NORWALK, Conn. — Preliminary figures indicate a needed 14.9% increase in the Norwalk Public Schools budget for the coming school year. If they pan out, the Board of Education would be requesting $32 million more than this year’s school budget.
Part of the expected increase is due to the funding “cliff” then-NPS Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton warned of in April 2021 when the Common Council zeroed out the school budget, keeping it flat and forcing school administrators to use federal COVID-19 relief grants to fund counselors and other positions.
“Just making us whole for that zero funding, $6.6 million, is roughly a 3% increase over the current budget,” Chief Financial Officer Lunda Asmani said at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting.
Beyond that $6.6 million, Asmani spoke of another $4.4 million to continue positions paid for by federal relief funds, referred to as “ESSER,” the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund grant. ESSER funded some math coaches, math improvement teachers and ELA (English Language Arts) improvement teachers, he said.
Escalating special education costs account for $7.8 million of the expected need. While the $3 million invested several years ago to create in-house services is a success, saving the district perhaps $48 million, out-of-district costs are rising due to staffing pressures and NPS is dealing with COVID-related challenges such as agoraphobia prompting children to avoid school, requiring programs that haven’t been established yet, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Rob Pennington said.
NPS tries to keep children in State-approved programs that qualify for reimbursement, but children have moved into the district already enrolled in programs that don’t qualify, he said.
While parents can’t dictate their child’s placement, ripping them out of a program could be a detriment, Ad-Hoc Special Education Chairwoman Erica DePalma said.
Special education costs are also a factor in the coming budget reconciliation. The 2021-22 budget allocated $9 million for special education this year but it’s coming in closer to $10.6 million, Pennington said.
In another aspect of the developing perfect storm for 2022-23, grant funding is decreasing.
The State has raised the thresholds for excess costs grants, Pennington said. The resultant decrease in funding isn’t substantial per student but adds up overall, and 19 teachers need to be moved into the local budget to justify the figures.
The federal IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) grant is consistently funded year after year but the cost of teachers goes up, Pennington said. Three teachers are being moved to local funding due to that deficit.
Adjustments to the Medicaid guidelines mean that one teacher will need to be moved to Norwalk taxpayer-funding, he said.
The base budget increase, without the ending federal grants, the skyrocketing special education costs and the State grant threshold changes, would be $13.6 million, or 6.2%.
That’s less than the 8.5% projected increase that would have occurred without the “ESSER detour,” Asmani said.
BoE member Colin Hosten pointed out that 6.2% is less than the inflation rate, recently calculated at 7.2%.
Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella said the budget requests originally added up to an 18% increase. “We asked every department to really go through their individual budgets and reduce their budgets, by a minimum of 2%… So we’ve gone already through extensive reviews within each department and made some significant reductions. The challenge we have, one, like you articulated Colin, the costs have been elevated, like everyone else… in part because of inflation.”
Education staff shortages have also escalated costs, Estrella said. “All of these components have built the number that you see now. Is this what we would want? Absolutely not. But this is what we need to keep our students in a learning environment that they deserve and is conducive to productive learning.”
Hosten highlighted complaints from some that ESSER funds should have been spent on non-recurring expenses. NPS did spend some grant money on one-time expenses like personal protective equipment and ventilation but 80% of a school budget goes to personnel, salary and benefits, he said.
Asmani came to NPS after years on the City-side of budgeting. There, you do have options to invest in non-recurring expenses but you don’t have them in education, he said.
“We did spend some time on furniture and equipment and bathrooms and just making them accessible and safe during the pandemic. But there’s only so much in a budget that’s 85% staffing and 100% people business,” Asmani said. “…It’s really not an apples to apples comparison.”
One objective of grant funding was to mitigate learning loss. That can’t be programmatic, “it actually has to be having professional people deliver that tier three, or tier two instruction,” Assistant Superintendent of Business and Operations Sandra Faioes said.
Social emotional health is also a large component, Estrella said.
“We didn’t get increases one year and we were in a predicament that we didn’t want to have will the staff lose their jobs during the midst of a pandemic,” she said. “We transferred our school counselors and social workers, social workers to the to the grants,” because that met State guidelines of supporting students and, “it was a way to ensure that these hardworking individuals that worked with us through the most challenging time on the pandemic will continue to be employed.”
NPS contracted services, Faioes said. As an example, contractors helped get students back to school.
Estrella said NPS partnered with the mid-Fairfield Child Guidance Center for one-time expenses. “We’re losing those at the end of this year, but problems have not concluded … it wasn’t realistic to continue to keep that in the 23-24 budget.”
There’s evidence that NPS has “accomplished a lot” even if the students are suffering in their test scores, BoE member Mary Ellen Flaherty-Ludwig said. “They have clearly seem to have done better with this kind of support.”
Again, they’re preliminary numbers. Budget requests have typically been presented in January.
“We’re reviewing these numbers, we’re having conversations with a city as our counterparts of this process. But this is kind of where we are now,” Asmani said.
Teachers union responds
“This is absolutely going to be a tough year. It’s pretty clear. We have enormous needs in the district. I want to assure you that the Norwalk Federation of Teachers are committed to being responsible members in this process,” Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon said.
NFT recently negotiated a new contract, which expires Aug. 31.
The union agreed to a “high deductible health care, savings account health insurance plan to try to prevent health insurance costs from being a driver in this budget,” Yordon said. “We’re hoping that the savings will be in the millions over the next couple of years, if we can successfully follow through on that agreement, and we hope that that won’t be lost in the increasing in this inflationary period.”
She also referred to “very sensitive salary increases in our contract.”
“The new salary does not make us the highest paid teachers in Connecticut, as sometimes is said,” Yordon continued. “We could be more competitive with many districts in many of our salary schedules. We have 22 steps to the maximum, whereas many of our neighboring communities have 16.”
Mid-career teachers can profit by moving to neighboring districts, “but we know that this is Norwalk, and there are lots of good reasons to work here, that may surpass the dollars,” she said.
The union collaborated with Estrella to add four early dismissal days, making time for extra professional learning time at no cost of the district, Yordon said. Teachers spend thousands of their own money on graduate courses and other learning opportunities, and “spend countless hours beyond the contract day,” in addition to buying supplies for students.
“We have provided a lot of flexibility to extend contractual workloads, to provide coverage and courses … and emergency sub coverages,” Yordon said. “… We believe that the discussion of student needs and this being a people business was spot on. Our kids need qualified staff, including para educators that we care very much about having in our class.”
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