as you think. There’s a payout,” he said, referring to a payout for accumulated vacation days. “Every year it’s disappointing,” he said. “The average retiree, we write them a check for $30,000.”
A perception that the rate of retirees might continue is also inaccurate, he said, as there are incentive dates for teachers to file by.
There might be a savings in replacing the retiring elementary school teachers, but Interim Superintendent Tony Daddona said science and math teachers are hard to come by, and therefore are more expensive.
Barbis said, though, that the talks have been constructive.
“This reconciliation is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time,” he said. “It seems there are a lot of options, a lot of possibilities, a lot of things to look at. My gut sense is we’re going to get there.”
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