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Council members meet NPS for ‘very focused’ Q&A on BoE budget

“A big portion of our human resource capital is towards our elementary schools, followed by high schools and middle schools,” Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Lunda Asmani said Tuesday, showing a PowerPoint slide that outlined the “actual bodies that are working every single day within the district,” not adjusted for full-time versus part time employees.

NORWALK, Conn. — Both sides indicated they’d made progress Tuesday after an in-depth question and answer session on Norwalk Public Schools budgetary issues even if the conversation came across as compressed, with Common Council members keeping their inquiries short given the tight time frame.

Multiple Council members, in the joint meeting with the Board of Education, sought answers on how NPS would retain the employees it moved to federal grant funding after the grants run out. There was also more than one mention of what Diana Révolus (D-District B) called the “elephant in the room” – the number of administrators working in Central Office.

“Everyone in Central Office is expected to be in school supporting schools and providing services in the schools. If you go to Central Office during school hours, you will find very few people there because, including myself as the superintendent, we spend our time in schools,” Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella said.

It’s the latest development in efforts to formulate a City operating budget for the coming fiscal year. Norwalk Public Schools requested a 9.1% increase in funding; Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz and Mayor Harry Rilling have recommended a 3.75% increase. Board of Education members say they need a 4.5% increase just to cover contractual obligations with school staff members. Rilling stresses that the initial recommendation is a step in the process and things will evolve.

Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Lunda Asmani speaks to Common Council members Tuesday on Zoom.

ESSER-funded positions and the plea for a 9.1% increase

Council members submitted questions in advance of the 1.5-hour meeting, according to Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Lunda Asmani.

Last year, NPS was forced to use federal COVID-19 relief funding to supplant the local budget, Asmani said, reviewing the typical NPS operating budget presentation. The district has 103 teachers funded through ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund) grants, in addition to social workers, counselors and health personnel.

Council President Tom Livingston (D-District E) was the first to ask about that.

“The individuals in these positions are aware that these are grant funded positions. And this was something that was discussed with our union,” Asmani said.

“What is the plan in terms of those positions once the extra funds expire?” Livingston asked.

NPS shifted $1.5 million that had been planned for magnet school budgets into funding math and reading specialists this year, Estrella said. The district also looked at Priority School District and Title I funding and, “We tried our very best last year to try to balance costs by readjusting spending in other areas.”

When “we didn’t get the raise the funding that we were hoping for last year, that formula that we were trying to build upon was not feasible anymore,” and NPS “made it clear” to its personnel that those roles might be “eliminated after the resources were depleted.”

She said, “We had to make those hard choices, because our students needed the support and interventions. And that was the only way we could do it.”

That’s why the Board of Education is seeking a 9.1% budget increase, “to address some of that challenge in how we are funded. …We want to level set right there,” Estrella continued. “These interventions should have been in our schools, pre-COVID. And now COVID has exacerbated the need for them. And right now, we’re just talking about one interventionist per school.”

West Rocks Middle School Principal Adam Reynolds speaks to Common Council members Tuesday on Zoom.

‘Game changer’

West Rocks Middle School Principal Adam Reynolds was presented as an example of the need for interventionists.

Reynolds said tests show two-thirds of West Rocks students are below their grade level in math and one half are below grade level in reading literacy. District administration provided interventionists in each subject, who supported both Tier II and III students but also the teachers, and, “We, as a building, didn’t feel like that was enough.”

The School Governance Council and education leadership prioritized West Rocks’ Student-Based Budget funds, deciding not to replace people who had retired, “and made sure that we had more interventionists than just one at every grade level…. We ended up having six improvement teachers, three ELA, three math.”

While that wasn’t easy, it allowed for a scientific research-based intervention (SRBI) process, targeting the kids who weren’t at grade level, he said.

“We’re halfway through the year,” he said. “We are in the process of our mid-year check ins as far as our evaluation process … We have between 50 and 60% of our students, again, initially over the last week or so, have already made their yearly progress” according to projected growth goals.

One interventionist “was a game changer” and “I can’t speak highly enough about what these interventionists do in our school,” Reynolds said.

Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Lunda Asmani speaks to Common Council members Tuesday on Zoom.

‘No easy solution’

Council member Dominique Johnson (D-At Large) asked about the salaries involved, “north of $200,000” in the budget documents.

“I believe this is consistent city-wide. When we include personnel cost, it is salary plus benefits,” Asmani said.

“By contract, it depends on the years of service the individual has, and that will determine where they fall in the pay scale. And then plus the benefits will determine their final salary. So that number fluctuates,” Estrella said.

Norwalk Board of Education Chairman Colin Hosten said this had come up in BoE discussions as well. He had been curious “about was how the decision was made to assign certain positions to the federal grant,” and the answer was that “most of the grant is funded through reimbursement.”

He said, “We wanted to stay as much as possible within the parameters of what was most earmarked for reimbursement, as opposed to you know, putting like just regular operating expenses on that federal grant.”

“A big pillar of the parameters that they provided was learning loss,” Estrella said.

There’s “no easy solution” to the question about a plan for what happens when the grant funding dries up, she said. “…We’re asking to please fund us at the 9.1% so that we can ensure that as we move forward, we won’t have to let go of personnel that we desperately need. And to we can level-set the system so that students can, once and for all, start to receive the services that they need.”

Parents told her that “a lot of their students were not being identified in needing specialized services, because we didn’t have an SRBI structure in the district.”

Council member Josh Goldstein (D-At Large) also pressed the grant funding issue, asking if there’s a strategic plan to come up with “innovative or collaborative funding sources, so that it’s not just coming straight from the municipality.”

“We’ve constantly made a concerted effort to look for grants and other resources,” Estrella said, mentioning the summer school experience through the Maritime Aquarium.

She said, “If we were not flat funded last year, we would be able to better mitigate some of the challenges that you’re articulating. We had a strategic plan. It just didn’t manifest itself in the way we planned it.”

Estrella’s SRBI process is intended to “get in front of late referrals for students with disabilities” which will “have a payoff in the end” because “there’s a critical timeframe in addressing that gap,” Board of Education member Erica DePalma said. “What she’s doing now is going to save the taxpayers money tomorrow.”

Central Office

Council Majority Leader Barbara Smyth (D-At Large), a retired teacher, went “back to that elephant in the room.”

“I am hearing many, many complaints about a bloated central office staff,” she said. “… Many of our teachers live here in Norwalk and are taxpayers, and they, you know, are frankly, concerned, really concerned with what they’re seeing.”

She asked about the “a burdensome process with the School Quality Review” when there is a free alternative.

“I think I want to focus the conversation given time to the purpose of this meeting, which is around the budget,” Estrella replied. But, “When we reorganized Central Office, we kept the numbers equivalent to what was before. I think the difference that people are observing now is that people are in the field and not in the office.”

She said, “In the past, people were not accustomed to having people from Central Office supporting and ensuring that the processes and priorities set by the strategic plan that was approved by the Board of Education is being put in place, particularly around curricular supports and different elements of, of that nature.”

The high school process only happens within several years and “if you look at the research, the way that we improve schools is by engaging in cycles of improvement, something that wasn’t happening within our within our school community and something that is instrumental, particularly because we have such a diverse student population… our teachers also need to evolve and shift practice to meet the needs of the diverse student population,” Estrella said.

Tuesday’s Special Joint Workshop of the Common Council and the Board of Education on Zoom.

‘The challenge of public education’

Council members are “really agonizing this year about the balance between recognizing that the schools need additional funding … And at the same time, recognizing that we don’t want to drive families out of Norwalk,” Council member Nora Niedzielski-Eichner (D-At Large) said.

She asked, “Are we closing in on sufficient funding?”

“I don’t know if that can be answered, because we can’t go past us having to plan in response to shifting funds, and choosing which programs we’ll have to minimize, or if not all, forget, which all puts a hold on being our kids needs each and every time we come to that situation,” replied BoE Secretary Godfrey Azima.

“I think that’s part of the challenge of public education, we all know that it is a landscape that is constantly shifting, and that we are in still in the moment of pretty unprecedented challenge with regard to the pandemic. And that came at a time when we were to, be quite honest, playing catch up, you know, as a district for a host of reasons,” Hosten said.

