NORWALK, Conn. – It’s a wonderful problem to have: the Norwalk Board of Education has to figure out what to do with a $2.9 million windfall.
Preferred options for the budget surplus include filling a staffing hole in the new Norwalk Early College Academy (NECA), figuring what to do with the Briggs High School facility and opening a Special Education pre-K center one year earlier than hoped. Plus, those pock-marked school parking lots and sidewalks might actually get fixed.
The reasons behind the $2.9 million surplus in the 2013-14 Norwalk Public Schools operating budget were laid out by Chief Business and Financial Officer Rich Rudl at Wednesday’s BoE Finance Committee meeting, including
• $1.7 million savings derived from vacant positions and an unexpected grant that funded four teachers
• $620,000 less than expected was spent due to retirements
• A purchase order freeze netted $500,000 in savings
• $115,000 saved by utilizing maintenance staff more effectively and by issuing more bids for facility-related items
Rudl said the vacant positions were partially due to Norwalk Superintendent Manny Rivera’s desire to do due diligence and meet with almost every candidate for a major position. A number of teachers retired, and the process took time, he said.
State statutes allow the board to carry over 1 percent of its total budget as a surplus to the next year, provided that Norwalk approves, Rudl said. This would allow the board to carry over $1,643,187 into the current fiscal year, he said. The rest of the money would have to go through the Board of Estimate and Taxation as a special appropriation for the Board of Ed, he said.
Ideas for what the money might be spent on have been crafted with Rivera’s strategic plan as a guide, Rudl said, stressing that sound fiscal policy requires that it must be for one-time expenses.
First on the list are two fulltime math teachers and two fulltime English Language teachers for NECA, a cost of $313,000. Director of Technology and Innovations Ralph Valenzisi said that the one financial miscalculation that has gone into the establishment of the innovative first-in-the-state P-Tech (Pathways in Technology) academy is a shortfall of teachers. But he also said that, if the academy hadn’t been established, there would be more teachers needed due to the “sheer number of students that we have.” English and math classes at Brien McMahon would be completely packed if there was no academy, requiring two or three teachers, Valenzisi said.
Next year, those P-Tech teachers are part of the operating budget.
Hoped-for capital renovations begin with the Special Ed Pre-K center, which was recommended in the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC) report presented to the board last year. If the board uses surplus money for the center instead of going through the capital budget process with a request, the center could open in 2015 instead of 2016, Rudl said.
Rudl said a lot of planning needs to go into the center as the specific needs of the program need to be hashed out. “It’s not a very easy program to develop and implement so it takes a lot of time and detail,” including a cost benefit analysis, he said.
Another capital renovation would be a physical change to the Human Resources Department to make it compliant with state law, Rudl said. This was recommended in the Blum Shapiro study of the HR department, as there are many privacy concerns in HR and the office needs to be redesigned, Rudl said.
Some of the surplus money would go to complete the renovations and facility improvements at Norwalk High School to make it ready for NECA, Rudl said.
And, last in the capital renovation category, an architectural firm would figure out options for Briggs High School in accordance with the Briggs Turnaround Plan, Rudl said. Briggs Principal Marie Allen has already been helping to research options as potential alternative sites for the school have been studied, Rudl said. Many ideas have not worked out so Rivera would like an architect to study the existing school and suggest options, Rudl said.
The total hoped for expenditure for capital renovations is $1,075,000.
Rivera would like to spend another $75,000 investing in his strategic plan, Rudl said. Another $130,000 would go to technology and systems investment, a more automated HR system that would allow administrators to keep track of open positions in real time, rather than the laborious paper system currently at use. Last on the list of the $1.6 million the board is allowed to carry over would be $50,000 to accelerate the plan to replace equipment and a preventative maintenance program.
The board can request up to $1.3 million in a special appropriation. Rudl said Rivera wants $500,000 for paving and concrete repairs at the schools. Rudl said the board has been allotted $100,000 over the past two years of capital budgets to repair the parking lots and sidewalks at Norwalk’s 19 schools and there is much work to do.
Finance Committee Chairwoman Rosa Murray protested, referring to the cuts that were made two years ago as a result of a $4 million shortfall.
“There must be something that we have taken from these schools that could be part of this,” she said. “… The items that we are touching here with this, it just doesn’t speak to education that we have in place and what is going on in these buildings which we have shortchanged. Good reason we had to, but here is an opportunity and I don’t see us utilizing it.”
Rudl said the cuts had been mostly to personnel and those aren’t the kinds of things you should use a one-time surplus for.
Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Bruce Mellion suggested spending money on band uniforms, which wouldn’t be a recurring expense. But Rudl said that would set up an expectation that the board would support the bands financially. He stressed that the plan he laid out was in accordance with Rivera’s strategic plan.
BoE member Shirley Mosby suggested that money be spent on lockers. Rudl and Murray said emails would be sent to all board members looking for feedback in advance of the Sept. 2 board meeting, where a plan would be approved. It will then go to the Board of Estimate and Taxation on Sept. 8, they said.