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Norwalk BOE member criticizes exclusion, questions legal fees

Norwalk Board of Education member Shirley Mosby questions budget transfers Tuesday night in City Hall.

Updated 11:37 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 8: Added link to NFT arbitration settlement summary.

NORWALK, Conn. – The Norwalk Board of Education on Tuesday night approved a budget transfer to cover legal expenses, echoing a discussion that was held nearly one year ago, this time minus the drama of two sparring board members.

Not to say things went off without a hitch.

Shirley Mosby questioned two budget transfers and the process by which the meeting’s agenda had been arrived at, saying she had been elected on a platform of transparency and inclusiveness, and that she did not feel comfortable voting to spend taxpayer money without being fully informed about where it was going.

One request before the board was to transfer $66,000 from the unemployment account to the superintendent’s legal fees account. The other was to transfer $45,000 from the instruction-supervisor account to other professional services, with a note “funds for consultant.”

Mosby asked Chairman Mike Lyons to take the items off the consent calendar, meaning they would be voted on individually. She said she wanted an idea of where the money was being allocated, to “keep a tally of what is going on.”

Chief Financial Officer Rich Rudl said the consultants were requested by Superintendent Manny Rivera to expedite projects he wants done by the end of the school year. The board had approved an instructional specialist for science as part of its budget, but none had been hired, he said. There was therefore money to be spent in another way.

Rivera said the projects he wants help with include K-5 literacy and a parent education and training program.

“It’s just an estimated cost of what we think it is going to cost us to advance on some of these things,” he said.

Rudl said the board has spent $190,000 of its $234,000 legal fee budget. There are currently contract negotiations with the Norwalk Federation of Education Personnel (NFEP) and about 50 percent of the money spent had gone to litigation matters, he said. The $66,000 would be added to the remaining $44,000 to make $100,000, which he said was hoped to last the rest of the school year.

“We went through this last year,” Artie Kassimis said.

In March and April 2013, then-board member Steve Colarossi sharply criticized then-board member Sue Haynie over a series of budget transfers for legal fees.

Lyons said that last year there were two firms splitting the work. “One firm did considerably more stable billing,” he said, explaining why the issue came back to the board multiple times.

Rudl couldn’t promise with absolute certainty that would be the last transfer. It would depend on how long the litigation, which was not specified, goes on, but officials are “fairly certain,” he said.

He said the account is looked at every month, and he promised to send the board monthly updates.

“If we keep spending all our money on legal fees, we’re not spending it where it needs to be spent, that’s on educating our children,” Mosby said. “I would just like when something like this comes up to have more information.”

She said she didn’t like having it on the consent calendar.

“Once you put it on the consent calendar it’s like you’re approving it as a blanket and I feel that sometimes we just need to have a discussion. We need to monitor the budget because we’re asking everyone to be accountable,” she said.

Mosby went on the criticize the way board meeting agendas are set – by email discussions among Executive Committee members: Lyons, Kassimiss and Heidi Keyes.

Lyons told her that the Freedom of Information Act does not require notice of an agenda-setting meeting. “It’s not a meeting for information so you don’t have to post and agenda,” he said.

Mosby, who was appointed to serve out a partial term in the past, said the Executive Committee used to have meetings.

“It’s not required by law, and the three of us felt that email was sufficient,” Lyons said.

“We are elected officials,” Mosby protested. “If we would like to sit there and be part of something then I think that you could at least have some consideration for the rest of us. We are representing an entire community and you need to take that into account. … Why do you have a board of nine people if it’s going to be about three people?”

Lyons said the three people were only setting an agenda, which was then voted on by the nine. Anyone could request to get an item on the agenda, he said. Board by-laws say that if a certain number of board members – three or four, he wasn’t sure how many – ask in writing to have something on the agenda, it will get on.

Migdalia Rivas also said the Executive Committee used to have meetings.

“I know it’s not required by law but they did it out of courtesy so other people could voice their opinion,” she said.

