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Letter: A status report from the Board of Education

NORWALK, Conn. — The Norwalk Public Schools have turned the corner and are moving rapidly ahead. Here is a report on some highlights of the progress we’ve made recently.

1. Budgets: We have completely revamped our financial operations and budgeting. Two years ago we faced an unexpected deficit that set off a crisis. But in the two budgets since then, we have managed to cut the rate of increase in our budget by over 60 percent while adding staff positions and programs.

In those two budget years, the Board of Education budget increased more slowly than any other city department, as improved financial management and savings reached through effective labor negotiations came on line. Instead of the big deficit two years ago, for the current year’s budget we ended the year with a surplus, which we plowed back into the system to rebuild portable classrooms, hire back additional teachers and aides, and purchase additional classroom technology.

Our proposed budget this year will rebuild our HR and special education departments, complete restoration of middle school intramurals, and build a solid literacy program throughout our elementary schools. Click here to read more about our plans.

2. Long-term Budgeting: This year we put forth our first-ever three-year budget projection; adopting three-year budgets should allow us to avoid the annual budget panics of years past and engage in long-term planning that aligns our budgets to our long-term goal of improving student achievement.

3. Strategic Plan: As part of our budget process, the board and Dr. Rivera adopted a Strategic Plan with six focus areas to guide policies and budgets for the next six years: the focus areas are to “Build Greater Accountability Against High Expectations and Standards”; “Build the Knowledge, Skills and Capacity of Teachers and Leaders”; “Improve and/or Transform the Learning Environment for All”; “Improve Special Education; Improve or Build the Systems and Structures Necessary to Support our New Learning Environment”; and “Build Partnerships and a New ‘Pre-K through Grade 14/16 Mindset’ for Students and Parents.” We are already making solid progress toward all of these goals.

4. Common Core Curriculum: Norwalk is one of the first communities to achieve full implementation of the new Common Core State Standards. With the board’s recent approval of Dr. Rivera’s Pre-K to 5 Literacy Plan, we have approved all mathematics and English curriculum upgrades from K through 12 in all 19 schools. K-12 mathematics curricula and 6-12 English curricula are already implemented or in process; the last component (K-5 English) will be implemented this fall. The Common Core is the biggest change in decades in public education, and represents a return to a philosophy of teaching solid subject matter knowledge, not just ‘techniques,’ in educating our children. See the NancyOnNorwalk story on this subject.

4. Superintendent Rivera: Our extraordinarily qualified new Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Manuel Rivera, has lived up to our expectations and then some. He is carrying out a fundamental reorganization of the central office, establishing a forward-looking, 21st century management approach for our schools. He is actively reaching out to all segments of our community as he develops and implements his plans.

5. School Security: We have worked with Mayors Moccia and Rilling to add police resource officers to increase security at our schools. We also worked closely with the city to have the police perform facility security audits at our schools, and developed a detailed emergency plan for the schools covering everything from storms to shooting incidents. We have almost $2 million of security enhancements budgeted and in the planning stages to execute during 2014.

We also have activated new communication protocols to get word out quickly regarding any incidents at our schools, with email and text-messaging systems supplementing the Reverse 911 system to get word out quickly to parents and the community in the event of an emergency.

6. Teacher and Administrator Evaluations: We are well along in implementation of the first system of evaluations that ties teacher and principal evaluations to the performance of their students. Due to delays at the state level, this system will not be fully implemented until 2015, but the first set of “Smarter Balanced” tests that will feed into the system will be administered on a practice basis this month.

7. Technology / Communications: We are in the midst of a multi-year technology program (much of it Common Core-driven). We have completed the process of making all of our schools wireless, and we are expanding use of the Wireless Generation system, APEX learning, and similar technologies. Our Genesis portal became fully operational late last year, which allows parents full online access to their children’s assignments and grades. Two weeks ago we went “live” with our substantially enhanced web site, and have also established a Facebook page and Twitter account, and all Board of Ed meetings are now videotaped and shown on Cablevision’s educational access channel.

8. Briggs Turnaround: Two years ago some were calling for the closing of Briggs, our alternative high school. Since then, we have successfully applied for designation of Briggs as a State Turnaround School, receiving a major state grant. As noted recently by Briggs’ principal, staff and students, the transformation at Briggs, only a third of the way into the Turnaround, has been remarkable. See the earlier NancyOnNorwalk story.

9. Building Stronger Partnerships: It is a priority of Superintendent Rivera to grow and enhance our existing partnerships with Norwalk ACTS, Norwalk Community College, the business community and other community groups to expand opportunities for learning outside the classroom. Strong steps have already been taken in this regard, with more to come.

Norwalk’s schools are in the beginning of a renaissance, and I’m pleased to be able to report on this progress to the community.

Mike Lyons, Chairman

Norwalk Board of Education

Multi Year Budget-BOE Presentation 12-17-13

Comments

9 responses to “Letter: A status report from the Board of Education”

  1. Marjorie M

    Many of the improvements stated were initiated BEFORE Rivera came on board. While it is comforting to read that the Norwalk Public Schools are going in the right direction, it would seem a more legitimate report if done by an outside source. Is this an attempt to justify Rivera’s monetary bonus?