Council member Nicol Ayers (D-District A) asked, “If we are in a resource crisis, why do we continue to spin in a manner that seems as if we are not in crisis?” She wanted to know if the budget could be trimmed.

“Wherever we were able to reduce costs in ways that would not negatively impact the learning experience of our students we did,” Estrella said.

Norwalk exceeded expectations pre-Covid when it comes to state accountability tests even if when you compare Norwalk to its surrounding towns, “it’s my understanding that there’s about $4,000 less per pupil,” Council member Heidi Alterman (D-District D) said. “So if you do the math, that ends up being about $100,000 per classroom every year, less funding… to over perform the surrounding towns, I think is amazing and something to be celebrated.”

Estrella said, “we were the best in the state in terms of the array of urban school districts when those metrics were being measured.”

Alterman mentioned aspects of diversity and Estrella said that when looking at “particular subgroups, particularly our multilingual learners and students receiving specialized services. One of the things that we noticed is that, although we’ve made significant strides, there’s still a lot of work to be done. For instance, our graduation rate for of those two subgroups, is a hovering at 60.”

“Meaningful’

Hosten said the meeting resulted in “a very meaningful conversation” with “very, very focused engagement.”

Livingston agreed.

Dachowitz did not attend. The CFO issued an apology Saturday after being condemned for having used the phrase “return on investment” after observing that many NPS students don’t achieve on grade level.

“We missed Mr. Dachowitz tonight. Maybe he’ll come next time,” Hosten said.

Estrella said NPS was compiling an FAQ to send Council members.

Asmani said, “As we go through this process, and we start setting initial caps on the budget, we would just ask that the Common Council allow us the opportunity to continue to have these discussions and in setting the cap provide some flexibility to those entities that are still involved in the decision making process, before setting the final cap.”

13 comments

Tysen Canevari February 16, 2022 at 5:57 am

West Rocks Middle School Principal Adam Reynolds was presented as an example of the need for interventionists.

Reynolds said tests show two-thirds of West Rocks students are below their grade level in math and one half are below grade level in reading literacy.

This is what our mayor and super consider a great school system where people from other towns are wanting to move here for? The mayor demanded an apology from Mr Dachowitz when all he did was tell the truth. Harry was quoted as saying, “One party rule is great as long as it is mine!” All of a sudden the walls seems to be caving in. Keep an open mind people. Lets face the facts and not let politics stand in the way. The kids deserve better. Stop wasting taxpayers hard earned money and make some professional decisions or step down and let someone else do it. Salaries should be earned not a right of passage!

John O'Neill February 16, 2022 at 9:10 am

Some thoughts:
1) I can’t wait until next year — This year is merely a warmup for Estrella . She’s been able to basically spend what she wants where she wants. Without a whole lot of success by the way. Maybe that welcome center money could be better spent elsewhere
2) 103 Teachers being funded thru Covid money? What happens when the fun money runs out? Are we naive enough to believe the REAL plan is to get rid of those teachers and others? What’s that bill? $10 Million +?
3) The Central Office is out in the field supporting schools? Is that some kind of joke? From the many teachers I talk to they’d prefer those highly paid supporters to be elsewhere. For those interested, the latest edict from those “supporters” has teachers programming questions and who they’ll ask those questions to the day before classes. AND then reporting back on the response to those questions. Think about that for a second. In fact, you may have to reread what I just wrote to fully grasp how insane that is. They’re actually monitoring who gets questions a teacher asks. BIZARRE 101.
4) Again, they point to Norwalk being #1 in Urban Metrics. — That’s nuance. Take a look at the competition.
5) Thanks to our leadership in Washington the open border policy has brought many new students to Norwalk. BUT, the Feds forgot to fund cities like Norwalk for the privilege. We’re left holding the bag. Thank you Dems.
6) Lastly, to our Hartford representatives — Thank you for all you do for our schools. Less welcoming towns like West Hartford and New Milford seem to get more funding than Norwalk for schools. Why is that? Maybe someone can enlighten me on that? My only request is to not give me a history lesson on why Norwalk is short changed. I give a damn about the present and the future, not the past.
7) Maybe Estrella can take her dance to Hartford for funding. She seems to be good at that.

