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New Norwalk CFO details ‘grave’ concerns with NPS

Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz, shown in the screen at upper right, speaks to Common Council members Tuesday in City Hall. Studying print outs are, from left, Kadeem Roberts (D-District A), David Heuvelman (D-District A) and Thomas Keegan (R-District D).

Updated, 4:30 a.m. Thursday: Information about scaffolding added.

NORWALK, Conn. – In public meetings on back-to-back days, Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz has presented a PowerPoint that connects the word “fraud” to Norwalk Public Schools’ finances.

NPS wasted money on gift cards for teachers and refuses to divulge the results of trips to Puerto Rico, Las Vegas and Detroit, Dachowitz said. He also questioned priorities and allocation of resources, alleging that NPS was unconcerned about unsafe scaffolding being used by the Norwalk High School Marching Band.

Dachowitz first told these tales to Board of Estimate and Taxation members Monday during his presentation of the recommended 2020-21 operating budget. He made the same presentation Tuesday to Common Council members Tuesday, right down to the choice of words and the occasional joke.

“Economics is about making choices, trade-offs,” Dachowitz said Monday. “It’s about setting priorities and making decisions, knowing there are not enough resources to obtain everything you wish. OK? Unless you’re Michael Bloomberg, no one has unlimited resources.”

NPS has said it is requesting a $14 million budget increase but Dachowitz said it’s actually $18 million, calling the NPS characterization “misleading.” Dachowitz and Mayor Harry Rilling recommend funding a $9.9 million increase for NPS.

 

‘Grave concerns’

“Another topic about the public school budgets is we only learn a certain details when events do not go as planned or accidentally,” Dachowitz said Tuesday.

The City, under Connecticut law, only has authority to fund the school system with a bottom-line amount. The Board of Education decides how the money is spent.

“They don’t have to tell us any details… They get to spend their money any which way they want,” Dachowitz said. “…But the glimpses we’ve seen of certain items causes a grave concern. One is gift cards.”

NPS handed out $10 gift cards and T-shirts to teachers at the annual Convocation, to welcome them back to school after the summer, Dachowitz alleged. The cards cost $15 and many of them expired a week after Convocation. He did some research and discovered that gift cards cannot expire in Connecticut, so they were “foolishly” bought elsewhere.

“The teachers didn’t realize nor did they have the time to realize that the cards expired the next week,” Rilling said Monday.

A BET member asked if 1099s were issued.

“I doubt that,” Dachowitz said.

“The problem we’re having is we can’t identify how much they spent, what the face value of the gift cards were,” Rilling said. “I’ve heard numbers as low as $30,000, all the way up to $300,000. In gift cards. I don’t know. We’re trying to find out.”

Some BET members speculated that the law was violated, as income was not declared.

“I’m not a tax attorney, I just play one on TV,” Dachowitz replied. “But I would say the levels of questions arising from this were many.”

So how did the City learn about the gift cards?

“An employee of the public schools came down to my tax collector with about 10 of these cards, trying to pay her local tax bill, on car taxes,” Dachowitz said.

It’s been at least five months since that discovery was made, and “I still have not gotten any information,” Dachowitz said.

 

 

 

‘What was the cost?’

NPS employees took trips to Detroit, Puerto Rico and Las Vegas to try to recruit minority teachers, Dachowitz said.

“I lived in Detroit. And I don’t know how many people are saying, ‘Oh, boy, I can’t wait to move to Connecticut to teach there.’ I question the whole concept,” Dachowitz said.

Even if it were a good idea, “Were these efforts successful, did we recruit a target number? Did we have a target? Who attended, how many people went, what was the cost? Nothing. Silence,” he said. “…When we say we don’t know anything unless it blows up, I mean it.”

BET members asked if the Board of Education is reviewed by the city’s outside auditors.

It is, and the recruitment was not mentioned in the audit, Dachowitz replied.

“I would imagine if it was problematic, the audit would have picked it up,” BET member Sheri Brown, former NPS Public Affairs Officer, said.

“I know for a long time, the district got a lot of flak for not recruiting minority teachers,” Brown said. “… I don’t know what happened here or what the outcome was. But I know for a long time they talked about doing that, and it wasn’t done. So, if somebody in HR is actually doing that now, that’s a good thing.”

“I think I agree with the objective,” Dachowitz said. “My question is, how much was spent, what other methods of recruitment might be done? Maybe a little bit closer to Norwalk?”

 

 

Unsafe equipment ignored?

Dachowitz also took aim Monday on a $600,000 capital budget request to address indoor air quality concerns, to be spread out over three years.

He had asked Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton about it and learned that consultants had declared the air quality to be in full compliance.

“I said, why is this on your list? … We don’t have a problem. Don’t we have other priorities? They did not respond,” Dachowitz reported.

