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Norwalk BoE’s $1.6M spending plan gets unanimous BET approval

Norwalk Superintendent Manny Rivera speaks to Board of Estimate and Taxation Monday in City Hall.
Norwalk Superintendent Manny Rivera speaks to the Board of Estimate and Taxation on Monday in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. – A $1.6 million Norwalk Board of Education spending plan was given a green light Monday by Board of Estimate and Taxation members, even if they have no direct say in how the money is spent – meaning the BoE can keep its surplus and spend it as it will.

BET Chairman Jim Clark said oversight would come in holding the board accountable in the future and expressed faith in the current schools administration, as opposed to what he said happened years ago. Questions posed  to Norwalk Public Schools Superintendent Manny Rivera largely concerned the implementation and future growth of the Norwalk Early College Academy (NECA), which, he said, he hoped would grow to 400 students in 2016/17.

Finance Director Thomas Hamilton recommended that the $1.6 plan, which includes funding new teachers for NECA and speeding up the creation of a money saving pre-school center, be approved. “I think these are wise investments, if you will, in the school system, in the future of the city,” Hamilton said. He said he wasn’t endorsing the plan to spend the remaining $1.3 million, which will be considered later by the BET and the Common Council.

First up from Rivera: an explanation as to why so much money built up unexpectedly.

“We are in the process of upgrading all our systems. We are actually going to have significantly better and more reliable data and information. We will be able to track regularly how we are doing against our projects whereas we knew we were going to have a surplus we just didn’t know the extent of it,” Rivera said. “I think with the positional control and other Munis software updates that we’re going to be doing we’ll have much more reliable data.”

Other facts that were previously reported include the unexpected swelling of the student population – 138 students – which Rivera said eradicated the plan to use Norwalk High School teachers to compensate for the creation of NECA. The four teaching positions the schools had in the budget as a reserve were filled and two additional teachers were added, he said. While that doesn’t fit the bill as a non-recurring expense to be covered by surplus money, they will be covered in the operating budget next year, he said.

“When you start up a program, there is some start-up costs,” Rivera said.

The state invested $400,000 in NECA and there is the $75,000 BeFoundation grant announced Monday, he said. “We’ll be reeling in as much foundation money as we can at the same time” as local dollars are invested, Rivera said.

NPS Chief Business and Financial Officer Rich Rudl said that the investments will include better janitorial equipment as recommended in an assessment done by the board’s new custodian supplies provider, Rovic-Hilliard. That will reduce labor costs, he said.

BET member James Feigenbaum said he thought the “very thoughtful” plan “makes sense” and is one of the best he has seen. BET member Erik Anderson said he echoed that thought but asked about if the impact of NECA on Norwalk High School would be similar to the impact of the creation of the Center for Global Studies on Brien McMahon High School.

Rivera said he isn’t familiar with that historical reference but that he had started up programs in the past. “As you look at scheduling you are trying to merge an academy with a school,” Rivera said, stressing that using existing staff is key for efficiency purposes. “In this particular case you do want to keep your nucleus of students together for some core courses. Sometimes you need a critical mass of X number of students before you can accomplish it,” he said.

The goal is to add 100 students a year for the next three years, he said.

“We really have to look very carefully at the entire schedule at (Norwalk High School),” Rivera said. “There are more study halls than there should be, there are a number of issues that we are concerned about. One of our strategic initiative is to across the systems be more efficient.”

Anderson asked if NECA would become open to students from other school districts.

“Honestly, we didn’t discuss that as of yet. We wanted to make sure we were serving all of Norwalk students first,” Rivera said. If enrollment drops it could be opened up, he said, but, “I don’t think it will” and that would have to be done with the state’s consent.

Converting city-owned space at 11 Allen Road into a central pre-school will alleviate overcrowding and inefficient use of staff, he said. That would have had to go through the capital budget process so spending the surplus money effectively makes it happen two years sooner, he said. The first year would have been spent studying the situation and obtaining the money to do the work would have been done in the second year’s capital budget process, he said.

Rudl said the schools are working toward a five-year budget plan.  The existing capital budget plan calls for construction at Jefferson Elementary School to be funded with next year’s budget, but that might be pushed back in the pursuit of Rivera’s strategic plan, Rudl said.

BET member Anne Yang Dwyer said the plan wasn’t a matter of spending so much as accelerating current plans. Hamilton said the plan would have a positive effect on the city’s budget.

Director of Management and Budgets Bob Barron informed BET members that they could authorize the BoE to spend the money, but they had no line item control on how it would be spent. “It’s like the separation of church and state,” he said.

“As practical matter, as a board I know that next year we come back and see how the money is actually spent; that would certainly reflect on any bottom line numbers that anybody might be looking at,” Clark said.

Years ago, when he was first on the BET, checking in on the BoE’s accounts periodically during the year did not inspire faith from BET members, he said.

“There were wild variances that were not very confidence-inspiring,” Clark said. “I am happy to say those days seem to be behind us, which is very encouraging. But it is important for us to remember that there is that separation, that we don’t have line item control over the budget.”

Clark said that some Norwalkers wonder why the money can’t be refunded to taxpayers. Barron said the average refund to a taxpayer who owns a $200,000 house would be $50.

“I know that homeowners are also very concerned with their property values and so much of our property values is affected by our schools,” Clark said. “People choose to come to a town often for the school. They don’t see the schools as being up to snuff. I am just so encouraged with your strategic planning, with your leadership. … I think that given the fact that you have such a strong plan, you have such clarity around objectives is really going to bring a value added to Norwalk through a strong school system. So I will support the financing.”

