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.
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.
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.
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