He learned that in 2018, Norwalk High School Marching Band scaffolding at Andrews Field, used by the band leader and others to get a view of formations from about 40 feet overhead, “was identified as being of questionable quality,” he said.

“We sent a note to the public schools administration, and we said, ‘You really should have this inspected.’ We heard nothing crickets,” Dachowitz reported.

So an internal Building Inspector looked at the scaffolding and declared it unsafe. The City was concerned and paid $45,000 to rent scaffolding for the 2019 football season, with the understanding that NPS would build safe scaffolding, but there’s no capital budget request for that, Dachowitz said.

Hamilton instead asked if scaffolding could be rented for 10 years, because the Board of Education would never approve $75,000 “for a capital item like this,” according to Dachowitz. So he “caved” and agreed to five years of rentals.

“This is really indicative,” he said.

“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.

“The reason for the scaffolding was because the scaffolding that was set up (for years by the parent group) was just not safe and very unreliable,” he wrote. “The original estimates were given by three companies. Nutmeg scaffolding on Westport Avenue gave an estimate but it did not include setting it up or taking it down. The company that ‘won’ the bid had installation and removal in the bid.”

 

NPS responds

“Both the tone and content of Mr. Dachowitz’s accusations are disturbing,” Norwalk Public Schools Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams wrote Tuesday evening.

She continued:

“I am mystified by his attacks on Tom Hamilton, who is extremely well-regarded across Norwalk and the State for his professionalism and integrity. As you’ll recall, Tom readily stepped up last year when asked by the City to help out when Norwalk found itself without a CFO following the departure of Bob Barron. His leadership, alongside existing staff in the City Finance Department, was essential to timely completion of last year’s citywide budget process. Tom’s preference for collaboration is quite different from Mr. Dachowitz’s divisive approach.

“We know Mr. Dachowitz is new to Norwalk and Connecticut education funding, so he may not be familiar with the challenges of recruiting minority teachers or educators in shortage areas like special ed. We also don’t believe that the air quality concerns raised by the NFT and teachers across the district should be dismissed so lightly. Other areas where his analysis is misleading and inaccurate will be discussed tomorrow night at the BOE Finance Committee meeting.”

18 comments

Jojo February 12, 2020 at 3:07 am

My guess is that there is a whole iceberg of crap in NPS under the cubes we see floating. Good for Daxhowitz.

Joe February 12, 2020 at 3:14 am

Great story Ms. Nancy.

NPS definitely needs a spanking.

A few things come to mind. Pension clawbacks and bust that union.

And, by the way, anyone who says the word “diversity” in the year 2020, is a racist and a fool.

Joe February 12, 2020 at 3:31 am

Thank you Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz for trying to protect Norwalk taxpaying people.

I think our state education laws defraud taxpayers and city education laws defraud taxpayers.

It’s politics, impure and simple.

It’s the democrat political machine buying political power from the education machine with OUR MONEY!

Steve February 12, 2020 at 6:07 am

I like the idea of a CFO worrying about the paper clips (a la Ace Greenberg of Bear Stearns fame) and there was some poor reporting at times (they should know how much they spent on gift cards), but deciding a trip to Detroit was not appropriate because why would someone there want to live in Ct. is ridiculous. Don’t you think all the districts in lower Ct and NY try to search for minority candidates in the area? Sadly, it’s tough to find enough minority candidates that want to be in teaching and have the credentials to provide balance to districts. Sometimes you gotta widen the circle you are looking too, moreover, its hard to believe a trip to Detroit was some kind of boondoggle.

Likewise, given the recent problems at a middle school in Westport , and an elementary school in Stamford both of which were closed in the middle of the year (as well as the issues at Westhill HS where 25% of the staff was calling in sick because of air problems) it shows a lack of understanding much less sensitivity to ongoing issues to cite an air study in Norwalk to check conditions after complaints were made as a mistake. If anything they were getting ahead of the curve. Similarly for outreach for minority candidates. Was the decision made in good faith using proper business judgment, if so, it’s not appropriate to begin the name calling.

Mitch Adis February 12, 2020 at 6:56 am

Finally! First time I heard someone from City Hall make sense… He’ll resign…He doesn’t fit in with the rest of the incompetent.

John ONeill February 12, 2020 at 8:59 am

Like him or not, Henry Dachowitz is that pain in the ass “number cruncher” crucial to every great company. If someone has nothing to hide, the questions can surely be answered simply and quickly. Why not ask about the results of a business trip? Everyone of us in private industry need to be held accountable for expenses incurred to get the job done. Any whining from those questioned is complete nonsense. As mentioned above, resources are finite. Why not challenge certain expenditures? Some may not like his style, but Henry is good for Norwalk taxpayers. The Mayor should put him in charge of a task force to push for support of ELL programs in our town. Finally, the person in charge of gift cards should be fired for incompetence. It was a nice gesture, but not too smart.

