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Legal fee overruns cause consternation for Norwalk Board of Ed

Norwalk BOE
Norwalk Board of Education members Sue Haynie, left, and Steven Colarossi, right, do not see eye to eye.

NORWALK, Conn. – Attorney’s fees incurred by the Norwalk Board of Education will be met this month, even though middle school kids don’t have sports – and yes, those two thoughts are connected.

At issue Tuesday night was a proposed transfer of $20,000 from the unemployment fund to the legal fund just a month after a similar transfer of $45,000.  While Negotiations and Personnel Committee Chairwoman Sue Haynie took heat for the overrun, as she did at the March 19 meeting, it was explained that straggling invoices for attorney fees were part of the cause of the latest problem.

Add the two transfers together and you almost hit the figure that BOE members Artie Kassimis and Steven Colarossi wanted to spend on middle school intramural sports several months ago, a motion that was voted down.

“That money, I think, would have been better spent serving the needs of the students,” Colarossi said. “I ask my colleagues to vote against the transfer. We have to send a message that committee chairpeople don’t have a blank check. It should be the chairman of the board and the superintendent who are allowed to contact counsel.”

Kassimis seconded that thought.

“I think this money would be better spent on our children rather than on lawyers,” Kassimis said.

Haynie countered that much of this month’s expenditures went to grievances, which are not in the Negotiations Committee’s purview.

But Colarossi said only 30 percent of the overrun fit into that category.

“For the chairperson of the Negotiations Committee to not accept any responsibility for an abject failure to monitor spending money that’s represents the shared sacrifice of the taxpayers and represents a need of our students that isn’t being met, in my opinion, is something that requires us to take a long and hard look at the authority that chairpeople feel they have to contact lawyers and run up legal bills,” he said. “It’s wrong.”

He said the expenses came from one firm. “They didn’t provide timely bills,” he said. “I don’t think we should approve this.”

Haynie said Daddona should weigh in on the topic, warning members that if the transfer weren’t made, “You are basically cutting off the spigot for your interim superintendent.”

With litigation coming up and two grievances that haven’t been dealt with, Daddona said, tying his hands wouldn’t be a good idea. “We do need that legal advice or else it will get the district in further trouble,” he said.

Haynie had cautioned at the March 19 meeting that it is necessary to spend money on legal fees when negotiating contracts, listing aspects of the recently approved Norwalk Federation of Teachers contract, at a cost of about $111,000 in legal fees, as well as other contracts. She compared that with the $87,000 cost of negotiating the three-year NFT contract in 2007 – a negotiation that did not include a full arbitration, as the recent negotiation did.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Haynie said the three-year nature of the negotiations meant an unusual strain on the budget, but Colarossi countered that, as she had been chairwoman last year, she should have planned for the expenses.

Mike Barbis came to Haynie’s defense. The NFT contract accounts for 85 percent of the board’s employment costs, he said.

“Obviously you’re going to have some pretty high costs,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to determine in advance what they’re going to take,” he said. “They went to arbitration and we haven’t gone to arbitration in a very long time. The arbitrators thought things were out of kilter, they took some time and they changed some things. I think it was money that was very well spent and it was a good investment.”

Jack Chiarmonte said not having legal advice could cost the board a lot of money.

“I’d rather have nice sound legal advice than to say, ‘Well, I had to buy intramural sports,’” he said. “God knows, we’ll find ourselves in a multimillion dollar lawsuit because we didn’t answer a question.”

Kassimis ran the meeting, as Chairman Mike Lyons was out of town.

At the March 19 meeting, Lyons defended Haynie, saying, “When the contract comes up, they send you the notice that they’re ready to negotiate, you can’t sit there and say, ‘Hey we don’t have any money for lawyers so we’re not going to negotiate the contract.’”

Tuesday night, the transfer was approved, with a caveat: Interim Superintendent Tony Daddona will have sole discretion over legal expenditures for the rest of the fiscal year.

The unemployment fund has been used this year as something of a cash cow. After the March transfer, there was about $300,000 left of the $1.1 million that was in the unemployment fund last October. Money from the fund has also been spent reinstating three elementary school teachers, putting an assistant principal on special assignment and hiring 13.5 special education aides.

