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Norwalk BoE endorses super’s budget; chairman votes no

Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Lunda Asmani talks about the impact of the City flat funding the school district, at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting. His predecessor, Tom Hamilton, used the word “cliff” to describe what will happen if the City keeps that up.

NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Board of Education members made a pitch for their recommended 9.1% budget increase Tuesday, while stressing that the City needs to recognize that COVID-19 relief funding will dry up in 18 months.

Last year, the Common Council “flat funded” the Board of Education, a zero percent increase over the 2020-21 budget. NPS was forced to pay some salaries with relief funds, sometimes called “ESSER” for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.

BoE members are warning of potential staffing reductions in 2024/25 while highlighting student achievements that they say justify the expense and emphasizing the challenges the kids face because of the pandemic.

“When these federal grant funds expire in about 18 months, we’re going to have very important operating expenses that will need to be transferred to our local budget. And so the question is, how do we get prepared for that? I’m not sure I have the answer. But I think it’s important for us to at least acknowledge tonight,” said Board of Education Chairman Colin Hosten.

The Board approved the budget recommended by Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella on an 8-1 vote. While Hosten made many comments supporting the budget he voted against it, citing the City Charter.

“Our City Charter is very clear. In fact, our State Statute is very clear that the Council does not have jurisdiction over how the Board spends its budget. And that’s by design,” Hosten said at one point.

The $227,463,773 budget ask factors in “addressing 50% ESSER funding,” a $7.8 million line that represents a 3.7% budget increase, or 40% of the requested hike from the current budget. This is “trying to have a system where we can get to some level funding to eliminate the dramatic increase that could be necessary in Fiscal Year 24,” said NPS Chief Financial Officer Lunda Asmani.

Hosten, who served about 11 months as a Council member, said he’d “like to respect the right and actually the responsibility that our Council members have to actually make that decision on their own and to endorse a budget that we can say will fund the schools for the 2022/23 school year.”

NPS used $7.8 million of a total $35.9 million in ESSER II and ESSER III funds to offset the Council’s flat funding this year, Asmani said.

“Once the ESSER dollars are depleted, we are going to be faced with having to redo engaging in budget cuts that could significantly impact the personnel that we have right now that we desperately need,” Estrella said. That would include school counselors and social workers.

Hosten clarified that, “none of the budget scenarios presented for this year includes any personnel reductions for the coming year.”

ESSER funds are “going to run out, we can’t just have these impossible funds coming from nowhere. And the cuts and the possibility of the cuts that are just going to be taking away, teachers in front of students is just too crucial,” BoE member Janine Randolph said, after endorsing the expenditures in Estrella’s budget.

“Every year, we fight for the same things, we fight for more. We are behind. And now we’re really, really behind with this pandemic,” BoE Vice Chairwoman Diana Carpio said. “… If we don’t move forward with some type of help, we will be cutting stuff, we will be cutting resources. And where does that leave us? Instead of moving forward, we would be moving backwards.”

“I don’t think that we can afford to have that kind of expenditure, meaning human capital, leaving our school buildings, it’s very expensive to backfill these people,” BoE member Kara Baekey said.

Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Lunda Asmani presents budget information during Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting on Zoom.

‘Return on investment’

Hosten said Estrella “has actually cut a lot out of the initial budget from what we’re seeing tonight… there were budget requests from different departments in the district that were not included in this recommended budget.”

BoE member Sheri McCready Brown listed NPS accomplishments and challenges.

“Unlike our other neighboring school districts, 59 different languages are spoken in our district … we have 70 different countries that are represented,” she said, adding that NPS has earned the Connecticut Seal of Biliteracy.

“Many people inquire about our college list,” she said. “We’ve got students who are attending four-year colleges like UConn, Southern, Howard, Stanford, Cornell, and UPenn. We also have students attending Norwalk Community College and Housatonic. We’ve got students who’ve been accepted to some of the Ivys, including Columbia and Dartmouth.”

Brien McMahon High School Senior Paul Buellesbach was named a National Merit Scholarship Corporation Semifinalist and a P-Tech student, Tom McCarthy, received the Norwalk Community College Presidential Award for Excellence, McCready Brown said. Even during COVID, West Rocks Middle School students placed first in the Odyssey of the Mind competition and other students competed in Invention Convention, moving on to the national level.

