NORWALK, Conn. — Normally calm and professional Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton was animated and emotional Wednesday evening, in defending NPS from “wrong” comments made this week by Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz.
“I am very troubled and disturbed by the divisive, needlessly adversarial, and blatantly inaccurate tone and tenor and substance of the comments of the City Finance Director. I believe that he has taken an approach that is essentially devolved into a personal attack on me and on my integrity, and on the members of the Board (of Education) and on the entire Norwalk Public Schools community,” Hamilton said.
Dachowitz, in two separate presentations in public meetings, called the budget request from Hamilton “misleading and confusing.” On Monday, he called it “sneaky and deceptive,” and listed issues ranging from gift cards for teachers to unsafe scaffolding for the Norwalk High School Marching Band.
Hamilton spent 1.5 hours Wednesday evening offering Board of Education Finance Committee members a detailed rebuttal to Dachowitz’ comments, as reported on NancyOnNorwalk, and to Dachowitz’ PowerPoint presentation.
“I understand that the city and the City Finance Director are frequently put in a difficult situation having to try to balance multiple needs and priorities and do so in a way that results in a tax rate that’s acceptable to the Mayor and to the Board of Estimate and Taxation and the Common Council,” said Hamilton, former Norwalk Finance Director. “I understand those are all difficult things. What I take great exception to is the vitriol and personal attacks and the tone and tenor of these comments these last few days.”
‘The city outperformed its budget’
Norwalk’s fund balance grew more than $12 million in 2018-19, Hamilton said, describing Norwalk’s “very healthy” financial status.
Dachowitz and Mayor Harry Rilling recommend drawing down $8 million for the 2020-21 budget. Rilling noted Monday that the City’s revenues included building permits from SoNo Collection stores; property taxes from the mall have been estimated at $2.5 million for the first seven years but that has yet to be confirmed.
It’s a “reasonable assumption” that the 2018-19 success is reproducible because the grand list has gone up and projections for things like car taxes are often conservative, Hamilton said Wednesday.
The City has a debt service fund that didn’t exist when he left the City to work for NPS in 2015, Hamilton said.
“And the beginning of last year, there was actually almost $11 million in that fund. At the end of last year, there was $3.8 million in that fund,” he explained. “…That is an additional source of budgetary flexibility to the city.”
It was created when the City did a bond refunding and “received what’s referred to as a bond premium,” an upfront cash payment representing the savings achieved through the refunding, he continued.
“I don’t think that that’s information that has been discussed that I’ve heard of, and I’m not sure that many folks on either the Council or the Board of Estimate are aware of that existence of that fund,” Hamilton charged.
Per pupil expenditures
Dachowitz “perhaps has deliberately misrepresented the Board of Education budget in order to create a narrative that that per-pupil spending is … higher than it really is. And that the Board of Education share of the entire budget is higher than it really is,” Hamilton said.
Dachowitz made a detailed argument that the per pupil spending is really up at $22,000 per pupil, and that Norwalk Public Schools comprises 71 percent of the total operating budget.
“The public schools get grants from the state of Connecticut,” Dachowitz told Board of Estimate and Taxation members Monday. “Now, I know that (Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski and Hamilton) will say they are mandated in how they calculate the cost to educate each pupil, which is very relevant when you’re comparing our costs to other cities in Connecticut. But if my question is how much is the city of Norwalk spending on its students? It’s fair to add that these dollars because they’re spending them on the students.”
Hamilton on Wednesday said Dachowitz had derived his per pupil expenditure figures “by manipulating numbers in a patently false and inaccurate and completely inappropriate way.”
Dachowitz “has made the determination that on the city-side of the budget, he’s going to calculate a net expenditure. But he doesn’t apply the same treatment to the Board of Education…. If you’re looking at expenditures, it’s not appropriate to look at net expenditures to begin with,” Hamilton charged.
Dachowitz deducted the largest state grant, the more than $10 million Education Cost Sharing revenue, from the City-side of the budget, Hamilton said, asking why it wasn’t deducted from the Board of Education-side.
“That makes no sense. And that’s a deliberate attempt to misrepresent these numbers,” Hamilton asserted.
And Dachowitz added education grants to his NPS equation, including a $6 million School Readiness grant, which “goes to outside preschool providers, it has nothing whatever to do with K-to-eight or K-to-12 education.”
“His calculations of per pupil expenditures are utterly wrong. They are inaccurate, they cannot be relied on,” Hamilton said.
Finance Committee Chairwoman Barbara Meyer-Mitchell asked if Dachowitz had reached out to Hamilton for information as he made the presentation.
