NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk’s CFO has cherry picked facts and presented misleading information to justify shifting taxpayer dollars to the City-side of the budget, Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton said Wednesday.
Should Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz’ recommended budget be approved, NPS will be forced into painful program cuts, he said, after he and other NPS administrators laid out a detailed rebuttal to comments made by Dachowitz on Monday and Tuesday.
An error lead Dachowitz to believe NPS has 292 more full time employees than it did two years ago, and the increase is actually about 96, Hamilton said, qualifying that estimate as not 100% nailed down yet.
Board of Education member Barbara Meyer-Mitchell asked if Dachowitz or anyone from the Mayor’s Office reached out to Dachowitz’ office before putting that figure into their report. Hamilton said they hadn’t.
“So that’s the second year in a row that this particular individual has gone public with something without even vetting his facts,” she replied.
“The implication seems to be if staffing levels have gone up, by definition, that means the Board of Education is being less efficient. And frankly, we reject that notion, and we reject that position as been really simplistic and based on faulty logic,” Hamilton said. “…Our position is that the addition of these staff members has in fact made the Board of Education more efficient and more effective, that the addition of the staff members has in fact, saved the taxpayers of Norwalk money.”
Hamilton also illuminated a Dachowitz comment from Tuesday: while Dachowitz mentioned $4 million in reference to a decrease in the Board’s health insurance cost projection, Hamilton said the changed estimate cuts $2.1 million from the Board’s expected expenses.
Dachowitz has recommended a $400 million 2021-22 operating budget, which includes a $4.2 million increase for Norwalk Public Schools. The Board had requested an $11.7 million increase, most of it to cover costs out of its control.
It would have been a 5.6% increase in NPS’ budget. Hamilton said the revised estimate means NPS is asking for 4.6% increase.
Dachowitz’ recommendation would increase City spending by 6% and the Board of Education spending by 2%.
Upgrading Special Education = hiring more staff
It’s an “amazing accomplishment” that the district has reduced the number of students outplaced into Special Education services from 137 to 66, Hamilton said.
“It was certainly understood from day one, and certainly should have been expected, and, you know, I think was expected that in order to build these programs in house, and to bring students back in district, of course, we were going to be adding staff,” Hamilton said.
Outplacing students can cost $70,000 to upwards of $250,000, plus the cost of related services and the cost of transportation,” Chief of Specialized Learning and Student Services Yvette Goorevitch said.
“It would also potentially add the cost of litigation” if federal mandates aren’t met, Meyer-Mitchell said.
Hiring speech and language pathologists and BCBAs resulted in “enormous budget savings to the district” because the corresponding contractual outsourcing didn’t happen, Hamilton said. In 2016-17, “the Special Education department spent over $7.3 million on contracted services” and NPS has budgeted $1.1 million in 2021-22.
“That isn’t a cause to criticize the district for hiring staff, when in fact, you know, it’s more cost effective and more efficacious for the services we provide to be providing them in house,” he said.
It also provides a better education, Meyer Mitchell said.
“From a Special Education parent perspective, when we use our own employees who are stable within the district, we can also provide better continuity of services to our families,” she said. “It takes a while to build a relationship with the service provider, and to have trust, because trust is a big part of what needs to happen in that area. So, this is actually a great leap forward for us to have that capacity in district because it has enabled us to have better relationships with families of our special needs students.”
“In order to really understand what’s going on and to understand and to draw valid conclusions about efficiency, you really have to look a lot deeper than we saw the City CFO do in his presentation,” Hamilton said. “Just looking at changes in staffing levels over a period of time without understanding the context behind it is really sort of meaningless information.”
“It’s not new news… that the number of multilingual learners in Norwalk has been increasing,” Hamilton said. While there’s a dip this year that’s attributed to the pandemic and NPS expects the numbers to grow should COVID-19 wane.
The City approved a $1.1 million special appropriation in 2019 to fund English Language Learner services and, “This was never pitched as being a onetime expense that just sort of miraculously went away,” Hamilton said. “It was understood from the beginning that this was going to be an ongoing expense to the district and that these staff members were needed in order to continue to run these programs.”
“Can I just add, both of the areas that you’ve highlighted so far are legally mandated, they’re not something at our discretion,” Meyer-Mitchell said. “We must do these things, special education and multilingual learning. So I’m not sure how we do our jobs without that staff increase?”