Continuing, she noted student success in the Fairfield Regional Connecticut History Day competition, two BMHS students who placed second in the Lockheed Martin Global Cyber Security competition and five students who made it into the Connecticut Music Educators Association Allstate Ensemble Group.

“I just wanted to make sure that our taxpayers, our families, our government leaders, Council members, Board of Estimate and Taxation people are aware of what our return on investment is, because we’ve got a lot of good things happening in the district,” she said.

 

‘Is it conscionable?’

Hosten said the budget doesn’t represent a wish list. “This is this is what we need to do the work that we’re here to do.”

While in the past, City-side leaders have suspected the Board of Education was “guilty of asking for more than we need as a bargaining tool… I can guarantee you that there’s not a thing, this budget that I don’t think is vital to the continued operations of our schools,” Hosten said. “We should think about the long-term impact of moving some of the operating costs that are being covered by federal grants right now to our local budget.”

McCready Brown mentioned the City’s fund balance, sometimes called the Rainy Day Fund, and the City’s triple A bond rating.

Hosten said, “If our fund balance continues to grow even through this difficult time, the question I think that, you know, perhaps our City leaders need to answer is: Is it conscionable to keep so much of our tax dollars in in a Rainy Day Fund, and not use it in this rainiest of days?”

“We have to take into consideration is the efforts and the work that our team has been putting forward in the midst of this pandemic,” Estrella said. “It’s very difficult for people to do their job effectively as challenging as it is currently with all of the factors that have been added to the load of things that people have to take into consideration. And on top of that, have to worry about potentially being out of a job once these resources are depleted.”

“Right now, there are staffing shortages in the teaching industry across the country,” Nelson Baekey said. “I think that we’d be really selling ourselves and our kids short. If we’re, you know, doing anything less than, you know, what we’re doing now, which, you know, we really do not know what the repercussions of this pandemic are going to be long term on these kids K through 12.”

FY 2022-23 Adoption Presentation-VERSION4

Three Year Budget Projection Scenario Summary 12.21.21

13 comments

DryAsABone January 5, 2022 at 8:40 am

Be very careful residents of Norwalk.
When all those Federal Funds are spent
each and every one of you will be paying
for the spending party.

As Willie Brown famously put it:
“In the world of civic projects, the first budget is really just a down payment. If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”

And,of course, Willie usually got his beak wet along the way.

Piberman January 5, 2022 at 11:28 am

Once again demand for a major budget increase. But no discussion of continuing problems City students have meeting CT’s Dept of Education graduation standards. Or low numbers of City grads going on to secure college degrees. Or comparisons between City student with our surrounding towns with their superb public schools. .

After all our BOE and public school system is not responsible for most of our Grads not meeting CT Edu Dept standards in maths and sciences – the keystone of a modern purposeful public school education. Nor are they responsible for most of our Grads not securing 4 yr college degrees.

Reportedly our Supt is the highest paid in CT – above $300k. So why ask questions. Those who see the mission of our public schools as preparing our kids with the skills to secure the American Dream sadly have no voice in Norwalk. Decades ago our City public schools had a fine reputation. It’s why we moved here. Now its a different story indeed. Virtually all the kids in our surrounding towns meet CT Edu Dept standards and secure 4 yr college degrees. Most of our grads do not. Accountability not lack of public funding remains the issue here. Who will demand better student achievement along with much larger budgets ?

Norwalk Lost January 5, 2022 at 11:44 am

Simply irresponsible, out of touch with the means of city residents and should not be taken seriously. Get real please.

John O'Neill January 5, 2022 at 12:57 pm

Anyone who didn’t see this coming is from a different universe. The Covid Funds will dry up — BUT, that was the point all along. The Funds were a short term grant to get the schools the help they needed DURING the crisis. BUT, like every other entitlement program the beneficiaries of those funds think it’s infinite. IT was clear from the beginning the use of those funds was temporary and should have been allocated that way by the BOE
This is a perfect example of why Joe Manchin is a hero to the honest taxpayers of this country. THE BBB as proposed is misleading at best. Anyone who thinks otherwise (in my opinion) is also from a different universe.
It’s time that Henry Dachowitz steps up for those that pay the bills in this city.

Seriously? January 5, 2022 at 1:04 pm

I suspect that this isn’t a serious budget, no matter what the board of education and the superintendent are saying. I suspect they are priming everyone for the sticker shock of next year’s budget request, which will be astronomical.