Summary of information regarding the NFT arbitration settlement: NORWALK summary of arbitration award, Teachers 12-13 final TNA Rept

Comments

39 responses to “Norwalk BOE member criticizes exclusion, questions legal fees”

  1. Oldtimer

    Being asked to approve money for litigation without knowing what the litigation is about doesn’t sound right. The party to the litigation is the BOE and all the members should have the opportunity to make decisions on it beyond just voting on an amount of money. Would it be a different amount if a majority of the board decided they wanted to settle rather than litigate ?

  2. Mike Lyons

    Oldtimer, all litigation matters are discussed with the full Board in executive session to determine if there are settlement possibilities or if litigation is necessary. We have settled several cases recently in that manner, but decided that one case would need to go to trial because the demand was too high. So the Board does know what the litigation is about.

  3. MarjorieM

    Who are these consultants? Who hires them and are they “friends” of the person who hires them? I call for more transparency. It ends the rumors that have been heard around town.

  4. Piberman

    Once again we have a disaffected BOE member, newly elected Ms Mosley, questioning publicly the BOE’s legal outlays and claiming exclusion from decision making discussions. Ms Mosley offered herself as a Chair receiving just 2 votes claiming the majority party “owns” the Chair. Let’s encourage Ms Mosley to be a good “team” player, bring her objections to the Board and accept majority decisions. Not play politics and air issues outside the Board in public. That just confirms someone not familiar with proper decision making within public boards. And let’s stop the silliness about “doing it for the children”. A well functioning BOE requires respect for BOE decisions, not mounting the public forum to draw attention to oneself.

  5. MarjorieM

    Berman, do you have a life? I mean other than on here?

  6. Oldtimer

    Mike
    Thanks for the response. It sounded like Ms Mosby was uncomfortable because she didn’t know what she was being asked to approve on a consent calender vote, and wanted open discussion, by the entire BOE, on each of the two money transfers. She doesn’t want to be unable to defend any vote she makes. A lot of things get on consent calenders where some of us wonder if the people voting knew what they are voting for.

  7. Oldtimer

    Berman
    Read it again, her name is not Mosley.

  8. Mike Lyons

    Oldtimer, that’s exactly how the consent calendar is intended. Any member has the right to remove any item from consent and have it separately discussed if they wish. Most consent items are fairly routine, but sometimes members pull matters off to get more details, which is perfectly appropriate.

  9. anonymous

    @Lyons can the public get a summary for the costs of grievances and litigation?

  10. @ PiBerman

    Shirley Mosby did not attempt to become BOE chairman. Rosa Murray was nominated. She got four votes.

  11. YankeeC

    Note: while Ms. Mosby did request that $60,000 in legal fees and $45,000 in consultant fees get taken off the consent calendar and discussed, there was not a peep about the $125,000 in Special Education cost over-runs . . . Her questioning of budget items was “not in the interest of the children” but was political. Let’s get real here

  12. Anon, the Board received a report on litigation and other legal expenses at Tuesday’s meeting (provided as support for the budget transfer [which, I note, came from surplus accounts and didn’t take any funds away from “educating our children”]).

    The litigation cost is based on the following cases and firms:

    Davenport: $3,503.50 to Pullman & Comley
    DeMoss: $5,750.04 to Pullman & Comley
    Mosby: $1,442.50 to Pullman & Comley
    A Rivera: $72,319 to Pullman & Comley
    Williams: $49.00 to Pullman & Comley

    M.L: $5,962.50 to Shipman & Goodwin
    Patrick Milling: $662.50 to Shipman & Goodwin
    Mark Gorian: $6,059 to Shipman & Goodwin
    Total Litigation: $95,748

    The overage is primarily due to the Rivera case (no relation to Superintendent Rivera), which had litigation costs of $72,000. John Shay, attorney at Pullman and Comley and Atty. Peter Murphy have both appeared before the board throughout the year discussing many of the cases above, including the Rivera case (which was recently settled for $50,000, paid from the BoE’s insurance policy).

