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Norwalk BoE ponders difficult budget decisions, effects of distance learning

Norwalk school buses, parked on Wilson Avenue in 2015. (File photo)

NORWALK, Conn. — It’s too late to reverse course on the healthy high school start time initiative, according to Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski.

Although some point at the $500,000 cost of letting teenagers sleep later as a luxury given the budgetary challenges face by the Board of Education, Adamowski said dropping the initiative wouldn’t save Norwalk Public Schools money because the transportation contract has already been signed.

The Board needs to cut at least $6.1 million from the 2020-21education budget laid out by Adamowski in January, although Common Council members authorized a $9.9 million increase in funding for the coming school year. Multiple public speakers at Tuesday’s meeting objected to Adamowski’s recent recommendation to reduce the number of high school department leaders; multiple Board members stressed the importance of middle school counselors, with one protesting that the money should go there rather than the high school start time plan.

A profound sense of uncertainty marked the discussion as no one knows what will happen budgetarily, given the COVID-19 crisis.

“We’re in a very unusual circumstance this year with the budget, that there are a lot of unknowns in terms of what our actual expenses will be,” Chairwoman Sarah LeMieux said.

And, externally, “We are in untried territory now, with a recession, that it’s not a recession, it will be a depression that’s along the lines of the Great Depression, way worse than 2008,” Board member Mike Barbis said.

 

Expecting to play catch up down the road

It’s agreed that the children will need extra instruction when they come back to school, even if NPS has made the sudden switch to distance learning prompted by the pandemic much better than other school districts.

There’s “very little information to go on” how distance learning will affect the students, “because obviously, this hasn’t happened before,” Adamowski said. “The closest we can get to it are the studies that were done of the children in New Orleans after (Hurricane) Katrina.”

Those children lost an entire semester and then returned to what were essentially charter schools set up in temporary places, Adamowski said.

“The studies there suggest that it took up to a full two years for students to make up what they lost during that period of time,” Adamowski said. Those kids weren’t doing distance learning in that semester so the modern children should do better. On the other hand, it was only 60 percent of the students who caught up; the other 40 percent didn’t.

There may be money coming from the federal CARES Act, earmarked toward closing achievement gaps that have widened due to the emergency distance learning tactic, Adamowski said.

“This crisis has really exacerbated all of the inequities in Connecticut,” Adamowski said. “You just you see it among the school systems that had technology versus those that did not those that had curriculum capacity, those that did not. You know, we were three weeks ahead of many school systems in our capacity to offer distance learning.”

Even so, NPS is spending an “unsustainable” amount of money printing packets for its youngest students, the kindergartners to third graders, and it might be better just to buy them tablets, Adamowski said. NPS is looking into whether those might be reimbursable under the CARES Act.

Board members Barbara Meyer-Mitchell and Heidi Keyes voiced support for the tablets.

The school population will be very different when the crisis eases up, and NPS needs to be ready to deal with traumatized students and teachers, not to rush back toward normalcy, Board member Godfrey Azima said.

“We want to make sure is that our children, survive through this and are nurtured and loved,” Board member Colin Hosten said. “And we don’t want to panic too much just because they may have missed a unit. I get it and we live in this competitive world, but everybody’s going through the same thing.”

Lemieux said she teaches kids with social and emotional special needs, “and my focus has been to let everybody know that it’s okay that it’s not normal right now. Nothing is normal right now…. all of the children who are growing up during this time are going to be a cohort of this experience.”

 

Public comments

Brien McMahon High School Principal Scott Hurwitz spoke in defense of the schools’ department heads.

Adamowski has proposed eliminating stipends to 24 high school department heads, saying they currently get two periods off per day, and would have more time to teach, under this plan. This would cut 9.6 teaching positions, saving $1.1 million.

Not all department heads have two periods “off,” but they all use the “release time” for activities consistent with their leadership duties, Hurwitz said. Department heads serve as platoon sergeants who coach teachers through curriculum changes and the proposed cut “would be really devastating” to Brien McMahon, having an impact on the students.

The Norwalk Federation of Teachers would prefer the department head positions remain in their current format, NFT President Mary Yordon said.

“We also believe that there is a need for some facts here,” Yordon said. “The stipend for department chair equivalent in Wilton is $16,000. Ours is $3,233. And we believe about four or five chairs in each building have two release periods. Some have none. Others have one.”

“We need to make sure and ensure that every dollar we spend in this budget wisely creates a lasting impact for our students,” NFT First Vice President Joe Giandurco said. “…, I do feel that there are several expenditures including the start time change, which are luxuries, which are built around building one’s legacy, and ultimately rob valuable resources from our students our building our staff.”

NFT surveyed its members and 75 percent said the start time change would affect them negatively, Yordon said.

Common Council member David Heuvelman (D-District A) cited the distance learning effort.

“What you guys have accomplished in this critical time is impressive, and it’s been noticed and I think that you guys all need to take a step back and give yourself a hug,” he said.

