NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk’s purse string holders indicated Monday that they might be willing to grant Norwalk Public Schools the additional $1.5 million the Board of Education says it needs.
Mayor Harry Rilling stressed that the financial outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic is uncertain, and suggested to Board of Estimate and Taxation members that perhaps using Rainy Day Funds would be acceptable, given the BoE’s insistence that the $1.5 million is needed to avoid cuts that children will feel directly.
Rilling and other BET members said they appreciated Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski’s effort to cut $6.6 million from what the City maintains was a requested $18 million increase for the 2020-21 budget.
“As we move forward, and as we have a better idea of (COVID-19) expenditures, costs and so forth, we can always go back and ask at any time to make an increase,” Rilling said. “Or we can find, if we have to… money to allocate to the Board of Education so they can meet their requirements, meet their English Language Learners and without hurting some of the non-English Language Learners, as Dr. Adamowski put it.”
Per-pupil expenditures were again a topic, with Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton rebutting accusations made by Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz in February by asserting that the statistics are compiled by the State via a uniform set of criteria.
“The state’s reporting of per pupil spending is in fact, far and away the most accurate and comparable data,” and includes in-kind spending, Hamilton said.
The budget was built upon enrollment projections, but those projections are already short of what’s actually happening, NPS Budget Coordinator Kristen Karzcmit said.
She said $3.3 million of the requested increase was due to expecting 406 additional students at a per pupil expenditure of $18,000 each, even if the costs are higher. But the projection doesn’t factor in the pandemic.
“People are saying that there may even be a shift from private school enrollment to public school enrollment. So it may potentially even be more than this 406 that we’ve noted,” Karzcmit said.
Enrollment went up by 331 students in 2019-20, and as of April 1, NPS has 11,888 students, she said. So NPS is only 33 students shy of the projection used to formulate the 2020-21 budget, and there are probably 22 ELL students who haven’t been able to register due to digital insufficiencies during the pandemic.
BET Chairman Ed Camacho asked if Norwalk might see a decline in ELL students given the hardships faced by those families in the sudden economic downturn due to the pandemic.
“We don’t see why that would happen,” Adamowski replied. “Eighty percent of immigration in Connecticut goes to Fairfield County but there are only three places where an immigrant can live. And that’s Bridgeport, Norwalk and Stamford… we don’t expect anything except a continued increase.”
“Right now, immigration is at an all-time low,” Adamowski continued. “We expect after the COVID-19 crisis subsides that immigration will increase again.”
The Common Council granted NPS a $1.4 million special appropriation in December to deal with the increased ELL population. The proposed budget factors in $2.9 million for ELL costs, Karzcmit said.
The cap set by the Council awards NPS with $9.9 million more than the 2019-20 budget but is $8.8 million short of the Board of Education’s budget request.
“Last month I submitted to the Board of Education 6.6 million in cuts. And while these are very painful, and while the board is struggling with them, most are can be described as indirect and not disrupting the direct instruction between a student and a teacher,” Adamowski said. “And I tell you that the Board is struggling with these because they are not anything that anyone wants to see occur. But nonetheless, they represent our judgment on the best places to cut, if there are any good places, and this is all you know, an issue of priorities.”
Cutting $8.1 million would “directly impact instruction” and “I don’t think anyone at any point anticipated that we would be in a position where we would have to cut services to students who are not English Language Learners in order to provide legally mandated services to English Language Learners,” he said.
“The thing that’s very important to understand about education is that it is a labor-intensive business model,” Board of Education Finance Committee Chairwoman Barbara Meyer-Mitchell said. “It simply cannot be done without people, and without the relationships that those people develop with our students.”
“We have contractual obligations with the unions on class sizes, so we can’t cut in the area of class sizes without violating our contracts,” she continued. “So we are really in a bind when our enrollment increases the way it has, and especially when it increases in an area of high needs like ELL and SpEd because that requires specialized instruction in areas that are labor scarcity, so we have to bid against our neighbors competitively. So all of that leads me to say that the Board is extremely aware of the circumstances that the City finds itself in.”
“I do really want to remind you though, that education is an area in which we are legally mandated to provide these services and we lay the city open to liability legally, if we do not provide them appropriately,” Meyer-Mitchell concluded.
“There are a lot of moving pieces because of COVID-19 and we are still getting our arms around all the positives and negatives, if you will, from a financial standpoint,” Hamilton said.
Camacho asked about the healthy start time initiative, in regards to transportation expenses.
“We had estimated these costs based upon our current contract, the new contract has come in $330,000 less,” Adamowski said.
The new contract includes propane buses, cameras on buses, an improved tracking app and special transportation for Jefferson Elementary students to attend Ponus Ridge, as their school is renovated. The Board of Education originally expected this to cost more than $700,000. That expectation was reduced to $457,000 and then bids came in much lower than anticipated. The end result is that NPS is paying $104,000 for more value, saving $330,000 from what it would have spent if it hadn’t negotiated a new contract.
Those savings are factored into the proposed cuts, Adamowski said.
Rilling ended the discussion by suggesting that “if we just keep the cap as it is, that doesn’t mean that in the future, we can’t come back and revisit the budget once we have a better idea of what’s happening, and how much this is going to cost us.”
Camacho asked how the Board would budget, without knowing if it would get the additional $1.5 million.
“I just think we look at the cap that’s been set,” Rilling said. “We’re coming up on the end of the fiscal year. (Norwalk Director of Management and Budgets Angela Fogel and Dachowtize) will be working with (Hamilton) and seeing if there is going to be a surplus, what that surplus is going to be. And then if there is a surplus, perhaps some of that surplus can be used to give them that 1.5 million that they need. Or we can ask later on for an increase if we feel as the budget year’s going forward.”
Using Rainy Day Fund money for ongoing expenses is irresponsible but the fund has been very responsibly built up and is needed now for the emergency situation, Rilling said.
“So again, just seeing how things play out,” Rilling said. “… July 1 is when this new budget will take effect. We’ve got 12 months to work on where the budget is at any given time. And I know that Henry, Mr. Dachowitz, and Mr. Hamilton will be communicating regularly to see at any given time where we are and where we need to be. And I think the BET will be very open to listening to some reasonable thoughts about what has to happen and perhaps what other allocation needs to be made.”