    We generally are tracking to budget on legal expenses related to contract negotiations, expulsion hearings, and general legal advice, but litigation is much harder to predict (we can’t predict when lawsuits will come in or how amenable to settlement they may be).

    Next year’s budget includes additional legal fees for contract negotiations (particularly given the NFT reopener and the NASA contract). Litigation remains the wild card, and it’s what generated this week’s budget transfer.

  13. Lisa Thomson

    “If we keep spending all our money on legal fees, we’re not spending it where it needs to be spent, that’s on educating our children,” Mosby said. “I would just like when something like this comes up to have more information.”
    ***
    Per BOE Report Mosby:$1442.50 to Pullam and Comley
    ***
    Any relation?

  14. anonymous

    If that listing is for a John Mosby, there’s a relation as he is Mrs. Mosby’s father. John Mosby has a history of suing Norwalk schools.

  15. longtime resident

    Probably not her father John Mosby, he’s got the dubious distinction of bringing more grievances against the city (in his capacity as head od custodial unions) than anyone in the history of the state. And he’s cost us PLENTY in legal fees but he’s been retired for a long time.

  16. Mike Lyons

    Actually, it is her father. He currently has complaints pending against us at the State Labor Board and the FOIC, though we expect both to be dismissed.

  17. Mike Lyons

    In terms of “spending all our money on lawyers”, the adjusted legal fees budget (for all matters) of $300,000 is .0019 of our $155,000,000 budget (less than 2/10ths of 1 percent). So non-legal spending is 99.8% of our budget – AFTER the transfer. Just to put things in perspective.

  18. YankeeClipper

    Hold on a second … Mike Lyons, could you explain … don’t these legal fees entail the school system defending itself against lawsuits from disaffected employees? and don’t they also include the costs of lawyers representing the school district in negotiations with the unions that represent school employees? Don’t we want the best legal advice possible so that taxpayers are best protected? To get the best legal advice, doesn’t that mean we would have to pay up? Does Ms. Mosby not understand this?

  19. anonymous

    YClipper- Shirley Mosby was endorsed by the Unions in her bid for Board. Unions do not benefit if the district protects itself.

  20. bsmith

    @anonymous read the link in this article. Steve Colarossi and Art Kassimis also got union endorsements and made a lot of noise on legal costs. Follow the money.

  21. Lisa Thomson

    Remember the abuse Sue Haynie took as Negotiations Chair from those two? She always insisted that half of the costs were due to grievances against the district – not her “bad” negotiating of NFT contracts…which incidentally are done by lawyers and not BOE members. But let’s not let the truth get in the way. In a related article, we see that Mellion is the foot dragger on the finalization of the NFT contract. What is amazing is that teachers haven’t asked to see the contract settled by the state nearly 15 months ago! Thank you Mike Lyons for explaining where the legal costs are and for putting them into perspective, relative to the overall NPS budget.

  22. Piberman

    When is the last time a BOE Chair ever identified in detail legal costs ? Not to my knowledge. Kudos to a forthright Chair. Questioning legal costs is a familiar tactic of union friendly BOE members for obvious reasons.

    Has anyone seen NFT legal costs or even a NFT financial statement ? Hmmm.

  23. MarjorieM

    Since Mike is being so forthright, could we please have a complete list of the consultants and their company/ business affiliations? It would be nice to know that consultants are chosen for good reasons and not because they have a connection to people in Norwalk. Simply asking for full transparency. No accusations intended.

