By Nancy Guenther Chapman
NORWALK, Conn. – There’s only so much rebuilding that can be done from last year’s cuts in the Norwalk Public Schools budget, union leaders and Board of Education members agree, even with a hoped-for 3.4 percent increase in next year’s budget.
The board on Wednesday night unanimously approved the $165 million budget proposal submitted by Interim Superintendent Tony Daddona with the phrase “rebuild.” BOE Chairman Mike Lyons said the budget includes “judicious add-backs” that have a reasonable shot of getting the city’s support. “That means we can’t add back everything that we lost in one year,” he said. “That’s simply not realistic.”
The budget includes the reinstatement of intramural sports at Norwalk middle schools, Lyons said, adding, “No one is being laid off. We will not see a repeat of what happened last year.”
But, “I know this is going to be hard again,” Norwalk Association of School Administrators President Tony Ditrio said as he, like others, suggested revisions to restore what was lost last year. “From the comments I am hearing already, everybody wants back what we lost.”
Several school employees addressed the board, hoping for more money for the schools’ libraries.
Marie Steele, a librarian’s assistant at Cranbury and Kendall elementary schools, echoed that. “I now describe my libraries as organized chaos. The idea of finding volunteers either within or outside of schools to keep the libraries open is frankly insulting. It takes a great deal of skill and practice to do my job as well as I do.”
Howie Ziperstein of Sandy Hook, a second-grade teacher at Cranbury Elementary School, said it is hypercritical to close libraries when you are trying to teach children how to read, and added that all schools should have armed guards as well as more secure windows and doors.
Daddona plans to add six elementary school library aides and two middle school library aides at a cost of $274,825.
But, Kendall fifth-grade teacher Jeff Beckley said, “Many of you have the impression that library clerks have a direct impact on student achievement. However the reality is that an assistant principal’s impact is farther reaching and more significant. I ask that you use the $270,000 to restore as many assistant principals to full time as possible.”
Ditrio agreed. “My only disappointment in the budget is there’s not a single elementary school assistant principal put back,” he said. “I don’t think you’ve ever understood all the things those people do and how critical they are to the running of the schools.
“I know it’s tough,” he added. “I know you have a lot of decisions. I think there are a lot of places where we might transfer things and hold off on a few things. I think putting things back in central office at this point, before we take care of the buildings, is not a good choice.”
Ditrio said spending $400,000 in the operating budget on Common Core Standards, a mandatory nationwide effort to establish common goals in schools, was excessive, given the $4 million slated for it in the capital budget.
Lyons disagreed. “Ideally, we’d like to have twice that much, but given the guidance from the city we felt that asking for 3.4 percent was about as high as we could reasonably expect the city to fund us.”
Another speaker brought up an unexpected $60,000 expense the board found out about last week when it was notified that the city has changed its pension plan to 401a, a defined contribution plan for non-certified employees hired on or after July 1, 2012.
“The 401a city pension document has not yet even been written or approved by the coalition and will not be for several months,” Norwalk Federation of Teachers (NFT) President Bruce Mellion said. “The shifting of workers comp to the board is far more complicated than it appears at first blush. I would strongly suggest that these two changes not be implemented before the 2014-15 budget cycle.”
BOE member Sue Haynie said the budget increase is actually much higher than it appears to be. If not for a pay freeze taken by the NFT, the BOE would be on the hook for another $2.8 million in salaries. “If we hadn’t had that hard freeze, this would be a 5.1 percent budget.”
The budget will be delivered to the Board of Estimate and Taxation on Thursday.