Updated, 6 p.m. Saturday
By Nancy Guenther Chapman
NORWALK, Conn. – A “deliberate” man with a strong grounding in Norwalk city finances was elected Tuesday night to lead Norwalk’s Board of Education through the next budget battle, which he said will include more cuts.
Mike Lyons was elected chairman of the Republican-dominated board, with no debate before the vote. The only sign of a lack of consensus came when Steven Colarossi nominated Artie Kassimis for the top spot. Kassimis thanked him and declined.
Colarossi voted for Lyons, as did seven other members. Democrats Migdalia Rivas and Rosa Murray abstained.
“It was a reform vote,” said Lisa Thomson of Red Apples, a non-partisan education group. “I think it was a good vote. I think it’s been a tough year because of the budget but Mike has a lot of experience from being on the BET. I think that will serve us well in terms of any negotiations that the Board of Ed needs to make back at the city.”
Lyons, who served six years on the board of estimate and taxation, said his priorities are “getting a solid budgetary system in place” and then to convince the city to invest money in implementing Common Core standards, a nationwide initiative that establishes common standards for schools.
“The city’s guidance to us is we should expect a 2 ½ percent increase in our budget,” he said. “Since our expenses are more than 2 ½ percent we have to find ways of closing the gap between those two numbers. It’s not going to be a gap like last year but it’s still going to be a gap.”
The board must get a budget request to the city by mid- or late-December, he said. He plans to meet with Interim Superintendent Tony Daddona and the school department’s new chief financial officer, Richard Rudl, next week.
“I’m hoping that we can avoid any significant personnel cuts,” he said. “ … I think there’s a lot of budgetary controls and improvements that we can implement that can save us money just by preventing waste. That’s my first priority because I really want to avoid getting hammered in the ground like we were last year.”
Lyons had only been on the board for four months when a $4 million shortfall was found in the school budget.
“My hope is that by implementing long term budget planning we’re not going to lurch from crisis to crisis,” he said. “Have a smoother budgetary system. That will be part of the process of convincing the city that it’s worth it to invest some significant funds in the schools for the implementation of Common Core. I think as the city officials are skeptical of our ability to spend money wisely and stay within our budgets they’re going to be very skeptical of giving us money for anything.”
Republican BOE member Sue Haynie was among those saying Lyons was the right choice. He is a “reform” candidate, she said, as someone who “thinks of how do you take a good product and make it better, how do you improve on it?”
Lyons said “reform” is an accurate word in his case.
“I came in here as somebody who came in here to try to shake things up a little bit,” Lyons said. “If I thought everything was perfect I could have stayed where I was and let it continue into perfection.”
Haynie said Lyons will show “a deep respect for corporate funders.”
“We really need to think of different ways of doing things,” Haynie said. “How do you go and get some of this stuff done, get personnel or programs in, and impress third party people who are looking at us from the outside? Make us valuable to fund, make us an interesting district to fund?
“Otherwise we’re just another poor urban district looking for funding. We have to be diligent in our ideas of how we want to do reform, we have to be united as a board, with the Common Council, with the city, with the superintendent. We have to really show that we’re committed to it.”
Funders will like Lyons as he is a “deliberate type of person,” she said.
Colarossi shook off the reform candidate talk. “That’s utter nonsense,” he said. “If you look at the changes Artie proposed in the budget process, that’s far from anything to do with the status quo.”
Still, “It’s democracy, it works,” he said. “Seriously.”
There were no “no” votes on the decision. Democrats Migdalia Rivas and Rosa Murray abstained.
Kassimis was elected to be vice chairman for the second year in a row on an eight to one vote, the dissenter being Haynie. The vote for secretary was close, with Democrat Heidi Keyes winning over Rivas 5-4.
Jack Chiaramonte, who served as chairman for two years, was thanked for leading the board through a tough year.
“Jack has certainly established a record as a calm and collected guy who always keeps his passionate interests under wraps,” Lyons joked. He added, “I know Jack has always acted in the best interests of our kids.”