Piberman February 16, 2022 at 11:49 am

If past is prologue the Council will give the failing BOE a moderate budget increase. And its blessings to build more new schools to enhance our City’s “image”. But the Council won’t demand a detailed plan on how the BOE will secure a major improvement in our failing public school system towards meeting CT Edu Dept graduation standards.

The Council like most residents understand the BOE is simply incapable is securing major improvement in our public schools. Our BOE collectively lacks the skills and abilities to manage large enterprises like a public school system. Our surrounding towns secure high performance precisely because they elect BOE members capable of securing high performance.

Sadly in our transient City where “renters bringing growth” make up almost half our residents leaders in our One Party City remain indifferent to the embarrassing outcomes in our public school system. Our City leaders are not troubled by most of our grads not meeting CT Edu Dept standards. Nor by prospective new homeowners passing Norwalk by owing to its deficient schools.

So lets commend our Common Council for raising the public school budget. What else could they do ? Demand much better public school performance ? And lets encourage building new schools at whatever the cost. At days end Norwalk’s elected leaders just aren’t interested in securing public school educations for our kids that meet CT Edu Dept standards. They’ve done their job raising the budget. And further embellished our sad reputation as the “hole in the middle of the donut”.

Politics aside being indifferent to the proper education of our children, especially newcomers to our nation, is bloody awful. When half of Norwalk’s adults have 4 yr college degrees and most of our kids don’t meet CT Edu graduation standards something is bloody wrong. And it won’t be cured with more monies or higher salaries. Only by much greater competence and oversight of our BOE. We need a new BOE and a new public school administrators pledged to major improvement.

Piberman February 16, 2022 at 12:27 pm

Why are the leaders of our Latino and Black populations who make up a major portion of our City’s population silent about the persistent failure of our City’s public schools to meet CT Edu Dept graduation standards ? Of what value are our graduation certificates especially when most of our grads never secure 4 yr college degrees ?

So far not a word in all the extended public discussions and articles/comments in Nancy’s and elsewhere about the absence of any well detailed plan to have Norwalk public school students meet CT Edu Dept graduation guidelines. Not a word.

Is it because everyone knows and accepts our public school system, especially our BOE, lacks the leadership skills to secure a much better outcome ? Sure looks that way.

Seriously? February 16, 2022 at 1:10 pm

Some questions, not all of them directly related to budget, but all of them with budget and/or quality of service implications:

1. Should people stop believing their own eyes and accept that the superintendent’s claim that the central office numbers are “equivalent to what was before”? I guess one could parse the words, as Bill Clinton did (when he said “it all depends upon what the meaning of ‘is’ is”), and say that it all depends upon what “before” means. If it means during Dr. Estrella’s first year, but before her second year, then the statement may be largely, but probably not entirely, true. If it means before Dr. Estrella’s arrival, I don’t see how it can be at all true.

2. Until the opening of the parent center, why was it necessary to take over some of the limited 3rd floor conference space for administrative offices within the past year, something that had never before been necessary? The district had already reclaimed every unused square foot of space in the office areas for additional offices. With the parent center out of city hall, now there is more office space. How could there have been a shortage of office space if there weren’t a significant increase in staff?

3. Was the cost of the renovations to the rented space for the new parent center really $5 million? I don’t care if that was capital money, operations money or grant money. $5 million was taxpayer money that could have been put to much better use.

4. How many consultants is the district using, in addition to the administrative staff? Who are the consultants, and what are they doing? Why can’t the existing administrative staff do the work?

5. How many teachers and administrators have left since Dr. Estrella’s arrival? How many exit interview have been conducted, and what conclusions have been made from the information they have provided? What innovative ways is the district using to attract AND RETAIN new staff?

6. The HR department has gone downhill, with only one person left among the original dozen staff that were there when the current HR director arrived. The loss of the knowledge base has been troubling to people who depend upon the department, and my impeccable sources tell me that the director is the reason for the departure of knowledgeable and helpful employees.