Correction made, 4:05 p.m.

Comments

25 responses to “Legal fee overruns cause consternation for Norwalk Board of Ed”

  1. ScopeonNorwalk

    38 cents on a dollar into the classroom…what a pity. We need central office and overhead cuts not teacher and school resources cuts…

  2. P I Berman

    BOE member Colarossi real objection is not legal outlays per se but the highly successful outcome of the BOE’s arbitration that saved the City an estimated $2.6 million dollars in securing a wage and benefits one year freeze. The public owes a strong measure of appreciation to Ms Haynie for her skilled leadership as head of the Negotiations Committee that secured these favorable results using the distinguished attorney Tom Mooney. Clearly Colarossi is upset that the BOE is not engaging his participation in legal matters even though he is an attorney. Hat speaks volumes. Voters will have an opportunity to retire Mr Colarossi in this fall’s elections. No other BOE member in recent decades has been so vociferous in publicly criticizing other BOE members as Mr Colarossi. We need BOE members who work together within the BOE not making newspaper comments.

  3. Ergo

    I’m going to go bang my head on a brick wall.

    Beacause that would be more effective than our BOE.

  4. Joe Espo

    “The NFT contract accounts for 85 percent of the board’s employment costs.” No two ways about it: The money is spent on either stuffing union wallets or stuffing kid’s heads with education. Looks like the union is winning and the kids are losing.

  5. As I explained at the meeting, last month, we asked the same set of questions— what was anticipated for future legal needs, what measures were undertaken to properly monitor the costs and what steps could be undertaken to save on legal fees (such as making better use of the Corporate Counsel). When we were asked for yet another transfer, none of those questions had yet to be answered.
    Consequently, the only prudent approach was to appropriate the funds so that Supt. Daddona would have access to counsel given several pressing legal matters but take the checkbook away from the Negotiations Committee Chairperson. Onlty by controlling these runaway costs can be work to find the money that is needed to go back into our classrooms.

  6. Lisa Thomson

    Steve,
    We all know that you do the bidding for Mr. Mellion and that you have been after Sue since you both joined the BOE four years ago. I campaigned for you in District E on the premise of change and reform and found out shortly afterward, that you were and are completely in support of the status quo. Your behavior hardly lives up to your Parents Not Politicians slogan.

    As you and Sue are both up for election this year, it is obvious that you are campaigning. However, trying to malign Sue for the ‘thankless job’ of Negotiations Chair does not cast you in a good light. You claim in your above comment that “the only prudent approach was to appropriate legal funds for Mr. Daddonna and take the checkbook away from Sue.” You and I both know that Mr. Daddonna knows and has known exactly what has been going on in the Negotiations Committee and the legal expenses, as did the previous Superintendent and the rest of the Board. If BOE members don’t know, then it is because they choose not to read their packets. Your ridiculous public attacks on Sue (again at the behest of Mr. Mellion) suggesting that she has been operating completely autonomously is absurd and does not endear you to the community. And incidentally, I didn’t see Sue attacking you when the $4M in post benefits and Special Ed costs caused a major financial crisis and layoffs last summer – even though you were the Finance Chair for the past 3 years?!? Contracts in this city have been historically out of line with the rest of the state – as pointed out by the BoE’s new legal counsel Tom Mooney. It would seem the State Arbitration panel agreed, based upon their award on the NFT contract last year.

    You are going to have to be a little more discreet because it is becoming increasingly clear to everyone that you are in cahoots with Mr. Mellion and his continuous smear campaigns to go after anyone who challenges his status quo positions.

  7. Carl S.

    Thank you, Lisa!

  8. Jill st. John

    Well I campaigned for the “Parents not politicians ” slate as well, and Steve and Artie are the only ones I have seen watching the purse strings and making sure my tax dollars go toward education and not arbitrary spending by someone with an axe to grind because they have some underlying personal issue with teachers. Quite frankly I am sickened by the waste and the indifference to it by most of the BOE, when illegal hires take place, by the highest paid city employee, and most members turn a blind eye. So keep on pushing back Steve, and Artie, nice to know someone is paying attention to the bottom line.

  9. MikeB

    Jill, you really are barking up the wrong tree. The single biggest savings for taxpayers that have been found was the arbitration award with the NFT. And who was responsible for that?

