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