The vote was unanimous.

Norwalk BoE FY 13-14 surplus plan001

Comments

9 responses to “Norwalk BoE’s $1.6M spending plan gets unanimous BET approval”

  1. MTP

    How about using some of that money to reface Norwalk high school? You know,, finally get rid of the prison look. Take down the chain-link fence is in front of it and make it look more like a school we can all be proud of. More important than most people think. The only thing missing is the barbed wire across the top of the fences!

  2. Bruce Kimmel

    Dr. Rivera mentioned that there were too many study halls at Norwalk High. This is an old issue, and I hope the current situation of what is often called multiple study halls has improved over the years. About seven or eight years ago, the data on study halls at both of our comprehensive high schools was not only disgraceful, it was downright embarrassing. And it was simply attributed to budget and scheduling problems, despite what outsiders said.

  3. MarjorieM

    Upgrading the system? An archaic system would have predicted the salary line item accumulating. Whether one has twenty employees or four thousand employees, the total salary line item projections at any time during the year allow one to state that funds are accumulating. Salaries are stable during the time period we are talking about. Really, BET members? You are buying his explanation? A system change takes how long? When did they start this system change?

  4. Leave it to Marj to take great news (a surplus, and positive ways of spending it), and describe it as bad. Miss the old days of deficits and chaos, do you Marj? 🙂

  5. MarjorieM

    Mike, no matter how much you dislike my comments, I seek truth. If you can explain how this large surplus accumulated during the year without someone noticing, then do so. Not everything is perfect. Perhaps someone wasn’t minding the shop for this to happen? I’m not going away, Mike. Why don’t you answer my questions instead of criticizing? I might not always be right, but I believe I do have a right to question.

  6. One and Done

    Who is going to pay for the 43 illegal aliens shoved in the district this year?

  7. longtimedem

    MTP: The rather stark aesthetics of Norwalk High School’s exterior have been put to good use at least once. When they filmed the original version of The Stepford Wives in and around Norwalk in the early 70’s, the building was only a couple of years old. One of the scenes required an exterior shot of a (chemical?) factory; the filmmakers simply obscured the school’s name and put up a sign identifying it as a factory and they had their shot.

  8. longtimedem – You’re right (except that NHS was the factory where they built the robot wives); the final scene of the movie was filmed in Matthews Mansion. NHS’s stark design was there from the start; at this point we’re more focused on getting internal improvements done.
    .
    One and Done – Norwalk taxpayers will pay the cost of the 43 children, thanks to the actions of our congressman and state legislators. Perhaps we need new ones.
    .
    Marj, I could provide links to at least 30 NON articles where I have written pages of text answering your questions. You make it sound like I never do. You ‘seek truth’, but often ignore it if it doesn’t fit into your preconceived notions. Nevertheless, I’ll take another crack at it.
    .
    For starters, you need to read the actual memorandum linked above by Nancy for the details (I’m summarizing it here), rather than base your whole argument on a verbal statement by Dr. Rivera at the meeting.
    .
    “If you can explain how this large surplus accumulated during the year without someone noticing, then do so.” Who said no one noticed? Mr. Rudl gives the Board budget updates every month, and for many months now has been noting for us the fact that we were underspending against budget in many categories, specifically explaining that unfilled positions accounted for a large portion of that. NON typically doesn’t report on those routine updates (because they’re, well, routine), but they are there and in the written materials sent to the press before each meeting. Looking at the May report, for instance, we showed expenditures running at 80.30% of projected budget for that point in time vs a theoretical rate expected of 91.87%. Because some of our financial processes are still manual (they were almost all manual (astoundingly) before Elio Longo and Rich Rudl started automating them a couple of years ago), there is a lag between the end of any given financial reporting period and the preparation of final numbers. The point Dr. Rivera and Mr. Rudl made above is that with the activation of the new “position control” system and upgrades to MUNIS software we’re installing now, we will essentially complete automation of the system, allowing real-time numbers to be produced without waiting for manual work to be completed. In the past our heavy reliance on manual systems led to things like $4 million budget gaps; those gaps having been eliminated by good management, but perfection not having yet been achieved, Marj is unhappy. Most other folks will, I think, be happy with the progress we’ve made.
    .
    How did the surplus get generated? As explained in detail in the memo, $200,000 from receipt of an unexpected grant, $1,500,000 from savings due to unfilled positions (mostly central office) not filled until late in the year, $455,000 from lower than normal retirements of teachers and administrators (we budget based on historic trends and feedback from union leadership), $500,000 from the impact on a purchase order freeze implemented in March, and $115,000 in savings generated from outsourcing some facilities maintenance work.
    .
    None of these savings were “un-noticed”; they were all planned, managed, and reported on during the year. What we didn’t have was finalized numbers on the savings (particularly on personnel costs) because of the manual nature of reporting of many of these things (now being automated, as noted above).
    .
    “Not everything is perfect.” Agreed, 100%. That’s why we keep working to make things better, no matter how much sniping we take from those who, oddly, have been reliable defenders of the pre-improvement status quo.

  9. Tumblebug Parent

    What will happen to Tumblebugs which operates in 11 Allen Rd?
    Why don’t any articles mention the Daycare, they all refer to it as city owned space?

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