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Norwalk budget angst nets talk of audit, threat to resign

From left, Board of Education Finance Committee Chairwoman Barbara Meyer-Mitchell expresses angry opinions to Common Council members Nick Sacchinelli (D-At Large), David Heuvelman (D-District A) and Greg Burnett (D-At Large), Thursday in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. — Skepticism with Norwalk Public Schools’ spending led Common Council members Thursday to threaten less funding than has been recommended by Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz.

Their prolonged debate at the Council Finance Committee meeting led to Board of Education Finance Committee Chairwoman Barbara Meyer-Mitchell hotly confronting the Council members, decrying “theater that upsets parents.”

“This makes us look like idiots, that we aren’t talking before we have something like this happen,” she said to Council member Nick Sacchinelli (D-At Large). “… I don’t get angry like this very often, but I am deeply hurt by the way that this just unfolded. It literally has me wanting to resign.”

Video by Harold F. Cobin at end of story

The Dachowitz recommendation for a budget cap is going to the full Council for a vote next week, but its sendoff wasn’t pretty. The proposed tax levy cap of $368,763,931 would provide a $9.9 million increase to the school system, in the City’s eyes. It failed on a first vote and only passed after the one-hour discussion because David Heuvelman (D-District A) changed his vote from no to yes, on the procedural justification that it needed to move forward.

Council member Nick Sacchinelli (D-At Large), citing “eye opening” information from teachers, had advocated cutting the proposed cap by $5 million and telling the school system that it might get the additional $5 million after submitting to an audit.

That was after 19 people had urged Council members to fund the BoE, including parents pleading on behalf of Fox Run Elementary School and Meyer-Mitchell warning that inadequate funding would lead to staff cuts.

 

 

Public hearing

“What was once a top performing school in Norwalk has now become the worst performing school over the past 10 years,” Diane Papadakos said, of Fox Run Elementary School.

Papadakos was reading a letter from a leader of Fox Run’s School Governance Council.

“Norwalk School Superintendent Dr. Adamowski says performance is now dropping and impacting other schools in the district as well,” she said. “The problem has been identified by Dr. Adamowski as a lack of resources for the entire district and will easily be crafted without additional funding in the city of Norwalk. Why do we have to wait for a school to fail in order to get emergency resources allocated to a school district that has been progressively declining?”

“Fox Run is in need of additional funding,” Eric Niederer said. “Their population is decreasing, which means dollars in the door are decreasing for various programs. And I’m not talking about programs that some people may say are not necessary for academics, I’m talking about that in reading.”

Tyler Fairbairn was one of several parents saying they had moved here recently because of the school system.

“I think it’s wonderful to have a sizable Rainy Day Fund. But, you know, I really truly believe that it’s penny wise and pound foolish to shortchange our kids,” said Fairbairn, Community Development Administrator for Greenwich.

Sarah McIntee also bought a home here because “the school system has made amazing strides.”

Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling listens to the Common Council Finance Committee public hearing on the 2020-21 operating budget, Thursday in City Hall.

“I am truly concerned that if we stop funding our schools that we are going to go backwards. And families like mine aren’t going to choose to live here, and that they are going to choose to go somewhere else,” she said.

Diana Révolus addressed accusations made last week by Dachowitz, calling it “funny and misleading” that Dachowitz pointed out “unproven trips” by school administrators in “the hopes of providing minority teachers into the district, which is initiative of Connecticut school systems overall, and how wrong that would have been.”

“I’m concerned with the smoking mirrors that come about right before the community, for lack of better terms, tend to get screwed over. The framework is constant instability and a community that feels politics is happening to them and not for them,” she charged, also accusing Adamowski of “over-ambitious aspirations and lack of transparency,” while saying he made a “valiant effort.”

 

Meyer-Mitchell responds to Dachowitz

Dachowitz cast aspersions last week upon Norwalk Public Schools’ enrollment growth projection, asking what it was based upon.

“The unprecedented growth in enrollment this year is a grave concern, as it is a situation that demands a proactive plan,” Meyer-Mitchell said. “We have shared our demographic study with you, which we have updated in June and December, alerting you that we expect continued growth next year. In order to sustain our current per pupil expenditure, avoid cuts within our school buildings, it is imperative that the city support the schools to its best capacity.”

Meyer-Mitchell, one of four BoE members to address the Council Committee, asked that NPS not lose its momentum. The Dachowitz recommendation “essentially funds our contractual increases only and completely ignores the need created by enrollment growth and ELL (English Language Learner) legally mandated staffing, not to mention the initiatives intended to improve school climate and academic outcomes. Austerity measures that may have worked in Michigan are not necessary or wise in Fairfield County.”

She continued, “What we want to avoid by close partnership with the Mayor, Common Council and Board of Estimate and Taxation is another fiscal cycle in which the Board of Education is not fully funded, cuts staff that we have developed with careful professional development, and yet the city of Norwalk ends the year with a surplus which goes again into the general fund and isn’t utilized for services to the community.”

