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Mayor, schools chief reject Finance Director’s blunt claim schools aren’t returning value for investment

Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz, during Thursday’s Common Council Finance Committee meeting on Zoom.

Updated,1:15 p.m.: Council statement.

NORWALK, Conn. – In a response to an inflammatory assessment of the City’s public schools by the Finance Director, the superintendent of schools called it “concerning” to hear Norwalk’s children being referred to in “strictly economic terms.”

Mayor Harry Rilling also condemned the remarks by Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz, who Rilling hired in April 2019.

Dachowitz issued an apology.

The provocative words came during Thursday’s Common Council Finance Committee meeting.

“More than half of the children are not doing work at grade level,” Dachowitz said. “… I don’t care whether it’s $100,000 or 10 million, if I’m going to spend any amount of money and I don’t get a return that’s valuable to the city, I say no.”

Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella and NPS Chief Financial Officer Lunda Asmani released this statement Friday:

“We were disappointed to hear the comments made last evening by City of Norwalk CFO Henry Dachowitz. In our conversations with the Mayor, he has always emphasized the importance of funding schools. As a result, it is concerning to hear Mr. Dachowitz refer to Norwalk’s children in strictly economic terms. You can’t quantify the value of education, and what it takes to make a child future ready, by simply looking at a financial metric.

“The development of a child is not reflected in a single test score, but rather an array of factors that contribute to their future. For that reason, our educators and staff have poured their hearts and souls into our children, especially during this unprecedented pandemic. It is disheartening to have the accomplishments of our educators and students diminished in this way. In addition to serving as the superintendent and CFO, we are also parents of children currently enrolled or recently graduated from this district. We know first hand the value of a Norwalk Public Schools education.

“Communities prosper when they focus on education, because that’s how we prepare for the community of tomorrow. These are all OUR schools. These are all OUR children. We are one village.”

 

Rilling also released a statement Friday:

“I want to be clear that I do not agree with Mr. Dachowitz and am disappointed in his remarks. One of my greatest accomplishments as Mayor is the investments we have made in Norwalk Public schools. I have always been an advocate for education and remain committed to providing a top-notch learning experience for our students. The dedicated teachers and faculty of Norwalk Public Schools are the backbone of our city and provide a world-class education to Norwalk students. Investing in our schools remains a top priority for my administration, and I look forward to working with the Board of Education and Common Council to develop the budget for the 2022-23 school year.”

 

About five hours later, Dachowitz released a statement:

“Last night, in the course of answering questions while presenting the Mayor and CFO Joint Recommended FY2023 Operating Budget, I made some comments about the academic performance of our schools’ students. That was wrong and I apologize – I should have stuck to only discussing financial matters. Please note my comments were my own and in no way reflect the position of the Mayor or Common Council.

“My goal is only to provide accurate and relevant information to the City’s elected officials – the Mayor, the Common Council and its Finance Committee, and the Board of Estimate and Taxation – so that they can make the best possible decisions in setting the budget. They are the ones who set policy, not I. Obviously, my department and I will carry out their policy decisions as they direct us.”

 

The controversy stems from efforts to formulate a City operating budget for the coming fiscal year. Norwalk Public Schools requested a 9.1% increase in funding; Dachowitz and Rilling have recommended a 3.75% increase. Board of Education members say they need a 4.5% increase just to cover contractual obligations with school staff members.

Rilling has emphasized that this is the “first iteration” of the budget, that it will be adjusted as the process moves forward. Dachowitz speaks of the efficiency study looking at both the City and Board of Education operating budget, hinting that the budget situation may look different when the results come out.

Dachowitz said he’s been CFO for three years and the BET and Council members don’t know where the money goes.

“That is why Evergreen Solutions was hired to analyze the efficiency of the public schools, especially in comparison to other schools,” he said.

Efficiency study results are due in late March, ahead of the budget season’s end, he said.

Norwalk Public Schools has nearly 12,000 students in 21 schools. In 2021, 146 educators were hired, many of them with federal COVID-19 relief funds. The students speak 59 languages and come from 70 different countries. NPS has 1,879 employees.