Also, for month’s I’ve heard references to the expiration of the Covid funds and the calamity that will result in 18 months. The funds were intended for catching up after a long period of attempts at distance learning. No one ever said that they should hire additional staff and expect to keep all of that staff for years to come. By the way, the superintendent also created quite a few administrative positions, using ESSER funds to pay for them, filling too many of them with NYC DOE colleagues. There have never before been nearly as many administrators in Norwalk’s school system, and there is no justifying the large number. Likewise, there have been many positions created in the schools. These were supposed to be T-E-M-P-O-R-A-R-Y positions.

The superintendent employed a tactic used many times before, saying that the district will have to cut social workers and counselors, knowing that these will trigger an emotional response from parents. There are other staff, especially administrative staff, that could be cut.

I’d like to see a central office headcount, including individuals’ salaries, for the past five years. The district enrollment has decreased a bit, but administrative numbers have increased, and their salaries are staggering.

As for the “Return on Investment” examples offered by Ms McCready Brown, it’s true that people often ask about college acceptances, but that isn’t the correct question to ask. The question should be: What are the numbers and percentages of students who earn their college degrees from those schools within five years?

Also, there surely are individuals and groups of students who excel and who can be competitive with many other competitive students, but I’d rather see data regarding all Norwalk’s students’ performance on SBAC and other rigorous assessments. Show me how many and what percentages of students on SBAC, for example, meet state standards across the grades.

As for teacher shortages, the worst may yet be to come. I suggest that people look at the board of education business meeting agendas this year, looking for the people who have submitted their resignations and retirements, with many of them not waiting until the end of the school year to leave. There are reasons for this, and Covid isn’t the most significant. Let me spell it for you: T-O-X-I-C E-N-V-I-R-O-N-M-E-N-T, beginning with some of the district leadership. Mind you, there are still some good people, but Dr. Estrella seeks her counsel from the most negative of her administrators.

Finally, this board of education is pathetic, more like a flock of Dr. Estrella’s sheep than like independent thinkers. I don’t trust their judgment and I don’t accept their arguments.

Patrick Cooper January 6, 2022 at 4:43 pm

The NPS budget circus is here, again, and while Norwalk parents lambaste the city for icy poor planning and zero communication between departments (rightly so), the 400lb gorilla in the room once again goes unnoticed.

Local left-leaning activists years ago created the Facebook page “Norwalk Parents for Education” – which started as a noble mission, but turned into an effective disseminator of some information, and lots of propaganda. The folks who can’t seem to get educated are mostly the parents. No matter the non-partisan efforts to educate, Norwalk parents simply do not understand the connection between funding our schools – and city development.

Yesterday, I posed this question to a NPFE administrator Jessica Garnett – “a little math problem for all the folks here on this page. Using the identical mill-rate in place for 2021, how much does the Norwalk grand list need to grow to pay for this $20.7 million dollar increase? I’ll be interested to see the answers”

So far, none. Municipal math is not Norwalk’s strength, sadly. So – for those who care to know the answer, here is how that shakes out.

For homeowners – If you look at your Tax bill delivered in time for Christmas, you will see your tax is based on the “net” assessed value of your home, times the current mill rate. The “net” is 70% of the gross value (supposed real value – what it would sell for) – and in this case, the mill rate is 23.621. Math-wise – that is .023621.

So – in order to generate $20.7 million dollars in revenue (and this is ONLY the proposed increase – not the whole budget), and not pass along a big tax increase to the residents, the city needs to grow the grand list. It has done so largely through re-valuation, and – building apartments. Which has led to congestion, and – more kids.

The answer? In order to fund the proposed increase, Norwalk needs to add 1.25 BILLION dollars in grand list growth.

1.25 X 70% = 875 million X mill rate .023621 = $20,668,375

Putting this into perspective – in 2018, the Waypoint (464 units) was assessed at 142 million. Aside from their fighting that value – and selling the property – and getting tax breaks – that is a good benchmark to think about.

YES – in order to fund THIS YEARS BOE budget growth, Norwalk would need to build 6+ more Waypoints – this year.

Ask any unbiased, financial analysist – they will tell you, this is unsustainable.

Tell me I’m wrong. Then check the math.

