This publication knows us as NPS parents fiercely supportive of our public schools, yet, we also try to tackle these issues with a practical mindset. It goes without saying that every negotiation has its posturing, its shots across the bow, its hopes and dreams, and ultimately imperfect end result. No one side is without imperfections or absolved from critique. But, when the true colors of one side’s representatives cauterize their astonishing viewpoints and show them to the community, it needs to be addressed.
While we recognize this administration has gone to great lengths on occasion to repair NPS lapses from the past, the rhetoric coming out of representatives of the City of late has consistently been counter to the spirit of these commitments. A spirit that should be collaborative, transparent, and working in good faith together to serve its community. And while we know no one side is without flaws, and we may disagree with how the budget sessions have shaken out the last few years, it’s only this year that the City’s position has become abundantly more clear: the City is willing to meet only the very basic needs of its youngest citizens – citizens across different backgrounds, races, and creeds. Any more than the bare minimum, if that, is unaffordable excess characterized by “diminishing returns” and a failed “return on investment.” As the City CFO Henry Dachowitz claims, our students are simply an investment gone wrong, and no sense in putting good money after bad. His language treats kids and teachers as if their success can be measured in dollars and cents when in reality NPS efforts won’t be measurable for years to come.
Last year, both the City of Norwalk and Norwalk Public schools received significant federal relief funds to help address the challenges brought forth by COVID. The City received approximately $45 million and NPS received approximately $48 million. The City was fortunate and able to allocate how and where those funds were spent. It used these funds for projects designed to improve economic and business development, help avoid flooding and drainage issues, etc. These are all good things. Norwalk Public Schools, on the other hand, did not have the same level of freedom in determining how and where its federal funds could best be used to supplant COVID-related needs. Instead, NPS was forced to use these federal dollars to address inadequate local funding and support basic operating expenses, including summer school, social workers, school counselors, etc. Expenses relevant to any year, global pandemic or otherwise.
This week, as we navigate a new budget cycle and increasing needs with dwindling federal funds, instead of acknowledging the sacrifice that our schools and our children have made and continue to make as a result of this reliance on COVID relief funds, Mr. Dachowitz instead suggested that our children weren’t worth investing in, because the return on the investment in them is poor. The justification for this opinion: our children perform below grade level and we do not see the same return on investment of our surrounding communities. Interestingly, those communities that would meet Mr. Dachowitz’s standard, those that see a strong academic ROI for money spent in education, spend significantly more than we do on a per student basis, in some cases more than 25% per student. This would suggest that the answer is not removing funding for our schools but actually increasing it.
No doubt seeing the challenges presented, Mayor Rilling promptly issued a statement expressing his disappointment in the statements made by Mr. Dachowitz. But that is not enough. This cannot be dealt with “internally” and behind closed doors. Mr. Dachowitz has shown that he does not represent this city as a partner in its success, instead he makes these decisions by inputting his own policy analysis into the proposed budget. We ask the Mayor to respond in the only appropriate manner: temporarily suspend Mr. Dachowitz from his leadership role in the BOE portion of City budgeting and appoint a new representative to lead these City-side discussions immediately.
Regardless of what side of the budget you are on – whether you feel NPS deserves nothing more, a modest increase, or their full ask – Mr. Dachowitz has proven time and again that he is unable to grapple with the language and harbor the character necessary to lead productive dialogue. His rhetoric is caustic, dismissive, and uncollaborative – at a time when the needs demand it.
We do not discount Mr. Dachowitz’s ability to navigate numbers and intentions at protecting a bottom line, but his role as a steward of the city is multi-fold.
This isn’t just about differences in what the City feels the BOE needs versus what they do. His job at communicating the City’s commitments does not operate in a vacuum, and likewise, we do not believe his language and resulting conclusions are without vetting. Ultimately, the Mayoral statement saying otherwise does not match the data, particularly when basic operating expenses are met only when the federal government steps in during a global public health emergency. We can’t help but wonder what will happen when those federal funds are gone.
That said, every year cannot be the “most difficult cycle” in recent memory. Every budget the “most challenging” to operate. This is what the administration preaches as a means to justify the belt-tightening. And while this year’s taxes appear to be going up, largely due to the phase out of federal funds across the board, at the low end they would rise by $13 per month for the average taxpayer, at the high end they would go up by $31 per month.
The Council and the Mayor must decide if supporting our schools and granting the BOE’s budget request is worth perhaps the extra $18 per month, or $216 per year, from the average taxpayer. In the likely event they decide against this scenario, then the justification for fair-spirited dialogue becomes more imperative, as reasonable compromise becomes the result of having the right personalities operating together with the right motivations. Our CFO has clarified his chosen tact.
In the end, the efforts of ourselves and others in this community are only just beginning. Our work thus far through the press, fundraising, and messaging has prompted the accession of three (nearly four) new parents on the Common Council. It has led to increased numbers of strong, courageous women and diversity on both CC and BOE. And it has served to bring notice to those that have singularly gone out of their way to suppress educational investment, that their efforts will not go without response. The population, and thus, political winds are changing – and we’ll embrace them, even if many of those in power are unwilling to.
Justin Matley & Sarah McIntee
(Justin Matley and Sarah McIntee are Chapman Hyperlocal Media Inc. Board members. The views expressed are their own.)