  2. CT Patriot

    like what i see SO FAR, think new superintendent is doing well. however, COMMON CORE IS A DISASTER. We are destroying critical learning years for many children. Eventually it will be realized that this was a disastrous mistake dreamed up by bureaucrats that had no experience in education and is a power and money grab at the expense of our children. just talk to your peers and see what they are seeing in their homes. DISASTER. has us seriously considering pulling our children from public school, like so many other have done. other states are dropping out from it for good reason. why is CT always at the from leading the liberal charge on all this junk? State has gone to CRAP under Malloy. man is a GOD awful gov.

  3. Mike Lyons

    Marj, true, not all of these initiatives started with Dr. Rivera (and I didn’t state that they had). But the overall strategic direction we’re now following did, and all of these (except for initiation of the Common Core process) have occurred over the last two years.

    Dr. Rivera isn’t getting a monetary bonus, by the way, so ‘justifying’ that clearly isn’t the point of the update.

  4. Mike Lyons

    Patriot, Common Core is the opposite of a “disaster” – it is a return to an emphasis on knowledge over process. Our math and English curricula are much more rigorous under the curricula we have adopted now than they were in the past. This is NOT a “liberal” program; see http://online.wsj.com/news/article_email/SB10001424127887323744604578477192115551914-lMyQjAxMTA0MDMwMTEzNDEyWj, and http://www.city-journal.org/2012/22_3_curriculum-reform.html#.UzmPzgHDTII.email.

  5. anon

    Marj is right, the teacher, administrators evals, Briggs Turnaround and corporate partnerships were started by Marks but Rivera has taken all these initiatives to a higher level, coming in faster, stronger. Good hire.

  6. David

    Since letters like these are usually a magnet for detractors (looks like we’re off to a solid start already), I thought I’d speak up with some support.
    .
    I’m the Father of public school children, and I remember it was only in the summer of 2012 that parents were picketing outside city hall, BOE meetings were packed to capacity, vitriolic and accusatory. I was at one public meeting where parents were openly telling the Mayor that they would leave Norwalk if further education cuts were made. That was the low point.
    .
    For the first time in a long time, I feel that there is a movement to substantially improve the public school system here in Norwalk in a fundamental manner. There is finally some calm and purpose about the BOE. Long term planning gets us out of year-to-year crisis management.
    .
    Norwalk simply doesn’t get enough credit for implementation of Common Core. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, no one person or group deserves credit, but we as a community do, as a whole. Our children will be the first generation to compete fully on a global playing field. They are going to need the right tools if they’re going to compete, if they’re going to win.
    .
    Letters like this one provide transparency, and that is also appreciated. Lots of work to do, but we’ve come far in less then two years.

  7. Mark R

    Mike, many improvements have been made, and that’s great. But what does it mean to say the BOE “put forth” a three-year budget projection? What makes it a budget projection rather than just a total spending estimate? I think it is the level of detail.
    The numbers made public are only for eight broad categories of spending totaling over $150 million; the current year budget request, however, includes line item details. Stripped of those details, why is it really a budget projection, if there isn’t enough detail to answer the question “How much has been budgeted for…?”
    This isn’t about approving or adopting the spending plans for years 2 and 3; it is about providing a better context for evaluating the one year budget request.
    At the level of detail presented, it is not clear how to connect “our budgets” with the “long-term goal of improving student achievement.” Connections require budget details, at the line item level, and those have not been put forth and shared yet.
    The general question continues to be, “How much is the projected expenditure for [fill in the line item] in 2015-16 and 2016-17?” One cannot answer the question with the information that has been put forth.
    Yes, many improvements– but a three-year budget projection is not yet one of them, I think.

  8. Mike Lyons

    Actually, Mark, a three-year budget IS definitely part of it. A full, line-item detailed three-year budget was prepared and submitted to the Board of Estimate and Taxation. While the numbers in the superintendent’s PowerPoint presentation were shown consolidated, the level of detail behind the 3 year multiyear projection is on a line by line basis, no different than the budget consolidation report issued during the current year budget. The multiyear projection was built on a very granular level for each object code, not object series.

    We identified key budget pressure areas across every object code
    (Salaries, SPED, Transportation, Utilities, etc.). Salaries are projected in accordance to the collective bargaining agreements for each object code, benefits are projected based on trend rates and utilization ratios we receive from Anthem and our insurance consultant Lindberg and Ripple, transportation is projected base on existing contracts with First Student as well as the projected increase in student enrollment by school, Special Education is projected based on the number of students and the tuition increases we receive from the various organizations, utilities are projected based on usage of kwh for electricity and usage of gallons for heating oil, per pupil expenditures are based on enrollment projections from our demographer, and categories such as legal fees take into account when collective bargaining agreements expire. Every line item of the budget is built in the outer years, and not taken simply as a collective object series forecast. Because the Board doesn’t vote on a multi-year projection but only a single budget calendar year at a time, the level of detail behind the multi-year was not in the PowerPoint. It was summarized to illustrate the areas we can target for financial efficiencies in the out years, as well as provide guidance in the type of decisions that need to be made long-term.

    Editor’s note: I have attached an Excel file to the story showing the 3-yeard budget.

  9. Mark R

    Okay, so the BOE provided information to the BET at the three-digit object code level (example: 330 Other Professional Tech services, $3,547,010).
    This other was not posted on the BOE site and it was not in the packet of budget materials originally presented to the board and made public; my mistake does not close the discussion.
    The budget forecast should be made at the same level of detail as the budget request.
    I think that a budge object code is not the same as a line item; a line item exists at a more “granular level of detail.” The board does not review the budget just at at the object code level, but rather has access to information at the line item level. The budget forecast for years 2 and 3 should be made available to the public at the same level of detail.

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