Updated, 3:57 p.m., with a sentence explaining what the BOE had planned to do with the insurance account.
NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Schools are on course to rebuild with the 2013-2014 budget approved Tuesday night, but Board of Education members say their relationship with the city needs some written parameters.
The board unanimously approved a $164 million operating budget, hailed as a “great achievement by Chairman Mike Lyons in the face of “nonstop gyrations of state government.” But board member Steven Colarossi protested the city’s hands-off attitude toward a $1.2 million surplus in the insurance fund, which is being used to repay the debt incurred by the BOE last year. Other members said no written agreement had ever been drawn up regarding that debt and they were confused as to the repayment terms.
To recap: the BOE had been facing $5.8 million in cuts to then-Superintendent Susan Marks’ proposed operating budget when a $4 million deficit in the insurance accounts was uncovered by Chief Operating Officer Elio Longo, bringing the needed cuts to nearly $10 million. The $4 million was eliminated, in part, when the Board of Estimate and Taxation allowed the BOE to repay $3.1 million over three years.
Longo said Tuesday that the board is now $2 million ahead of schedule in repaying that debt. That is due, in part, to the $1.2 million still in the insurance reserve account, which was unspent because there were fewer claims than had been planned for. The city is applying that money to the deficit, although board members had been planning to keep it in reserve and use it to fund three teachers, if they were needed to keep classroom sizes low.
Board members said they had never voted on the repayment terms for the debt. The only written documentation is in the BET minutes.
“It seems a little vague and there have been different iterations of this since this issue originally surfaced,” said Finance Committee Chairman Mike Barbis. “I just don’t understand, things seemed to have changed over time. … We need to have a written agreement going forward as to how this is being handled because it’s been way nebulous and it’s not fair to us. We never even voted on it.”
Board Chairman Mike Lyons agreed, saying the situation makes the first-ever attempt to make a multi-year projected budget difficult.
“We need to get some definitive understanding of how these insurance arrangements are going to be made because we’re not going to be able to effectively do long-term budgeting and planning when withdrawals from our accounts can be made without any notice and any schedule we are aware of,” he said.
The city has appropriated $162 million for the BOE this year, a 1.74 percent increase from last year. Longo and Chief Financial Officer Richard Rudl explained that the BOE’s $164 million operating budget was achieved by moving some items into the state funding that was allocated at the end of the legislative session and by cutting $576,703 from the budget approved by the BOE earlier this year. That includes $168,112 less budgeted for unemployment insurance due to decreasing claims and a $162,171 credit due to retiring teachers.
Other changes to the board-approved budget include hiring one district behavioralist instead of two and the elimination of one central office clerk position. Funding for Special Education tuition and professional services funds was increased by $380, 531. There is room for one reserve teacher and an additional math teacher at Nathan Hale in the new budget.
The budget adds a curriculum science specialist, a speech and language pathologist, an art teacher for Brien McMahon High School, six elementary school librarian aides at 27.5 hours a week, two middle school librarian aides at 32 hours a week (existing middle school librarian aides will have their hours reduced from 37 to 32), increased hours for a human resources secretary (to 37.5), a building coordinator and six intervention/utility aides at 27.5 hours a week.
Middle school intramural activities will also be reinstated. That includes after-school clubs as well as athletics.
The budget passed unanimously.
Lyons said “dozens and dozens of hours” had gone into the budget. That included going through the budget with a “fine tooth comb” to find savings as the board set about rebuilding its programs after last year’s cuts.
“It’s the first time, I think, in many years that board members have seen us adding positions,” he said. “… It’s a real testament to people who spent an awful amount of time working on this to make it happen in the midst of a constantly shifting situation from the state.”
Colarossi expressed disappointment that the board can not use any of the $1.2 million that is left in the insurance fund reserve this year, a result of fewer claims than had been budgeted for, because the city is using that as a repayment of last year’s deficit.
He referred to what he called “uncomfortable facts.”
“Mr. Hamilton believes that the shortfall that arose last year has a lingering effect on that account,” he said. “Even though Boards of Education in Connecticut say it’s illegal to maintain a deficit. We are not authorized to borrow money.”
Colarossi said he wished more reserve teachers were included in the budget, expressing concern for classroom sizes at Brookside Elementary School, which includes “a very large non-English-speaking population,” he said.
Lyons said both he and interim Superintendent Tony Daddona had had conversations with Mayor Richard Moccia on that topic. He said the mayor assured them that when classroom sizes are evaluated in September or October, as per the contract with the Norwalk Federation of Teachers, he would support a request for a special appropriation to hire teachers.
“I certainly intend to take him up on that,” Lyons said.
Colarossi said he thought it should be done sooner, to spare children the difficulty of being uprooted.
“I’m hoping that once we have our more definitive enrollment numbers in July and August,” he said, “that we might be able to prevail upon his honor for, basically, our insurance money back, to put in reserve teachers.”
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