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Norwalk BoE approves request for 12.7% budget increase

A page from the FY2023-24 Superintendent’s Recommended Budget.

NORWALK, Conn. — The operating budget ask from Norwalk Public Schools calls for a 12.7% increase, a $27.6 million bump up from the 2022-23 budget. Approved unanimously at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella’s recommended $245.5 million budget marks a decrease from the “preliminary” numbers released just one week prior, when NPS Chief Financial Officer Lunda Asmani announced a $32 million increase had been calculated.

Asmani called the requested budget “very tight” and “bare bones,” with no reduction in staff included.

“I think moving forward from this number, we are going to have to make some difficult choices with that,” Asmani said.

As for the drop from a 14.9% budget increase to a 12.7% figure, Asmani said, “Last week, we met with the City and had conversations, received some feedback, and we were able to make some further adjustments.” He also mentioned updated health insurance numbers and a focus on vacant positions.

Asmani explained that the district’s enrollment may not have increased significantly but the percentage of high needs students has, making the student body more expensive. “High needs” refers to students who are economically disadvantaged, multi-language learners or students with disabilities.

Norwalk had 59% high needs in 2017-18 but 68% in 2019-20 and 2020-21, according to a chart presented by Asmani. It dropped to 64% this year but that’s not accurate, Estrella and Assistant Superintendent of Business and Operations Sandra Faioes said. Faioes described the discrepancy as a technicality related to lunch forms and the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP).

“It’s not that our demographic has changed drastically, it’s that the means by which we are collecting data has changed,” Faioes said.

The big budget ask stems from three factors, Asmani said, reviewing items covered in last week’s BoE workshop session.

When the Council “zero-funded” the BoE in 2020-21, keeping the budget at the same number as the previous year in light of federal “ESSER” COVID-19 relief funding, NPS moved social workers and counselors into ESSER-funded positions. Now, with the relief funds drying up, the district wants them back in the regular operating budget.

“These weren’t new positions that didn’t exist before. That’s not the case, these positions were always here, we just use this alternative funding source,” Asmani said, explaining a $6.6 million segment of the increase. Math and ELA teachers were also moved to grant funding and need to come back to the operating budget if they’re going to continue, a $3.7 million increase.

“Not all of these teachers were brand new teachers to the district. When these positions opened up, we had teachers that had been in the district, that have moved from other positions and had the skill sets and the passion and the drive to take on these positions,” Asmani said.

A page from the FY2023-24 Superintendent’s Recommended Budget.

Escalating Special Education costs are another factor. But the $7.7 million figure cited last week has dropped to $6.3 million, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Rob Pennington said. The team had really been hoping to create an assessment team that would visit the schools but given the situation, it’s become “something for future planning.”

Estrella cautioned that specialized learning needs might inspire the Board to request a special appropriation next year, if more students with needs move into the district than budgeted for. Services are mandated and “in an effort to reduce cost, we’re limiting the amount of space we have to have to engage in new cases.”

“A child, or children, could come in at any point in time of the school year,” Board of Education Chairwoman Diana Carpio said.

The evening’s work included approving a $300,000 budget transfer to cover an out-of-district placement.

“We’ll probably have three or four more of that size coming through before the year is over,” Asmani said.

NPS budgeted $9 million for Special Education this year but the current projection is $10.6 million, Pennington said.

Another factor in the increase is lower reimbursements through the Excess Costs grants, resulting in 14 teachers being moved to the operating budget.

Asmani concluded the talk of budget drivers by reviewing American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund) requirements and expenditures.

Faoies detailed $8.1 million in one-time expenses that were paid through ESSER funds, including summer academies, COVID-mitigation measures and literacy resources. More students were accepted into the summer program to mitigate learning loss and socializing opportunities were built in, making the program more expensive than summer academy in normal times.

It was also offered to eighth grade students, Estrella said.

“We had a lot of success in our summer program, to the point where even families, other children, did not require the services were calling us and were quite upset that we couldn’t offer their children a seat in the program. So our goal is to continue that work,” Estrella said.

Faioes said Estrella won NPS more ESSER funds than other districts because the application was designed well.

The base budget increase is 5%, about 10.9 million, Asmani said. It’s “still a work in progress” in this, “the initial phase of budget development.” The approved request will officially be transmitted to the City by Jan. 15 with a detailed packet full of schedules and charts.

A page from the FY2023-24 Superintendent’s Recommended Budget.

For regular taxpayers, Asmani spelled out the effect a fully funded BoE request would have on tax bills; in the First Taxing District, a $5,894 bill includes $3,100 for the schools, and this would jump to $3,400. So it’s a $300 increase just for the Board of Education.

In the Sixth Taxing District, a $17,538 bill this year includes $9,225 for education. It would increase to $10,397, a $1,172 hit.