“Absolutely not,” Hamilton replied.
She had shared the state per-pupil formula with BET Chairman Ed Camacho, she said.
“I’m very disappointed that they chose not to cooperate with us to determine how this presentation is presented, and that they chose not to use the information that we provided,” she said.
Dachowitz said Monday that he could not use the same calculations to see how much other cities spend per pupil because he was factoring in in-kind services. The point was how much Norwalk spends.
BET member Ed Abrams said it was “basically apples and oranges.”
“Fair enough,” Dachowitz replied, and Mayor Harry Rilling said the debt service being incurred by the City as it works to build schools is also a factor.
“It’s never going to be apples and apples. We’re never going to know what the other cities are doing,” Camacho said.
The point is, the claim that’s been made for the last few years is “spurious,” Dachowitz replied.
NPS has a chart displayed on the third floor of City Hall, comparing Norwalk’s per pupil expenditures with surrounding towns. The comparison has been called unfair and misleading.
About that debt service
Norwalk’s debt service has been “very constant, relatively flat,” Hamilton said. There should be three categories, City budget, Board of Education budget and debt service budget because “these school buildings are owned by the city, they are city assets.”
It was “interesting” that Dachowitz only reviewed five years of capital budget expenditures, Meyer-Mitchell said.
“If you go back further, you’ll see that we deferred school projects in favor of the new police station,” she asserted. “… We deferred, in effect, Cranbury School, which is one of the projects that we’re putting forward.”
“Absolutely,” Hamilton replied. “I think it’s readily apparent to anyone who walks into City Hall or walks into the fire headquarters on Connecticut Avenue or walks into the police station and then walks into any of our school buildings and looks at the disparity in the conditions of those public buildings, that the Board of Education has been shortchanged for years and years and years.”
“To put the debt service in the Board of Education budget really flies in the face of the fact that the debt service is a city decision about the size of the capital budget and how it’s going to be financed,” Hamilton opined.
Plus, there’s the debt service fund. If the debt service were in the BoE budget and “the city realizes $10 million of bond premium from a refunding, do we get our share of that $10 million? I don’t think that’s what the city has proposed,” he said.
There’s “some legitimacy” in factoring in in-kind services but the City already does a good job of calculating those and they’re factored into the state formula, Hamilton said.
“When he makes a claim that the Board of Education totally ignores in kind services, he’s wrong. He’s incorrect. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Hamilton continued.
Norwalk reports $16 million of in-kind services and Stamford reports $6 million, so maybe Norwalk does a better job of reporting, Hamilton said. But even if you add them in to the calculation Dachowitz made, the numbers only shift a little and “the 71 percent number reported by Mr. Dachowitz…is simply false.”
Board of Education spending is about 70 percent of the budget in suburbs, while cities are around 60 percent, Adamowski said.
City has no control?
Hamilton moved onto what he called Dachowitz’ “smorgasbord of complaints. Many are most of which are untrue.”
“It’s true: the Board of Education budget is not subject to line item control by the Common Council or the Board of Estimate. But the Board of Education budget is subject to complete control by you, the elected members of the Board of Education, the people who are directly accountable to the voters of the city of Norwalk,” Hamilton said.
The BET has line item control on the City-side but is appointed, and therefore less accountable, he charged.
“If I were CEO, it would be very troubling to have 60 percent of my budget controlled by a department head who did not have that direct accountability line,” Meyer-Mitchell offered. “So I understand the wish for control in this situation. But as you say, we have the checks and balances in our government in place intentionally. So that the people who are engrossing themselves in hours and hours of meetings to understand what our staff is trying to achieve in our buildings can be accountable for the decisions that are made.”
For every budget goal, she has spent hundreds of hours meeting with stakeholders and teachers, she said.
BoE member Colin Hosten jumped in with, “As they are demonstrating right now, the ability to set the cap is a huge amount of control because of what they think about our priorities, they can eliminate all the priorities by setting a low cap.”
“Mr. Dachowitz seems to assume that if he has not personally conducted a line-by-line analysis of the Board of Education, it must mean that such an analysis is never taken place,” Hamilton said. “He has that wrong. The Norwalk Public Schools regularly scrutinizes our budget throughout the budget process and throughout the year looking for savings and efficiencies and looking to eliminate onetime costs and looking to use our resources as effectively as we can.”
The ‘sneaky and disingenuous’ budget estimate
NPS doesn’t disagree that its budget request is $18 million more than its original 2019-20 budget, but it’s “equally important to recognize that the budget that we’re working with in the current year is not the $198.5 million, it’s the $202.2 million,” Hamilton said. “…That is what we’re authorized to spend this year. And if we want to look at what’s new for next year, it’s appropriate to look at the comparison to the revised budget.”