But, “There are so many unknowns that we are struggling with,” Heuvelman said. “And so I want you to please be careful as you look forward through the budget to remember that we’re in completely uncharted territory.”

 

 

‘Thoughtful’ deliberations

Last week, the Finance Committee discussed maintaining middle school counselors but maybe holding off on hiring a counseling director, said Meyer-Mitchell, Committee Chairwoman. Members also sought to collaborate with NFT to find savings without sacrificing the department heads’ functionality.

NPS may get $2 million from the CARES Act, and may be allowed to roll over more of a surplus this year, she said.

Mayor Harry Rilling said that although the Board of Education is legally limited to carrying over a budget surplus equal to 1 percent of its budget into the following year, it may be allowed to carry over 3 percent this budget season due to one of Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive orders.

“There are a number of decisions that we cannot make right now. And so, I think it’s important to keep that in mind that we are not doing capable of making decisions at this moment in time,” LeMieux said.

Meyer-Mitchell also pointed out that Adamowski laid out $6.6 million in cuts, but the discrepancy in funding is $8.1 million. Adamowski had asked Board members to try to get that $1.5 million from the city.

Board members have probably gotten more emails about department heads than on any other topic, Barbis said. Second is high school start time. And yes, it would be a shame to postpone it a second time, and yes, there’s a contract with a bus company, but “I think the most important thing is we have to prioritize. We know we can’t do it all, we got to figure out what’s most important.”

The Board of Education saved $353,000 by signing a transportation contract in February, even with additional buses included in the mix,  and if it changed the terms now it would likely be sued by the second bidder, Adamowski replied. If NPS went out to bid again now, it wouldn’t have buses in time for the fall.

Additionally, the bus company is buying buses now, and “we’re just too far too far down the road to do anything about that,” Adamowski said, predicting “chaos and uncertainty” if there were an attempt to undo the contract.

“We shouldn’t assume anything because these are unknown times,” Board member Diana Carpio said, suggested that NPS speak with the bus company and the legal department.

Keyes, who initiated the high school start time push, advocated for continuing with the plan. There had been much outreach before the Board approved it, she said.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends a later high school start time to preserve teenagers’ health, Meyer-Mitchell said. “I can’t think of a more important priority right now than the health and well-being of our students.”

“I think it’s possible that after going through this experience together, that people will have more experience making slightly inconvenient decisions in the service of health,” LeMieux said.

“It’s important also for the public to understand that all of these decisions are very thoughtfully considered,” LeMieux said. “And then no one is unilaterally or capriciously or thoughtlessly, just saying, ‘Oh, we’d like to do this’…. Everyone is very, very, very thoughtfully considering how to move forward with the budget that is best preserves services and education for students in a very difficult time.”

4 comments

Sue Haynie April 20, 2020 at 6:16 am

This year, NPS needs to do some serious reductions, regardless of what the NFT says. Rilling, the CC and the BET need to step up the plate and protect homeowners and business owners. The 2020/21 NPS Budget will be the baseline for 2021/22 thanks to an asinine requirement by the State of CT. Norwalk cannot afford this budget right now.

Totally agree with this comment– “We are in untried territory now, with a recession, that it’s not a recession, it will be a depression that’s along the lines of the Great Depression, way worse than 2008,” Board member Mike Barbis said.

ConcernedToo April 20, 2020 at 11:52 am

Very upsetting that the board was willing to go ahead and sign a contract that increased transportation costs without confirming that funding was going to be available. Even before coronavirus, it seems that there already wasn’t enough money in the budget and they had realized that there would need to be cuts to existing programs to pay for it. Highly irresponsible.

As a result, they’re now planning to cut department heads, core resources who are the primary people who actually design and implement the secondary curriculum along with hiring and developing new teachers. This change basically leaves the high schools leaderless from a curriculum and people development standpoint, with teachers basically working as unsupervised independent contractors.

It’s also interesting that the early start time appears to be a broadly unpopular initiative – many, many kids are concerned with their access to opportunities in the community (work, extracurriculars) when they don’t get out until 3:30 and every other school in the area gets out earlier, and many parents are worried about childcare gaps when the older kids don’t get home before the younger kids anymore. People will likely dispute this claim but there hasn’t been a single broad based objective survey so no one actually knows.

Isabelle Hargrove April 21, 2020 at 11:08 am

The Coronavirus is proving to be a test on the later start time for HS students. How many of us are finding our teenagers just as tired waking up for an 8 AM virtual class as they were catching a 6:30 AM bus?

Kudos to Diana Carpio for pressing Dr. Adamowski and the rest of the BoE. This is an unprecedented crisis, I have a hard time believing that we cannot revisit recently signed contracts… When there is a will, there is a way.

Alice April 23, 2020 at 11:47 am

It’s time the NPS started giving more thought to preparing their students ready for the REAL world. These kids need to learn that their being allowed to sleep later will not be looked upon favorably by future employers OT colleges if that’s where they are going after graduation. If their social life and/or employment interfere with their education it’s those that should be reduced. It’s a tough world out there!

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