2023-24 Budget Recommended Supt. Recommended FINAL

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13 comments

Sue Haynie December 21, 2022 at 7:00 am

Once this BOE budget is settled, next year’s BOE budgets will be based of this year’s approved budget as a base. The BOE never reduces it’s previous year budget, it only increases it.

Of course this BOE approved it unanimously, it’s a rubber stamp body filled with tax and spend Norwalk Democrats, several of whom have or will have generous Norwalk taxpayer funded pensions and benefits. Any, note to readers, the Superintendent’s salary is scandalously generous.

Norwalk homeowners already pay ridiculously high levels of property taxes for so-so quality of life amenities and so-so public schools. Increases like this just mean Norwalk will remain so-so for years to come.

Drew Todd December 21, 2022 at 8:53 am

This budget is and should be DOA at the CC. This is a shameful mess the BOE has created under Estrella. They don’t deserve any additional funding. If it’s so tight and bad and we will have to make so many drastic cuts then here’s an idea STOP BOB DUFF HIGH! Or maybe Bob can pull another $50 Million for a pool out of his a** and properly find the schools as in ECS money!?! We are spending over $300 Million for the New High School that if we’re lucky will be done in 10 years! This kind of reminds me of the current and horrible administration over $100 Billion for Ukraine now $8 Billion to shut a coal mine half way around the world and no accounting of any of the funds! Is this the Brandon Administration or Norwalk PS!?! I guess it doesn’t really matter when it’s not your money right!?! OH wait it IS our money but do they care!?! I think the answer is obvious.

John O'Neill December 21, 2022 at 9:13 am

This may be less ridiculous than the 14.9% last presented, yet ridiculous none the less. Has this “budget” taken into account the next round of teacher’s raises? Mr. Asami, you make the ridiculous assumption that taxes will only go up by what the NPS requests. Have you read a newspaper in the last 12 months? Do you believe other city agencies won’t request an inflation related boost? Wait a minute — There’s trees to plant. Should we redirect monies away from the Tree Huggers Association?
AS LONG AS WE’RE TALKING ABOUT THE BOARD OF ED: Does the Board have ANY concept about the morale of the teaching staff? The vast majority of teachers have -0- respect for this administration. ZERO! This administration is NOT letting teacher’s teach. They Micro-manage teachers to the point where they actually tell teachers where to stand in front of the class and what should be on the chalkboard? This my friends is Crazy-Land. Where the heck is Mary Yordon and the Union on this? Where’s the equity in this system? This administration is advertising a great story but failing where the rubber meets the road. Test scores have proven that. BUT, because test scores don’t jive with what they’re trying to sell us we’re told NOT to believe the test scores. I would argue that those that go along with this administration are racists. The Test scores prove that whether you want to believe those scores or not…
In summary they want more money to provide less results. Ridiculous!

Kay Anderson December 21, 2022 at 9:59 am

Yesterday we read a City Finance story where several Council members of the Committee did not show up in person or online and none of those present save Bryon Meek commented.

Today we read this detailed story of the Board of Ed budget proposal, with hefty tax increases outlined, passed unanimously by the Board with NO question or comment from any Board member, save a comment from Chair Diana Carpio that could have initiated a discussion but apparently did not.

Dear Elected Officials: We chose you for your leadership potential. We need to hear your voices. Representation without information isn’t representation.
Thank you, Kay

Patrick Cooper December 21, 2022 at 1:48 pm

Unanimous. Of course.

For the last time – I want to remind the local GOP members why a coalition is good for the city. Because – this bloated budget is all but yours, too. YOU also did this to us.

In the last election, there were 4 qualified candidates on the ballot under the banner of the “Independent Party” – and the results showed that the D’s voted for their candidates, but the GOP refused to vote for these “I” candidates, in spite of the fact they proposed zero candidates themselves. Had they elected better candidates – I can assure you – there would have been some serious push-back on this run-away spending. No rubber stamp.

Party loyalty – from both sides – is sinking this city. This spending level – by state law – can never decrease. This is NOT about the kids. This is all but unsustainable. Elections have consequences – and you would think lessons this painful would help folks learn.

Bryan Meek December 21, 2022 at 4:06 pm

I was not at the Finance meeting, tending to a quarterly review of a non for profit I’m CFO for scheduled long before. I reviewed the meeting on our YouTube Channel.

No one asked about the $3mm additional revenue that was forecast for personal property tax collection a 13% increase, when the reality is the numbers are a million lower. This should have been their focus. This can never happen again. We also need a certified assessor that shows up to work so we don’t have to pay Westport to sign off on our bogus grand list again. I would have, but was going to save it for this year’s budget cycle when we are allowed to see the new “forecasts”.

I can live with the other $4mm in levy adjustments as normal and necessary, but the miss on personal property is beyond absurd and there should be accountability. A quick two column comparison of prior year versus budget and a variance column for percent would have made this jump out like a sore thumb. Finance 101 stuff.