Bryan Meek February 12, 2020 at 9:10 am

Wow, Sanctuary Harry’s attack dog is off the leash.

Instead of micromanaging $10 perks, which if fully realized would be less than $10k (not sure where the $300k fantasy came from), can we get back to the real issue.

How are we going to pay for the 1000+ and climbing children that Sanctuary Harry has rolled out the welcome mat for.

I know its a big distraction from counting pennies, but can we get some focus on how we are going to build 2 more school buildings and come up with the $100s of millions it will cost to educate our new arrivals over the coming years.

Bryan Meek February 12, 2020 at 9:16 am

A BET member asked if 1099s were handed out.

For W2 employees? How embarrassing. Better to remain silent……

BTW…..IRS rules are $249.99 can be compensated for T&E without imputing income taxes for the concerned BET member watching the pennies float by.

What’s Harry’s legal defense fund up to now? Are we north of 10 figures yet on pending law suits? How many of the 400 appeals of commercial property have been adjudicated and at what cost? Let’s start with the $2 million we should have never paid for the mosque situation and add everything up since then….we have to be over $10 million by now wasted on lawyers.

Laurie February 12, 2020 at 9:34 am

Bravo Mr. Dachowitz. It’s about time someone took a good financial look at what the Board of Education does with the money the taxpayers give it. There are many within the system who have been well aware of the blatant waste of funds downtown but cannot speak up for fear of retaliation. Maybe the taxpayers will finally find out where their money really goes.

Laurie February 12, 2020 at 9:36 am

Bravo Mr. Dachowitz. It’s about time someone took a good financial look at what the Board of Education does with its money.There are many within the system who have been well aware of the blatant waste of funds downtown but cannot speak up for fear of retaliation. Maybe the taxpayers will finally find out where their money really goes.

Bridget P February 12, 2020 at 11:38 am

The new CFO is exactly what the city needs to keep the BOE in check. Keep up the good work Mr. Dachowitz and don’t be intimidated by the dark forces there.

Banks February 12, 2020 at 12:08 pm

Does Brenda Wilcox Williams realize that just because someone is well regarded for professionalism and integrity, does not mean they are competent at performing a job which in this case is control over half the city’s operation spending. These costs have gone up exponentially over the last 5 years and now we hear about recruiting trips to Las Vegas and mis-handled gift cards. The friendships in politics are not always friendly to those stuck with the bill. Adamowski, the highest paid city official by far deserves spotlight. Where are the results of the recruiting trips?

Another Opinion February 12, 2020 at 12:14 pm

It is refreshing to see the city’s financial officer scrutinize school budgets and spending – this was long overdue. The optics of school budgets cannibalizing all of the city’s resources is not a good on from rating agencies, property owners and prospective home buyers perspective.

carol February 12, 2020 at 12:15 pm

hope Mr.Dachowitz can survive the “old boys club”. his questions are valid and should have been answered years ago,but oh yes it is only tax payers money so why bother.

Bryan Meek February 12, 2020 at 3:11 pm

It’s worth repeating. Does anyone care about how we are going educate the 1000+ children who have arrived here lately? For a 13 year education, that represents a perpetuity cost of $1.26 billion if these numbers remain consistent. We can focus on this or we can focus on scones and latte’s to welcome staff back….staff who constantly complain about morale issues if you believe the union stewards.

Bryan Meek February 12, 2020 at 3:26 pm

So in the city’s annual report, we see note 7 on page 73 of 176 in the city’s annual report discloses contingencies for lawsuits at nearly $13 million. https://www.norwalkct.org/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/15551

That’s a lot of gift cards Bat Man.

Are sure that’s enough to cover the losses coming from the 400 appeals of commercial revaluations? One I personally know about saw a 250% increase year over the last one. Can anyone show me one piece of property without any development has gone up that much in the last 5 years?

We know about one case where the city is into it for almost $1 million. Are we to believe all the damages and adjudication of the 400 appeals will only average out to $30k per case? I wonder what GASB would say about this. We know our auditors took no issue with $900,000 walking right out of city hall thanks to lack of basic internal controls of the vendor master file, so don’t bother asking them.

Concerned Taxpayer February 13, 2020 at 11:48 pm

@ Bryan Meek

The note you are referring to cites personal injury, property damage, civil rights damage and other miscellaneous claims. I’m not sure where losses from tax assessment appeals fit here, but the councils breakdown would be interesting to measure against as these play out. In totality let’s hope $13m is enough, since lack of adequate insurance and $13 million bucks to contingency are not adverse enough.

Norwalk Lost February 15, 2020 at 3:34 pm

Charter schools anyone? I read in awe as these board members are so animated with supporting budgets that force major property tax increase down everyone’s throat every year. Shameful.

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