  10. LWitherspoon

    I have seen the allegation in numerous places now, by multiple people, that Steve Colarossi does the bidding of Bruce Mellion and the Norwalk Teachers Union. If true, that’s very disturbing. Is there any evidence supporting such a statement?

  11. Lisa Thomson

    Jill,
    With all due respect, take a look at my analysis of this years budget on the Red Apples website. Norwalk, like most of the 14,000+ school districts in this country have fundamental infrastructure issues due to funding models that are not focused on students or achievement or the classroom and contracts that more closely resemble a GM factory line contract than one responsible for educating kids. (No offense intended towards GM!).

    We also spend 22% of our budget on benefits (all employees) that the private sector can only dream about, about 4% on what the private sector would call management and about 33% on actual classroom teacher’s salaries (excluding benefits.) You are absolutely right! The money is not making it into the classroom. However, Mr. Mellion with Mr. Colorossi’s assistance LABELS anyone who challenges the ridiculous bureaucratic infrastructure in education as teacher haters. It’s ridiculous, but unfortunately, they have been able to convince you. It is folks like Mr. Mellion and Mr. Coloraossi who use their position to maintain the status quo and focus on minutia issues. Remember the cupcake caper!

    You do realize that the overruns in the legal budget are due to the very nature by which education ‘does business.’ Attempts to go after Sue are driven by the fact that he doesn’t like her. So what! Sadly, attacking Sue seems to have been Steve’s major pastime these past 3 1/2 years.

    The advesarial nature of education is being fueled by those in power, who use among other things, the legal system to put their interests above the kids and the taxpayers. Surely, as an attorney, Steve is fully aware of this.

  12. Hobbes the Calvinist

    Maybe I’m too casual a Board of Education observer to know what anyone’s favorite past-time has been. But I seem to recall a number of policy changes that Colarossi has sponsored in his time on the Board of Education. He might be a bull in a china shop on this legal fee issue, but he’s not a one-note charlie.
    Can anyone tell me if he’s wrong- did Sue Haynie have a plan to monitor how her committee used lawyers and what their bills would be?

  13. Steve Colarossi

    Impugning my integrity by making baseless accusations hardly advances an intelligent and meaningful debate on the core issues– namely, whether Board of Education members should be held to the same standards of accountability that are expected of all who spend taxpayer dollars. Clearly, some “reform” agendas which purportedly support accountability mean to only hold those accountable who don’t toe the particular line of select cliques.
    In my life, I have served as an urban high school teacher, a juvenile public defender, guardian ad litem for children and an investigator in child abuse and neglect cases. I have served as legal counsel to two pre-school programs. I have served as a municipal officer. I have a long history of involvement as a community and school volunteer in Norwalk. In short, I have an array of experience in public education, juvenile issues and municipal finance that enables me (without prodding from union presidents or self-proclaimed “reformers”) to formulate my own ideas, argue my own claims and seek to defend the rights of the constituents to whom I owe my only allegiance. Although political agendas of those who view as “enemies” those with opposing views might dictate character assassination, I try to focus on particular issues, rather than the personalities of those involved.
    Regarding my ability to offer critical guidance on management of legal costs, I have performed that function for several corporations and have helped them to keep legal costs below budget.
    The debate is not about the price paid for arbitrating the teachers contract, or whether the deal (which gave the teachers a better than 4% pay raise over two years, despite gaining a zero raise for one year) was the best possible deal. Rather the issue is that there was no monitoring by the Chairperson of the Negotiations Committee of the costs she was incurring in her negotiations of various contracts (this issue involves far more than just the teachers contract). There were no consultations with the Superintendent as to the other legal needs which were arising. And, there has certainly been no acknowledgement that the failed budget plan of former Supt. Marks, and her Negotiation Committee’s failure to negotiate with the collective bargaining units who were being impacted by changes made in work hours and pay, is costing us dearly in legal fees due to the grievances that that lack of planning created. Given that the Board of Education has had the same chairperson of the Negotiations Committee for the past two years, suggests that the lack of planning is attributable to that leadership.
    It is shocking that last month, the Board of Education was entreated to excuses as to why the budget for legal services was overspent. This month, the same problem and the same excuses were made. The only difference is that now the additional funds which were allocated will be controlled by the superintendent who will be responsible for their stewardship.
    There have been no reports which were in meeting packets, but not read, which would have disclosed negotiations strategies and anticipated costs. There has been chronic overspending which was addressed last month. No changes were made by the Negotiations Chairperson and a budget overrun occurred again.
    Educating our children requires money- and every dime spent on legal fees (or other administrative costs) is ten cents less we have to spend on classroom learning. That is why on budget matters, I hold people accountable.