Maybe you say this isn’t relevant to the current conversation, but then you probably forgot the history here.

NPS was given a ZERO percent budget increase last year in the middle of Covid when NPS was the only department besides NPD and NFD working full time. And sometimes even more than that teaching hybrid.

Right or wrong with wage increases and health care costs this was really a MINUS 4% budget when NPS was asking for a 4% increase.

Right or wrong, NPS had to use all of its covid relief to fund operations beyond the scope of a normal year, dealing with hybrid learning environments, and children who have suffered a great deal of damage from the prolonged lockdowns and disruptions.

The City managed to squirrel away half its covid money to make last years budget more manageable. Here I thought these funds were supposed to help cities recover from Covid, but who knew it would instead be a slush fund to soften tax increases that would have been needed to give the City departments their 5% increase (18% for Finance alone or about $1.4 million). I don’t know if that money could have been earmarked for education on top of the education funding received, but for certain it could have helped a lot of children out more than our need to hoard cash in the rainy day fund. Add another gift from the state of $4 million in Pilot funding and the city is rolling in it. No wonder bonuses and parties are going on now.

One thing is for certain, this almost promises to be the most difficult budget season since 2011.

Nora King December 24, 2022 at 12:32 am

Kay, you are spot on. We have one party rule with no in person meetings or hard questions being asked. They decide to hold this important meeting on short notice on the Tuesday before Christmas. This is how the leadership is leading in Norwalk. They are not open, nor do they engage different viewpoints. Harry Rilling has created a culture of his way or the highway. Estrella is following his lead. As a parent with a child in the school system I say defund the BOE. They are mismanaging the education of our children. We do NOT need any more specialists. We need teachers in the classroom focused on math, reading, science, social studies. The academics are an embarrassment because she is not focused on the basics. All her fancy programs and buzzwords are not educating our children. Mary Yordan is a failure for teachers. At least when Bruce ran the union he fought for a quality education for all. We need new leadership and more diverse opinions. Equity is not just Rilling minions running the city.

Steve Balazs December 24, 2022 at 3:39 pm

Lots of complaints that the BOE is all one party as if someone on the BOE should give up their seat for a Republican. It’s not the Democrats fault that they are doing so well in Norwalk and Republicans are grasping for air. It wasn’t that long ago that the City had a Republican mayor. Of late, Republicans aren’t even competitive. Maybe it’s time for some self-reflection? At least one significant Republican voice gratuitously called Democrats “disgusting” while in an email group with only Republicans…maybe that type of vitriol and reactiveness- is why Republican’s are in the state their in…always interesting to me when a group that regularly demonizes affirmative action- wants it for themselves—even without a historical reason to support it

Justin Matley December 26, 2022 at 9:50 pm

Thank you Bryan for pointing out the budget difficulties NPS schools have been put through, largely – but not entirely – leading to this ask. And I too agree the city chose to manage the Covid funds in ways I’d not have preferred; both regarding schools and the rainy day fund.

I also agree with Nora that it’s easy to miss the forest through the trees when it comes to fundamental education. I don’t fault the current NPS administration for utilizing new methods when they seem academically appropriate, but it’s seemed to me there’s been more flailing and throwing spaghetti at the wall at times than patient and informed curriculum research leading to committed policy and academic changes with teeth and evidentiary backbone. I’ve talked to teachers and I know many here do too.

Lastly, I also agree with Kay. We need our civic leaders showing up. In person. It’s a difficult time of year, particularly for working a thankless, volunteer job. Meetings will present conflicts from time to time. But, Covid seems to have lulled all of us asleep at the wheel sometimes, and our representatives can do better. Dissenting voices and tough questions are essential to functional democracy. Intraparty or otherwise.

Drew Todd December 28, 2022 at 7:29 am

@steve for the record the person who was taking about the 1 party rule in this a city is a Democrat. And funny people in this city are so closed minded and vote based on the thinking of things in the past. Or we would have had so many amazing Republican Candidates elected like Nicole Hampton. But instead people went for someone on the CC for 3 years and couldn’t pick out of a zoom meeting which amazingly we are still having in this City. I totally agree with Nora, Bryan and others. This BOE and Superintendent are nightmares. The waste is staggering! The raise she got was ridiculous but we should be thankful she didn’t take the full raise she was “entitled “ too. Give me a break! This budget should be DOA and I have kids in the system. But maybe talk to teachers and find out what’s really going on in the schools. And I don’t mean Mary and Co from that joke of a Union that doesn’t do anything for their members. We are in a really bad situation here and this is really what happens when it’s a Rubber Stamp BOE and there truly is only 1 party rule taking orders from above. The Republicans ran some great candidates and we had many many victories across the state and continue to grow since the Democrats are to blame for this mess.

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