7. Why is the superintendent patting herself on the back because she and her administrators are in the schools? That’s like having a teacher pat herself on the back for being in her classroom. Dr. Estrella, you SHOULD be in the schools, as should your staff. The greater question, though, is: Is your presence and that of your other central office administrators actually helping people in the schools to feel supported and to improve?

Terrence McNicholas February 16, 2022 at 3:07 pm

Council Majority Leader Barbara Smyth (D-At Large), a retired teacher, went “back to that elephant in the room.”

“I am hearing many, many complaints about a bloated central office staff,” she said. “… Many of our teachers live here in Norwalk and are taxpayers, and they, you know, are frankly, concerned, really concerned with what they’re seeing.”

Michael McGuire February 16, 2022 at 3:53 pm

Seriously, Piberman, J. O’Neil, Tysen,

I wish you were all on the BOE. At least meaningful questions would be asked and the answers demanded.

Piberman February 16, 2022 at 5:20 pm

Isn’t the key question here whether we should increase the budget of public school demonstrably failing to educate our kids according to CT Edu standards without seeing a plan to improve student achievement ? We have a major public school competence issue. Our BOE and senior administrators are failing to educate our kids so they meet CT standards. In any well managed community that would be cause for major concern But its “ho hum” in Norwalk. Party leaders stay silent.

Why is neither City Hall nor the Common Council demanding much better results from our public school system ? Do they imagine parents and ordinary citizens want to finance a demonstrably failing public school system ?

Why is the BOE and public school administrators focused on expensive new schools when their real job is educating our kids ?

Where are the parents and City leaders supporting our demonstrably failing public school system ? Common Council and City Hall have nothing to say ? Just embarrassed ? No one speaking on behalf of our failing schools ? Even teacher and administrator Unions remaining silent ? Parents groups too ? Supt. silent too ?

Are you kidding me? February 16, 2022 at 6:36 pm

There are absolutely more people in Central Office and many of them came from New York. Positions were re defined and the staff who had the job were let go because “their job was eliminated”. New people were hired for the” new jobs” Some departments have a new person in charge and they have assistants. But let’s eliminate the interventionists who work directly with students. As far as Central Office staff in the schools they, may be in schools more but they do not speak to the teachers.

s February 16, 2022 at 6:40 pm

Depressing reading this – I think the whole system needs to be revamped and new board APPOINTED like a proper Business would do. The need of the hour is not bigger buildings, but better quality education. Also is the children are lagging behind DO NOT SEND THEM ahead, please for their sake let they stay back at the level they belong so they don’t struggle later on. It’s not a shame or a failure to stay back and repeat a class. But it is a waste of energy trying to push them ahead when they’re clearly not ready. This is supposed to be a developed country, but the education here is lacking worse than developing countries are – including infrastructure amd it’s surprising how there is so much mismanagement.

Admiral February 16, 2022 at 7:10 pm

NPS keeps promoting (year after year) that “Norwalk is in the #1 city school district in Connecticut!”

Great, that’s like saying “The Titanic is the #1 built boat of boats which sunk.”

Look at the competition.

There’s a reason why when NHS and BMHS student sections at athletic events get into it with our high-performing suburban neighbors like Darien, Wilton, New Canaan, and Westport…the Norwalk students are mocked with chants of “N-C-T-C…clap, clap, clap clap clap”

Piberman February 17, 2022 at 11:12 am

If our Common Council won’t hold our BOE’s feet to the fire and demand a detailed plan on how they will transform a failing Norwalk public system into one that meets CT Edu Dept standards for our graduates then nothing will change. Comments by our BOE members demonstrate they’re not up to the task. And our Supt and Administrators remain quiet.

So its up to the Common Council to speak up for City taxpayers, parents and above all our children. Why isn’t there collective outrage at not meeting CT Edu standards for our kids ? Why aren’t our Democratic City leaders speaking out ? Hoping no one will pay attention in our One Party City ? Kids education doesn’t count ? Administrators more important than our kids or taxpayers ? Or hoping no one will notice.

Here’s a seminal moment for Norwalk’s Democratic leaders. Save our City and speak out.

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