  14. LWitherspoon

    @Lisa T
    Can you post a link to the analysis on your website to which you referred?
    .
    Hearing that only 50-55% of the budget finds its way into the classroom is shocking. On the other hand, I’m sure much of the other spending is important. What spending would Red Apples make in order to spend more money “in the classroom”?

  15. Orange U. Glad

    4 years of meetings are obviously taking a toll on the patience of BoE members and of BoE watchers. BUT, one member asking for basic accountability can’t be seen as an attack.
    People have got to get over this super-sensitivity to being questioned about their actions.

  16. EastNorwalkChick

    @Lisa Thomson-You state in you school budget analysis that 22% of the budget is benefits, how much of this is Admin and other staff and how much for the actual teachers in the classroom? What makes up those numbers, are payroll taxes included, or is it straight benefits, such as health insurance.

    I find your post very troubling, being aghast that 33% of the budget goes to teachers salaries is not going directly to our kids, when in fact they are a crucial part of educating them. Teachers are pretty direct if you ask me.

    If you take the benefits, even at your number which I think includes admin benefits, 22%, and the teachers salaries 33%, totaling 55%, what about the other 45%? No problem with what makes up that number? This troubles me also, how much of that goes to administrative costs? That’s not going directly to the kids, wouldn’t you say?

    Not for nothing but 22% for benefits is pretty darn good, in the private sector it’s more like 30%, mid to smaller businesses have an even higher percentage. Because most businesses to not have the ability to buy health insurance that is discounted from a carrier that only insures educational employees.

    I’m getting a little tired with all this feigned outrage on what we are paying our teachers, the union, etc., time we start looking at the administrative costs…..and waste.

  17. Bryan Meek

    @EastNorwalkChick.

    You aren’t anywhere close and you aren’t even comparing wrong numbers in the first place. Norwalk Public Schools pays almost 40% on fringe as a function of salary.

    Fortune 500 companies are around 15% of salary. It varies and the employees usually pick up a sizable portion of their health care costs.

    You are correct, directionally, about small businesses. But no one is getting ripped off more for insurance premiums than the city of Norwalk. Only Norwalk hospital comes anywhere near what we spend as a city.

    The city could save a ton of money if it just gave plans comparable to private sector companies. We could even afford to give them more in salary and let them chose the type of coverage they would get, but the status quo will never let that happen.

  18. LWitherspoon

    @Bryan Meek
    Interesting information as always. It’s a pleasure to read comments that support arguments with hard facts, as opposed to the many comments which seem to be little more than innuendo, speculation, bad information, or outright lies.
    .
    Do you happen to know the numbers regarding the cost of the City’s health plans compared to the cost of typical private sector plans? Does every City employee get the same plan or does it vary by union?

  19. jill st. john

    My concern is regarding accountability, if Ms. Haynie is ringing up legal fees and its all a normal part of negotiations then why wasnt it in the budget? The Hour is reporting that the BOE has to pony up for expenses that were not planned for, where then does THAT money come from? Are there activities and services that now suffer because Ms Haynie made a few too many calls to the lawyers? I am no teachers union fan, but I worry less about them than I do the admin people who spend all the money, and there is seemingly no accountability to anyone, all the while they are racking up the biggest paychecks, the biggest bills,and hiring their retired(tired out) buddies to glom onto a pretty healthy retirement package. But sure, go on ahead and worry about the 5th grade teacher who got my kid excited about reading or the new math teacher who bothers to take time to give my daughter extra help during her lunch. Yeah, Im barking up the wrong tree…where was Ms. Haynie’s concern when Dr. Marks was spending and hiring without authority to do so. I do not think there is anything wrong with asking teachers to pay a co-pay for their medical, and I dont think it is unreasonable to ask high paid admin people to cast a wider net when they look for new hires or get permission when they hire them..since that IS in the Charter. I also dont think it is unreasonable to ask Ms. Haynie to withhold from hiring attorneys till there is the money in her budget to do so. I dont remember seeing any of you folks in my kitchen putting signs together when Ms. Haynie was there with Mr. Kassimas and Mr. Colarossi, Those gentlemen still seem to be concerned about how our money is spent, the lady has become one of the spenders, not a steward.