  24. Michael Corleone said it best: “Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.”
    Why my debates are still relevant enough to merit attention given the more serious issues facing our school district escapes me. For those out of town in November, I lost in my third-party bid to return to the BOE. And, as much as I miss working with some highly dedicated school department officials and BOE colleagues, I enjoy having Tuesday nights free to spend with my newborn son, Anthony (named after my dad, and not the NASA President).
    If the untrue commentary and ill-conceived innuendo didn’t impugn the integrity of my dear friend Artie Kassimis, I would not be posting a response.
    However, the blatant distortion of “bsmith” and “Lisa Thompson” deserve correction. I don’t know of any action (or inaction) that Artie Kassimis has ever taken (or that I undertook) that was influenced by the whims of our supporters, or by any motivation to garner support of union officials. Maintaining personal integrity is far more important than garnering a few donations or campaign workers or even winning an election.
    The issue that had arisen in the past was that the BOE had a chairperson of its negotiation committee who was not monitoring the costs she was incurring on behalf of the entire BOE (and, by extension, the taxpayers); there was no on-going accounting for the costs she was incurring with frequent consultations with attorneys. And, don’t forget that there was also on-going discussion if much of the negotiation work should be led by the superintendent and his H.R. director with advice from the negotiation committee (particularly with respect to the small bargaining units). There was also concern raised by some BOE members that outside attorneys were being employed to negotiate contracts with relatively small bargaining units (which seemed liked overkill). At the time, the negotiations chairperson was incurring debt to law firms that exceeded the amounts allocated with no pre-approval from the BOE.
    Now, revisionist histories aside, and assessments of whether the negotiations strategies were cost-effective (some were, some weren’t) or whether the use of lawyers was an advantage in other negotiations (the theory of sending a strong message to some unions would coerce others into compromise deserves review by present and future BOE’s), are all matters that can be the subject of perseveration from those never entrusted by the taxpayers with the reasoned expenditure of their hard-earned dollars. However, to mischaracterize the past debates regarding those issues and their impact on taxpayers does little to advance the thoughtful debate needed to assess the long-term efficacy of legal expenditures and the obligation of BOE members to monitor those costs.

  25. bsmith

    Colarossi@ No need for innuendo in a union endorsement. Kassimis, Mosby and you got union endorsements because of the way you vote.

  26. Mike Lyons

    Marj – “Since Mike is being so forthright, could we please have a complete list of the consultants and their company/ business affiliations?” This was requested of Rich Rudl (CFO) at Tuesday’s Board meeting and is being prepared. I’ll post it after it gets reported to the Board.

  27. piberman

    Here we thought that Attorney Colarossi would blend into retirement after distinguished service on the BOE. But facts remain facts. And the overwhelming fact was that the determination of BOE members Chiaramonte, Lyons and Haynie in pursuing Arbitration against the NFT with the assistance of new counsel Tom Mooney, viewed by many as thee pre-eminent public schools attorney in CT, payed off handsomely for our City to the tune of several million dollars. All the nitpicking and Monday morning quarterbacking can’t undo that splendid accomplishment. Would that the folks running City Hall do nearly as well. Long past time to let the “legal eagle” outlays rest. The BOE under the leadership of attorney Michael Lyons has more than shown that its the most capable BOE in our generation. So its really time for retirement Mr. Colarossi. We appreciate your prior service.

  28. MarjorieM

    The arbitration costs with the NFT were way in excess and the settlement a disaster for taxpayers. AND there is no excuse for Haynie to have exceeded approved legal expenses without first asking the Board. BTW, Steve C. Is wholey believable. The rest do you who responded negatively to hi, not so much. I call you the spinners.

  29. Mike Lyons

    The cost of the arbitration was about $50,000 above budget. It resulted in a net $1 million saving for taxpayers over the first two years of the contract vs. the last best offers from the union – a 20-1 return on investment. That’s a triumph for taxpayers, not a disaster.

  30. YankeeC

    MarjorieM: You are a stooge for the union leaders, Colarossi, Mosby and the rest of that team. Wake up and get your facts straight.

  31. MarjorieM

    Yankee C, you could not be more wrong. I question because I seek transparency. I have heard lots of rumors from friends who work for the school system. I am not even a union member. I do want to know if the negative rumors are true.

  32. MarjorieM

    Mike, I do not understand the money side of arbitration at all. I heard that the second year of the contract was a win for the NFT with a 4% increase in salary for teachers. The 0% in the first year was understandable! given the economy! but how do you get a 1 million dollar savings for the taxpayer? Please explain.