Dachowitz’ comments prompted a response on the Facebook page Norwalk Parents for Education. While one poster commended Dachowitz for “speaking the truth,” another said, “Anyone who thinks the education of our children is a bad return on investment should step down immediately.”

Council member Heidi Alterman (D-District D) responded to a constituent Friday by apologizing by not speaking up more during Thursday evening’s meeting.  She said:

“I am saddened that only now, after a Nancy on Norwalk article, are other Democrats speaking out against his language. I am disheartened and find it disgraceful that we all sat through this presentation and did nothing. I had drafted a comment against the ROI-diminishing returns but only texted it to a few people. I was too tired to make a third statement publicly and that is terrible. Our behavior should be dictated by an ethical code, not only when parents write in horror. I apologize for my lack of advocacy and I will do better.”

 

On Saturday, the Common Council “denounced” the “inappropriate remarks” made by Dachowitz. The Council’s statement:

“The Common Council strongly supports the Norwalk Public Schools and has tremendous respect for its value to our community. The Norwalk Public Schools has fostered significant student growth, which is the most accurate metric for measuring the value of our investment in our schools, especially since nearly 70% of our students have one or more challenges to their academic achievement. The Common Council recognizes that our teachers and administrators work tirelessly to support our remarkable, diverse, inspiring students who make us proud every day with their brilliance, achievements, and talents.

“The Common Council believes that our students are worth investing in, and we look forward to working with Mayor Rilling, who has made historic investments in our schools over the last eight years, the Board of Education, and the Board of Estimate and Taxation on a budget that continues to support our students and staff.”

 

Council members set a tentative budget cap Feb 22. The Council Finance Committee is holding a public hearing on the budget at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.

BET members will spend March establishing a budget and a second public hearing will be held. The Council sets the final cap on April 12. Raising the cap would require a two-thirds majority vote.

21 comments

Georgio February 12, 2022 at 2:45 am

The superintendent isnt really one to talk about students being used as economic resource…..when she makes about 300k for what results? The finance director is right here……

On target February 12, 2022 at 6:02 am

First of all, he’s right. Secondly, his comments are being taken out of context and those in power are essentially using the children as a shield when their ineptitude is being called out. He’s a heartless man who sees kids as a bad investment…..give me a break. The man is trying to hold people accountable and it’s very refreshing. It’s surprising that Duff, the quintessential political opportunist, hasn’t jumped on Rilling’s bandwagon.

DryAsABone February 12, 2022 at 6:55 am

Results! That’s what we are looking for.
From the bottom to the top, if you can’t deliver kids that
can read, write and do their arithmetic you have FAILED.
Just spending vast amounts of money with few results is not
sustainable. Norwalk and Stamford are perfect examples of
how public education is failing.

John O'Neill February 12, 2022 at 8:23 am

Let’s see what we have here:
1) Mayor Rilling is first and foremost a politician. His comments are appreciated, but what does he REALLY believe?
2) Superintendent and staff are responsible for school system underperforming due to many poor decisions and hires over her tenure.
What’s her agenda here?
3) Dachowitz is obviously not a politician. He obviously cares about Norwalk taxpayers. He obviously calls them the way he sees them.

Based on my 3 simple points, there’s only one conclusion I can draw. I’ll let readers come to there own conclusion.

Mary Smith February 12, 2022 at 9:21 am

I agree with Finance Director for the amount of money the community pays in taxes our educational system should be better. Stop paying the top tier people so much money like: Superintendents, Assistance Superintendents, Department Heads, and Especially Principals . Teachers and students know what they need to be successful not constantly filling quotas but real teaching. Not bully principals that make the workplace unbearable for kids and teachers. Let them learn at their own pace and give them the training they need and deserve to be better teachers in a clean and sanitized classroom environment.

Neighbor February 12, 2022 at 9:50 am

Norwalk loves the drama! I guess I’m just weird, but by my understanding NPS is by no means underfunded but yet keep asking for more money and can’t even meet the standards us taxpayers require.

We can keep throwing money into the pit but is it gonna bring test scores up?

Will it create more equal opportunities?