For more information go to http://udrivenorwalk.org

MyTwoCents January 7, 2022 at 4:41 am

Hey Patrick,

When I read your post, I decided to look into the growth of spending over the past few years. In 2013-14, the total spending for Norwalk BOE was 179 million per the state reports. Adjusting for inflation (using January 2014 as a basis), that is equivalent to 213 million today. The budget ask is for 227 million, which is a 7% increase over 9 years. Not nothing, but not huge.

Then I look for other drivers – the NPS website says current enrollment is over 11,700 students. The state report for 2014 says the schools had 11,169 students. So that’s a 4.7% increase. So take that 213 million, add 4.7%, and 223 million would be keeping funding per student flat since 2014. Since we all know that special education spending has ramped up in that time, it doesn’t appear that the school system’s spending is out of control – adjusting for inflation and enrollment, it’s up something like 2% over a 9 year period. When looking for problems with this picture, there is the obviously the influx of students, and you can argue that’s a problem if it doesn’t come with grand list growth. But honestly when I did this analysis I expected more because there has been a lot of news about NPS ramping up spending in order to promote equity over the past few years (particularly factoring in that this is an ask, and will likely get lowered). Yes, spending will go up every year – inflation is positive, so some part of that shouldn’t be surprising. What are your thoughts on my analysis?

Of course, the elephant in the room is home values, right? That’s where most of that 1.25 billion should come from – home prices should rise with inflation.

Seriously? January 7, 2022 at 7:53 am

Patrick Cooper’s gave me a needed jolt. I don’t need coffee this morning.

Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that the Norwalk Board of Sheep (aka Education) got all of its requested funding from the City of Norwalk. That then becomes the foundation for increases in future years because the State of Connecticut doesn’t allow a community to give it’s school system less funding in a subsequent year. Since Norwalk is an Alliance District, there are no exceptions for NPS. Here is an explanation: https://ctschoolfinance.org/resource-assets/Minimum-Budget-Requirement.pdf

Even if the economy were to suffer a drastic decline and many people became unemployed, the city would be forced to do this. And if anyone thinks that the superintendent wouldn’t ask for an increase on top of this irresponsible 2022-23 budget request in the 2023-24 budget request, let me assure you that you are mistaken.

The Norwalk Board of Sheep rubber stamps approval of whatever the superintendent wants, and it rehearses carefully all of the talking points she gives them. (BTW, they aren’t very convincing.) The lesson here is that people need to give serious consideration to the people they elect to the board that is supposed to oversee the school system and that is supposed to represent the best interests of the community. Sometimes that means not pouring insane amounts of money into the schools.

Patrick Cooper January 7, 2022 at 3:55 pm

@MyTwoCents – quite a bit to unpack – glad at least someone in Norwalk can do a little math. Your point about budget growth isn’t really relevant to my thesis: this city has a big problem understanding school funding and land use development.

It would help – if you and I used the same data. Not sure what “state” form you looked at – but right on the City’s own website – the 2013-2014 budget still remains. See page 154.

https://www.norwalkct.org/DocumentCenter/View/4841/FY-2013-14-FINAL-BUDGET?bidId=

According to Norwalk, the 2013 – 2014 approved budget shows $162.2 million, up 6.7m from 2012-2013. Now work your numbers.

As for your “other drivers” – you bet: it was the CT proclamation, locally by Bob Duff and parroted by Harry Rilling that Norwalk is a sanctuary city. So much of our recent enrollment growth was driven by this – without those same politicians having any idea how to pay for that generous spirit. Worse – the state contribution to education (ECS) – which could make a huge difference – has only gotten worse under Duff – and yet everyone seems to love the guy who harms our city to further his political ambitions. Go figure.

Look at how the demographics have changed (they still have not released the 2020 census info – should have been out in October), look at the change in free & reduced lunch – and the only conclusion is what their policies have done is import bodies into Norwalk that largely send their taxes to Hartford via sales tax – and grow poverty and need in Norwalk.

Meanwhile – Harry is enriching his developer buddies who contribute most of his campaign cash with spot zoning, and tax deals via the RDA proclamations of enterprise zones and other shenanigans. Look at the names on his last 3 campaigns – and who got what built. POKO? Duff and the McClutchy team are great friends. How has this helped the low income families? Zip – nada.