  20. Bryan Meek

    @LWitherspoon. Same to you, but you do give me too much credit here. I am speaking from a combination of facts and personal experience which I think does lend some credibility to my arguments.

    The NPS data are readily available in existing city reports. The arithmetic error some apply is in viewing the 22% figure others have stated as what the cost is. That is not accurate. 22% is the overall budget attributed to fringe. When you factor that into the full time salary figures it is more like 40%. This is the number we need to manage better. I think it can be done to our city employees and taxpayer benefits if done correctly. The problem I see is that over time we have built into our mentality that nothing can be done better so we accept what the insurance company providers tell us and a great deal of effort is spent on scaring the rank and file into thinking they are losing benefits if we try to change things. The way I see it, they are losing salary while paying way more for health care than is necessary. The status quo of the current trend is not sustainable.

    I would confess that my experience with fortune 500 company’s is probably limited to the 100 or so I have directly dealt with over the years in building and working on financial reporting systems. This data is typically never disclosed as a line item in publicly available reports, but it is my experience that it is generally around this 15% number give or take. And that is considering some of the best health care packages as these are tools used to attract and retain talent. You could probably buy some reasearch from an HR consultant that would bear this out, but that isn’t in my budget.

    I also know from helping with some startup businesses that small employers do pay through the nose, especially if they have multi-state operations. To the point where most everyone in these types of businesses are being paid on contract and not as full time employees anymore.

    I do not have specifics on the health care plans of local labor groups or how they vary, but having done scores of tax returns has given me some new insight this year that I did not have before. Part of the Affordable Care Act legislation requires employers for the first time in 2012 to report the expense incurred on the individual’s health care plans. You will now see this come up on your W2 statements box 12 with the code DD. I always knew that our public workers were a cut above the rest, but I have to tell you I was shocked when I saw some of these this year. Even my clients were shocked when they saw how much. In some cases I explained the differences in what my corporate provider gives me and what they expect me to pay and when you explain that it enables your employer to give you more compensation, they generally get it that they are getting ripped off so I do not think it is impossible to change this mindset. I don’t agree with most of the ACA, but if this gets people to wake up to what is going on then it has at least one good benefit.

    Bottom line is these data got me thinking that most, not all of course, would be much better off with a higher salary part of which they could chose to spend on a wider choice of health care options. Facts are we need to continue to compensate our teachers and look for ways to save money. Whatever these legal wranglings are going on and their outcome in this current distraction, the bigger picture is clear to me.

  21. EastNorwalkChick

    @Bryan Meek – If you re-read my post I was using to Lisa Thomson’s numbers from her analysis of the BOE budget and questioning why she said the money spent on salaries/benefits was not making it to the classroom, when in fact they are the ones in the classroom teaching the kids. I repeat, if that’s not directly effecting the kids then what is?

    The average cost share ratio in the private sector is 40%employee/60% employer, soon to be a 50%/50% split because of rising healthcare costs. So Norwalk paying 40% on fringe is not out of line.

    Have you compared this to what the cost share ratio for salary/fringe is for City Hall Administration employees? What about police and fire? What’s that ratio?

    I think you will find that the current insurance provider that all municipalities uses for teachers/educational employees is far cheaper than what the private sector uses. I think what you and many others want, is the teachers to pick up more of the cost, if that is it, just say it.

  22. Bryan Meek

    @ENC. First, I agree with what you are saying that you can’t discount the benefits cost of classroom teachers.