“I’ve been really pondering this, because the city approved the special appropriation (for English Language Learners) based on our presentation of our need. They saw the need. …I’m confused as to why they would think we no longer have that need going forward,” Meyer-Mitchell said.
Scaffolding and air quality
Hamilton expressed indignation about the suggestion that NPS did not take unsafe scaffolding seriously and that he “cooked up” a $600,000 expense for air quality measures at Brien McMahon High School.
It’s “just a complete misrepresentation of the discussion that he and I had” about BMHS, “a perplexing and difficult issue because there had not neither OSHA nor the outside consultants nor UCONN, who had come in, had identified sort of the smoking gun that was going to be the one thing we needed to do to fix the problem,” he said.
“It’s in fact been a project that has been funded for several for at least a couple of years now, I believe, and we I think we are making good progress. And I’d suggest given the really catastrophic indoor air quality situations that have occurred very nearby – Westport and Stamford have both had to close entire schools for extended periods of time and are spending 10s of millions of dollars on remediation – that I think a $200,000 request is a small price to pay,” he said.
A retired teacher had issues that her physician linked to the Brien McMahon and teachers have complained about “watery eyes, itchy skin, other symptoms that they believe could be related to the building,” he said.
“We’ve been working on this for two years to try and get to the bottom of what’s causing it,” Meyer-Mitchell said.
Dachowitz charged that unsafe scaffolding was only addressed when the City stepped in and paid $45,000 for a rental under the understanding that NPS would have new scaffolding built via the next capital budget.
“The real cost of the rental was @.$5,500.00 the fence surrounding the scaffold was also rented but I do not know what that cost was or if it was ever charged to the city,” MBI (Marching Bears, Inc.) President Stan Remson said Wednesday in an email to NancyOnNorwalk.
Adamowski removed the scaffolding from the City budget because he thought it should be in the operating budget, according to Hamilton.
“There is a long lead time on this particular scaffolding. So if we wait until July won’t be available before marching band season,” Hamilton said, explaining that he’d suggested a lease purchase agreement over five years to make it affordable for the school.
Any expense under $100,000 is suitable for the operating budget, Adamowski offered. But with the possibility of a new Norwalk High School being built, it makes no sense to put in a permanent installation until the details are worked out.
The issue “has been totally misrepresented in terms of our thinking and decision-making process. And we always make these decisions thoughtfully,” Adamowski opined.
“I am more than disappointed,” Hamilton concluded. “I’m really personally offended at the dishonest and deceitful and disrespectful tone and tenor coming from Mr. Dachowitz. I think he has chosen to pursue what is really a scorched earth strategy. And I think it’s out of line. I think it’s inappropriate. And I think it grossly mischaracterizes the Norwalk Public School System.”
Hosten said he also regrets the “uncivil” tone. “I don’t want to speculate about his motives, you know, I don’t know if it’s deliberate or trying to deceive. I don’t know him that well to know that he just simply may not know enough about how the process works.”
He continued, “What I don’t get is this weird us-versus-them approach to budgeting that we do in the City. … You cannot talk about Norwalk increasing in property values and so on without talking about” NPS successes.
“I’m hoping that next year that this doesn’t have to play out in the media, and that conversations will be had before the budget is actually released,” BoE member Sherelle Harris said.
“Maybe we need an education committee,” Meyer-Mitchell offered, reminding everyone that Rilling created a committee on equity and justice for education funding two years ago, but, “That committee met twice and then disbanded.”
“When we argue over something that happened last year that’s been resolved we are distracting from what we need to plan for, for the 406 new students arriving in the … fall,” she said.
Hamilton had said he hated doing this in public but felt a need to respond to Dachowitz’ comments.
“You know, I’m in my 23rd year of service, I believe now, with the serving the citizens of Norwalk,” Hamilton had said. “And I take my integrity and my responsibility very seriously. When the Mayor called last year, the city Finance Director had suddenly left. It was a critical time for the city in terms of budget development. I met with the Mayor and I stepped forward and I took on additional responsibility, attended a whole slew of additional meetings in order to try to help the city through that difficult transition and difficult situation.”
He continued, “I didn’t ask for and didn’t receive any additional compensation for those services. I’ve really committed what is really the majority of my professional life to Norwalk and Norwalk citizens, and I would hope that we can move to a better place going forward, a more respectful place, and a place where we respect each other’s professional opinions and, and work with each other in a collaborative way.”