  33. Hobbes the Calvinist

    Always nice to see Berman has continued to master the cut and paste feature on his Commodore 64. Too bad his rehashed ideas are as old and stale as his computer.
    I know it must have felt good for teachers to go to arbitration. But how good will it really feel when they get over 4% more next year?
    But if you’re always singing the same old song you can’t be listening to new ideas. Which explains why the Bermans of the world post first and read facts later.

  34. Mike Lyons

    Marj, here is the analysis given us by our Attorney, Tom Mooney. I’ll forward the backup information to Nancy to link (if she so chooses!).

    “I attach the statewide [teacher contract] settlement report from last year. You will see that the statewide average increases for the two years 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 negotiated last year were 5.48% (2.58% and 2.90%). By contrast, the [Norwalk] arbitration award resulted in a settlement last year of a freeze and a projected cost of 4.27% [next year], a two-year total of 4.27%, or over one percent lower than the state average. Moreover, with an ECS wealth ranking of 36 in the state, Norwalk is fortunate to settle significantly below the average. Finally, the Arbitration Panel rejected the Federation last best offers providing for further increases, and it awarded the Board the reopener it sought so that it will have an opportunity to address the structural problems with the salary schedule. We have only one teacher settlement this year so far. Bozrah, a small town in eastern Connecticut, reached a very large settlement (11.66% over three years). I suspect that there was agreement that salaries needed a significant boost. In any event, there is no new information this year to contradict the conclusions that we may reasonably draw from the information from last year’s negotiations that Norwalk did well on the issue of salary in arbitration last year.”

    Mooney is viewed as one of the pre-eminent school law attorneys in Connecticut (http://www.bestlawyers.com/search/lawyerprofile.aspx?lawyer_id=39109).

    As the documents I’m sending to Nancy show, the last best offers of the teachers union for these two years combined would have cost a total of $1,332,085 more than what was awarded to the Board of Education when we prevailed in the arbitration. So I’ve been understating the savings (calling it roughly $1 million), when the savings are actually $1.3 million.

  35. MarjorieM

    Thank you for the explanation, Mike. If no one from the union denies this, I’m sure it must be the case.

    Editor’s note: The document mentioned by Mike Lyons is now attached at the end of the story, just before the video.

  36. MarjorieM

    Thank you NoN for the chart on negotiations. It looks to me like the only thing the teachers didn’t get was a 2013-2014 step level increase suggested by the NFT. The NFT was asking for a 0% salary increase anyway. The NFT won EVERYTHING FOR 2014-2015. What kind of a win is that for the Board under Haynie? Am I misreading something? Discussing percent increases around Connecticut means nothing. Bozrah was earning so little, their percentage increase doesn’t even compare to increases in Norwalk. Dollar for dollar, the NFT won from what I am reading.

  37. Mike Lyons

    Marj, you have to look at the two years combined. We came in a full percent under the state average for wage increases over those two years. The teachers asked for steps in year one and didn’t get it; we got a full freeze for that year; they got their year 2 increase. They asked for another big raise in year 3 and lost; we asked for a salary reopener in year 3 and won. So the Board won on 2 of the 3 years, paid a full percent less over the first two years than the state average, and got the right to revisit the whole salary structure in year 3. How do you describe it as a “win” for the NFT when they came in well behind the other teachers unions in the state and face a reopener in year 3 that they vociferously opposed?

  38. MarjorieM

    Mike, A percent of salaries in Norwalk is much much higher (in actual dollars) when compared to a percent of salaries in almost every other town and city in Connecticut. Dollar for dollar, the NFT did very well. At least that’s the way it looks to me, even over a combined two years. Yes, the reopened was given to the Board, but that doesn’t mean anything until something is decided. If the economy continues to improve, it may mean nothing. That’s what I am thinking.

  39. Mike Lyons

    Well, you’re certainly entitled to your opinion. I try to go on some objective criteria to measure how we did, and that’s comparing us to the rest of the State, where we did very well. You’re right that the absolute dollar figure is higher than in many places, since we have a good-sized school system and our teachers start from one of the highest base pay levels in the State. Those are situations we started with when I took office; can’t do anything about that.

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