Numbers February 12, 2022 at 9:57 am

Analysis of Norwalk Public Schools’ performance is often a Rorschach test – it says more about the commenter than the performance of the schools. That’s because the following statements are true:

1. Norwalk Public Schools’ students score well below state averages on standardized tests.
2. Each of the three major demographic groups in Norwalk Public Schools (hispanic, white, black) score above the state average for their demographic on standardized tests (you get similar results when you group students into “high needs” vs. “non high needs” buckets).

Similarly, the following statements are also true:

1. Norwalk School funding is well above state average funding.
2. Norwalk School funding is the lowest in the area.

So for many commenters, analyzing NPS involves picking which fact you prefer – if you support NPS, you choose the first fact in each example, if you oppose it, you choose the second.

I think this comes back to the current political climate where everyone tries to demonize the other side… “NPS is great!” “NPS is terrible!” without having a dialogue.

Here’s a crazy idea… maybe NPS is mediocre? Average? It would be nice if the conversation could proceed from that as a basis instead of everyone constantly going to extremes.

With regard to return on recent increases in investment, the test scores would seem to indicate they might have had some effect – for example, we went from 17% of African American students at grade level in math in 2016 to 25% in 2019 (of course, this could also just be a result of teaching to the test, which was new in 2016… test scores over the next few years will be more illuminating).

It’s a complicated picture, and the conversation suffers by everyone’s desire to make it simple. The reality is Norwalk is a town with relatively well funded schools and a very large high needs population, and its performance is about exactly what you’d expect for a town with those characteristics. People don’t like that story though – it’s too boring.

Steve Mann February 12, 2022 at 11:54 am

“Strictly in economic terms”? Perhaps the Superintendent misread the quote? “Half of students are not performing at grade level”. That is what should have captured her attention. Jeez, get a safe space or get to work.

M Murray February 12, 2022 at 12:02 pm

Of course return on investment is a ridiculous concept in education. That is why no one should complain about having huge student loan debt after college. The lingering debt is worth their education and they should stop complaining.

Norwalk Lost February 12, 2022 at 3:56 pm

The CFO did nothing wrong and should be commended for stating the facts. NPS is a failing district and all funding should be highly scrutinized. The bloated administrative bureaucracy, unjustifiable high salaries and meager student results should signal the school system can not be trusted to run independently. Time for wholesale changes to say the least.

Tysen Canevari February 12, 2022 at 7:07 pm

Harry has made historic investments in our schools? Thats because his actions are the reasons we have to give them more and more each year! Santuary city!! All you can eat and drink on us taxpayers.

Fran Di Meglio February 12, 2022 at 7:26 pm

When the NPS budget first came out asking for $10M more than last year, NoN ran the story with a pie chart showing the breakdown of the budget: 80% was for salaries and benefits (60+20). (Correct me if I’m wrong). This might be worth a review.

Seriously? February 12, 2022 at 9:47 pm

I don’t attack the district, which still has a good representation of very effective educators and support staff. What I am attacking is the amount of money that this superintendent is spending. Pardon me for beating the dead carcass again, but the number of administrators in the district is at an historic high, and Dr. Estrella isn’t finished hiring them. The size of her superintendent’s cabinet is larger than the cabinets in larger districts — and again at an historic high for Norwalk. And administrators’ salaries have become extremely high. High school principals now make over $200,000 per year, and other principals aren’t far from that. Superintendent’s cabinet members are paid even more. Even high school assistant principals are paid more than the superintendents in some small Connecticut districts. Central office administrators typically make $185,000 and more. All of the aforementioned salaries are exclusive of the cost of benefits.

The amount of money she has spent is obscured by the fact that the conversation has been centering around the operating budget that the board gets from the City of Norwalk, but the expenditures have greatly exceeded the operating budget because of Covid funding, which is in the tens of millions of dollars. Added to that are the various Title grants, e.g., Title I, which also add considerable federal money to the NPS.

Bottom line: The Covid funds will be going away, and the superintendent wants the City of Norwalk to begin replacing them with City funds. The Covid funds weren’t intended to be a permanent infusion of money, and Norwalk taxpayers in the coming years will be slammed so hard by tax increases that they won’t know what hit them. But there is one other consideration. Once the City gives the school system any increase, it is committed to that increase from that point forward because state law doesn’t allow a reduction in the education budgets. (There are some exceptions, probably none of which would apply to Norwalk.)