So, congratulations Norwalk – 1 party rule has delivered the most expensive apartment rents in Fairfield county, and the 2nd worse schools. You did this to yourselves.

So – it’s here and now – and @MyTwoCents – how exactly would you generate the 20.7 million in revenue – this year – to pay for the NPS budget increase? Ya think 6+ more Waypoints is the answer? Cause that’s what’s coming.

Bob January 7, 2022 at 6:22 pm

What a waste of tax payers money

This budget increase is ridiculous. Parents and tax payers need to question what is really going on in the Norwalk Public Schools. First of all we don’t need the superintendent making a $320,000 salary with four assistant superintendents making almost $200,000 each. People still don’t know how many people are being employed at a big salary rate in central office this has been a big secret for two years now. Schools don’t need math coaches, literacy coaches, endless daily meetings and data and testing sessions. Teachers are desperate for aids in the classrooms, which the former Superintendent Adamowski did away with, and is a disgrace. Today aids are acting as substitute teachers because of the short fall in staff. Students are not learning any more with these so called specialists in the classrooms, and teachers are not being allowed to teach the way they know how to teach. Norwalk needs a complete overhaul downtown including a new Board of Education that serves students and teachers equally. Most parents and tax payers are not aware of this mess in the public education system. Hopefully the Superintendent and people in Central office will come to realize that students and teachers are the real priority here, instead of money being wasted needlessly on things that don’t help anybody.

Piberman January 8, 2022 at 12:37 pm

Reading the above comments begs the question of how Norwalk students perform relative to their peers in surrounding towns given that per pupil outlays are similar as are teacher/administrator salaries. Here the BOE – at least looking back 4 decades – chooses to make comparisons for quite obvious reasons. Our BOE always focuses on “per pupil spending parity”. Not “student outcomes”.

Fortunately the CT Education Dept website makes it easy to compare student achievement and outcomes amongst the 150 CT school Districts. The differences in student achievement sadly between Norwalk and surrounding towns are quite astonishing. Virtually all students in the 5 surrounding towns fully meet CT Edu Dept standards in the requisite subjects. And virtually students secure 4 yr college degrees.

But for Norwalk most of our graduating students fail to meet CT Edu Dept standards in maths and the sciences – the 2 critical areas in our ever more hi-tech world. And most Norwalk grads fail to ever secure a 4 yr college degree. For a middle income CT City these results are frankly appalling. Especially when our BOE and City leaders rarely if ever discuss student achievements.

When demanding ever bigger budgets our BOE and Supt omit any discussion of programs/promises to improve student performance in meeting CT Education Dept requrements. They have other “objectives” in mind. The obvious question is why our BOE seemingly remains indifferent to our sustained inability to meet CT Edu Dept standards for graduating students ? And why do our City leaders not demand better ?

Why do we seem indifferent at spending several hundred million dollars annually for an education system that fails to adequately prepare our students for success in our ever more hi-tech world ? Too much trouble to suggest challenged students should have access to longer class days or school during summers ?

If we as a community really love our kids and want them prepared to secure the American Dream ought we demand our BOE manage our public school system to secure those worthy objectives ? Parents in our surrounding towns demand their school systems adequately prepare their students to meet CT Edu Dept requirements.
Why not Norwalk ?

Bob January 9, 2022 at 8:43 pm

Dear Mr. Piberman, you are exactly right. The problem is that teachers are not being allowed to teach students the way they want to, or know how to. NPS keeps pushing more math and literacy coaches, but the schools don’t need these people. Infact, many of these so called literacy and math coaches are sitting behind closed doors, hiding out, and get payed to do nothing. This is common place today and has been witnessed by a number of teachers. The administrators and those in central office have so much power and money today that teachers are afraid to speak out. Also many parents don’t know what is really going on with tax payer money because they are not allowed in the schools, due to the Covid-19 restrictions. There needs to be transparency right now enacted in the public schools. Otherwise things are going to get worse on budget proposals, and wasted money. Also how is that Norwalk is the number 1 district in inner city test scores yet many students can’t even make it to college. There are a lot of questions that need to be answered in this school system. People better start questioning the Board and Central office for answers. Years ago the FBI was going to come in and audit people who had misplaced funds here, but the powers at be squashed the idea citing it would cost too much money. Well, in my opinion I think an investigation needs to be done today. Boy, if people only knew what was really going on heads would roll.

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