“I don’t think people realize that … if we do not have the resources to properly provide instruction for our multi language learners and our Special Education learners, that’s going to impact the entire student population, it’s good to stretch all the resources we have,” Board of Education Chairman Colin Hosten said.
“We do lose sight of the children and I think that’s where we’re running into problems right now,” BoE member Diana Carpio said. “Because the City-side is looking at just numbers. They’re not looking at the details. They’re misinformed. They don’t understand. We’re not communicating well with each other and not understanding each other.”
“What the district has done is very strategically build capacity within the system to provide adequate services to our students, and provide the continuum of services in house and inversely reduce the cost associated with either outsourcing or out placing students,” Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella said.
Reducing high school study halls
Historically, Norwalk’s high school students were excessively scheduled for study halls and “that was really viewed at the time as really an intolerable situation and one that had to be corrected,” Hamilton said.
That change and a 26 credit graduation requirement were phased in over three years, he explained.
“We needed to, you know, improve the rigor of the high school program,” Hamilton said. “So that over a three-year period, there were 29 high school teachers that were added as part of that initiative. And so again, we consider ensuring that our public school students graduate college and career ready, we really consider that a sacred responsibility to our children.”
Dachowitz has also mentioned a law of diminishing returns.
“I would humbly suggest that the law of diminishing returns could be carried to, you know, such an extreme where somebody may look at that and say, ‘Gee, if somebody gets to an eighth grade education level, that’s, that’s good enough, that’s good enough for us. And we don’t need to, you know, get any above and beyond that level that we’re, you know, now experiencing diminishing returns on our investment.’ And, frankly, that’s just ludicrous,” Hamilton said.
‘Is he surprised?’
Comparing full time employees to the number of students to create a ratio is “really very rudimentary and and not particularly insightful or illuminating about what’s going on in the school system,” Hamilton said. “… That measure is really simplistic, and is not, you know, it’s maybe one data point, but it’s really not a particularly useful or relevant data point in my judgment.”
Dachowitz has said NPS enrollment didn’t go up as had been projected.
“I don’t know whether, you know, this is a surprise to Mr. Dachowitz, but we’ve been in the middle of a global pandemic for the last almost the last year, the last nine months, and COVID-19 is obviously upended the world and has changed everything about the way things work,” Hamilton said. “… I think, in fact that our enrollment numbers have historically come in quite close to the projections, with the exception of 2021, which is really explained entirely by COVID.”
Goorevitch and Hamilton said parents are keeping their kindergarten students out of school.
“Doesn’t mean those students have disappeared. It means we’re probably going to see them next year, and we’re going to have very large kindergarten classes,” Hamilton said.
And the CFO’s estimation of in-kind services omits the fact that school ballfields are used by “all kinds of athletic leagues and others,” Hamilton said. Playgrounds are obviously used by families when their children are not in school.
‘It will mean cuts’
“The CFO’s budget recommendation provides for a 6.1% City budget increase and a 2% Board of Education increase. So essentially, we have what is I would consider a disproportionate three times relationship here … essentially this recommendation is really allocating resources away from education,” Hamilton said.
The proposed $4.2 million increase doesn’t even cover the revised $4.6 million health insurance increase, let alone contractual labor cost increases, Hamilton said.
“Unfortunately, the clearer implication of that is it will necessitate cuts to current services. And, you know, that would obviously be, you know, troubling and unfortunate if that is where we end up,” Hamilton said.
NPS and the Board of Education are hamstrung in dealing with the issue because Norwalk’s Finance Department hasn’t produced a budget book, he said.
“The fact is that city charter requires the finance director to transmit the budget to the Board of Estimate on Monday, this past Monday. And I don’t if I understood correctly, I don’t think that that budget has been transmitted. I have not seen it,” Hamilton said.
Dachowitz has said that Norwalk Director of Management and Budgets Angela Fogel suffered a medical emergency and is out of work, hindering the budget work.
Meyer-Mitchell said she hopes the pandemic will abate and the economy improve.
“I’m very happy to see that at the state level, there is less bad news than some may have anticipated. And that’s very helpful. And of course, at the federal level many actions are being taken to help stabilize the economy nationally,” she said.
She continued, “My hope is that we can continue to budget for a return to normalcy rather than an extended crisis stance, which would have us potentially losing programs that we have worked extremely hard to build to address the needs in our district. It would be a shame to have sort of a knee jerk reaction to the historic moment that we’re in and allow ourselves to lose track of the progress that we have already made.”