    But, but we are far apart on your numbers assessment. Calculating 22% divided by (22% + 33%) isn’t too hard, but look at it another way…… For every $100,000 in salary we are paying $40,000 gets added on for fringe in NPS roughly as an expense to taxpayers. Norwalk is paying most if not all of the health care costs for NPS employees. Maybe some labor groups are not so lucky, but it is clear NPS is not from the disclosures in the financial reports and numbers put forth here.

    In the private sector, it is much, much less and the employees pick up more of the expense. I enjoy one of the better health benefits packages when compared to other companies I know about. My out of pocket contribution to this plan is almost 5 figures for a family of three and then I get to pay copays and deductibles. I don’t know where you are getting your numbers or ideas from, but I can tell you first hand that you are far from reality here.

    Still I don’t even consider our teachers lucky, but blinded to a system run amuck filled with abuse. For example, I’d much rather give teachers an extra $10k in compensation and let them chose their own insurance with an employer match. Giving choices here can benefit both taxpayers and teachers. Or stick with the status quo and just fork over a huge check every year to insurance companies.

  23. Lisa Thomson

    I seem to have generated considerable discussion regarding my statements on the overall NPS budget. To see the points I raised, go to the Op Ed section of Nancy’s site on 1-28-13 and click the original Op- Ed entitled, ‘The Real Meaning of Accountability.’ I provided a chart breaking down the various costs.

    Let’s get one thing straight! I believe teachers ARE important. They are the most important aspect in education (I’m a parent and the daughter of a teacher.) The point I was making, was that out of a $165M NPS budget – ONLY $63M is spent on ACTUAL classroom teacher’s salaries (excluding benefits) or 38% of the TOTAL budget and that the average person might be interested to see where ALL the “education dollars” go. It’s unfortunate, that my attempts, to shed a structural light, on what has been a veiled process over the years, draws such ire. The economic challenges faced on a national level– due to an aging ‘boomer’ workforce coupled with increasing health care costs are bumping up against the next generation’s ability to get an education. Due to the absurd ECS formula, Norwalk is also feeling the pressure sooner than most other cities in our financially banakrupt state.

    In any event, the reason I first posted on this article, was due to Steve’s comment of “taking the checkbook” out of Sue Haynie’s hands. His fabrication that somehow Sue’s been in autocratic control of the legal budget is hilarious. Tony Daddona’s team of HR and Finance folks along with Chairman, Mike Lyons and Negotiation Committee Members (who chose attend,)ALL meet with legal counsel. To suggest that Sue is holding court on her own or racking up phone bills with lawyers is nothing more than electioneering.

    Unfortunately, the collateral damage to these legal fee rants, jeopardizes the Superintendent’s and overall BOE’s ability to get on with the task at hand of negotiating employee contracts and weakens its position.

    Having spoken to Daddona on the phone this morning about this whole thing, he acknowledged that legal bills are higher during years when you have contract negotiations. This is one of those years, plain and simple.

    FYI – I think the district budgets ~$28K per employee for benefits, with the number expected to rise 10% each year.

  24. Oda Hkst

    Get up out of the way of accountability, Sue Haynie. Lisa Thompson, stop reforming history.
    If Haynie is the perfect Negotiations Chairperson, why did Rosa leave that committee? I’ll tell you- because Haynie didn’t give her notices! Decisions were made (like about spending money on lawyers) that didn’t involve everybody.

  25. peter i berman

    Mr. Colarossi’a claim about “runnaway costs” for legal services are preposterous and raise questions why he would seek to hamstring the BOE from securing effective first rate legal assistance. The difference between the previous and current NFT contract negotiations was about $30,000. The BOE secured a $2.6 million benefit going to Arbitration. Mr. Colarossi has yet to express satisfaction with that unprecedented award to the BOE. We can understand why the teachers union would want to hamstring the BOE from securing effective legal assistance. But why would a BOE member seek to do the same ? Just on whose side is Mr. Colarossi on ? Why does Mr. Colarossi maintain his ill disguised challenges to Ms. Haynie who serves so ably as Chair of the Negotiations Committee ? Citizens will have ample opportunity to evaluate Mr. Colarossi’s contributions to the BOE and City come this fall’s election. No other BOE member in recent decades has been so energetic in publicly criticizing a fellow BOE member as Mr. Colarossi. His job was to work within the BOE not to engage in public criticism of fellow BOE members.

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