Note regarding the “Numbers” comments above: The test scores for minority students that you reported are from a time before Dr. Estrella’s arrival, when the size of the district administrative staff was far smaller, as were the numbers of non-classroom teachers. In other words, the growth you listed was accomplished with less money. That was done under Dr. Adamowski’s administration. He wasn’t everyone’s favorite person, but he surely accomplished a great deal. Furthermore, he respected the voices of Norwalk parents, especially in their roles in the selection of principals. That has changed significantly in the past two years.

Finally, if the mayor is thinking of giving the feckless board of education anywhere near the amount of money it is demanding, voters should remember it when his name appears on the ballot again. Likewise, remember the names of the Common Council members who vote in favor of the increase. Looking at the bright side, this may result in the elimination of rule by one political party in Norwalk.

Brian February 13, 2022 at 12:09 am

Considering that Mr. Dachowitz is in finance, why is it surprising that he is speaking “strictly in economic terms”? Frankly, I think it is a breath of fresh air to hear what a PROFESSIONAL has to say about the state of the budget for NPS – whether it is flattering or not, it is good for taxpayers to know the truth. Harry getting his knickers in a twist over it and announcing his disapproval publicly is in poor taste as well as the pressure he surely put on our CFO to apologize.

Joe February 13, 2022 at 3:30 am

Mr. Dachowitz is smart and he has common sense.

I just saw a recent picture of my college prep school in St. Louis, grades 5-12.

I graduated from that building in 1969.

It was built in 1929! And they’re still using it.

On target February 13, 2022 at 11:57 am

Good for Dachowitz. He should be mayor. I bet Rilling doesn’t even know how to read an income statement and balance sheet. People like him and Duff have one goal in mind…stay in office. They essentially bribe electorate via irresponsible social spending. By the way, what would Duff do if he wasn’t in office and couldn’t propose fiscally ridiculous things like a brand new high school? What skills does he really have?

Michael McGuire February 13, 2022 at 4:14 pm

Mr. Dachowitz

I agree with your original assessment/statements. What better performance measure is there? As a taxpayer in Norwalk I would expect nothing less than a critical analysis of the effectiveness of our tax dollars by the professionals on the Norwalk payroll, irrespective of the findings.

It would be great to see a 5 year performance analysis since 2000. As in do the same analysis for 2000, 2005, 2010, and 2015. We can tack on the 2021 figures for a truly meaningful look what’s going on with our schools. Now that would be a very useful metric.

David Osler February 14, 2022 at 8:21 am

I agree with the finance director I’ve lived in town close to two decades now. I’ve seen changes in the public in the public schools they’ve got them slightly better but not in line with the investments that have been happening no real public schools has systemic problems that need to be fixed much like most of the rest of this government we are a city in the richest county in the country I don’t expect us to be financially on par with Greenwich but for god sakes we have companies like Graham capital Xerox datto or government would do well talking to the people of those companies making them feel welcome and part of this community. Don’t take a page out of the political playbook we’ve been using for decades please disregard it I would say burn it but I needed a bad example to compare to a good example. Look at the way Greenwich does it or even Westport that sounds as blue as this one they’ve got better parks mostly contributed by private funding they’ve got a lower crime rate better first responder services you can go to the area around their homeless shelter and not even know what is there last time I checked you need body armor at Woodward liquor. That is a family of the educational system. And several other departments

Niz February 14, 2022 at 5:21 pm

I guess honesty is offensive. God forbid he hurt someone’s feelings or make a whole public school system look bad. Or he do his job.

Numbers don’t lie and having interacted with NPS for 6 years I can honestly state all the good staff are gone (isn’t there a shortage, look at the turn over) & yes the quality of education is poor. And yes considering the $ put in, the turn around just isn’t there.
Being in parent groups, social media groups, I heard a lot of really sad and disappointing experiences.
But that’s just my experience and the few I interacted with.
Never mind the petitions, let’s ignore the rating system used for years, who cares about sped kids anyway, their just a few… or all the public parent statements made at monthly BOE meetings all those years.

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