The City’s Rainy Day Fund is said to be $69.7 million. Dachowitz recommends an $8 million draw down for the 2020-21 budget.

 

Hiccups

Common Council Finance Committee Chairman Greg Burnett (D-At Large) faced unusual challenges in recommending a budget cap – no one wanted to make the motion to put it on the table.

Thomas Keegan (R-District D) finally did it after a long pause, “as a matter of procedure.”

Burnett and Keegan voted in favor of moving it forward, but George Theodoridis (D-District C) and Heuvelman voted no. Sacchinelli abstained.

Burnett was momentarily stumped as to how to proceed.  “Where are we at?” he asked.

Sacchinelli changed his vote to no, then put forward his idea of slashing the cap until there is evidence of responsible spending by Norwalk Public Schools.

“I’m hearing from teachers who are not comfortable speaking against the Board of Ed, which I understand why, that there’s these redundant roles in central office. There’s reams of paper and closets that they can’t even account for because it was it was use-it-or-lose-it budget,” Sacchinelli had said.

He opined, “I definitely want to fully fund Board of Ed, it’s an investment in the community in total. But there’s this whole dynamic of ‘what is responsible spending, what’s going on with that money?’ We can’t necessarily get involved in the line items, I get that. But I’d also like to know that they’re not giving out gift cards, just because they have budget availability, and they’re not providing (paraprofessionals) for a kindergarten class.”

NPS handed out $10 gift cards to teachers but many of them expired a week later,  Dachowitz alleged last week.

Mayor Harry Rilling has indicated that he wants an audit of both the City-side and the BoE-side, “as the way to find financial efficiencies,” Burnett said Thursday. Dachowitz advised that such a study will take months, and it’s better for it to take longer so that consultants “see how they spend the money during a nice period of time.”

NPS had come to the Council for a $1 million special appropriation to deal with an unexpected influx of ELL students, “but then we find out that they spent the money on gift cards,” Sacchinelli said later.

“In my opinion, that was a one-off scenario that shouldn’t happen and hopefully, safeguards are in place, so it never happens again,” Burnett replied.

 

 

 

‘Unacceptable’

Meyer-Mitchell went straight to the Council members when the meeting adjourned. There could have been a joint meeting where concerns were addressed, she said.

Joint BoE/Council Finance Committee meetings have been a feature of the five previous budget cycles, a habit instituted under Rilling.

From left, Sarah McIntee, Norwalk Board of Education member Sherelle Harris, Jim Napoli and Tyler Fairbairn listen to BoE member Barbara Meyer-Mitchell unintentionally reveal feelings in public, Thursday in City Hall.

“You never called me,” she said to Sacchinelli. “I would have told you that what you proposed would not even cover our contractual costs. I would have to fire a core staff that we have trained, and it would be devastating to the community…. Your proposal was irresponsible, and you didn’t communicate prior. Unacceptable.”

Sacchinelli mentioned “all the things that have been coming to light over the last couple of weeks.”

“Excuse me, after 18 months you had $900,000 stolen and didn’t come out with it publicly,” she replied, referring to money lost to Chinese scam artists.

Norwalk recovered $515,000 via its insurance coverage, Communications Manager Joshua Morgan said in January 2019.

Sacchinelli agreed it was embarrassing and Meyer Mitchell said, “I alerted our staff to the concerns that Barbara had about gift cards last year but I was not in a position of power to do anything about it. Right now I am, but I want to partner. I want to be meticulous. But let’s do it in a responsible way that doesn’t panic the public.”

As the conversation continued, Sacchinelli spoke of “talking points.” Meyer-Mitchell touched on the Fox Run concerns.

Under the leadership of Mike Barbis and Mike Lyons, NPS shifted to being a district of choice with student-based budgets, she said. Now, parents choose where their children go to school and the money follows the children.

“When you have schools that get good buzz, and everybody wants to go there, they take their kid out and put them in Rowayton,” she said. “And then Rowayton gets couple hundred thousand dollars more because money follows the children so they can do nice things for their school.”

So the buzz goes to Rowayton and there are “more students leaving Naramake or Fox Run …Their buzz goes down and then the remedy is, ‘Oh well. It’s a failing school,’” she charged.

“That’s not good,” she said. “And I think the new Board understands that. We can  hire someone who will do the kind of equity audit that we all believe we need, but you need to give us some space to do this work. We’re doing the work in a powerful way.”

Story amended at 2:53 p.m. to include an additional comment from Diana Révolus.

21 comments

Piberman February 21, 2020 at 6:19 am

CT’s per pupil spending is $16,988 per pupil. Danbury with a population similar to Norwalk spends only $12,828 per pupil. Norwalk spends $17,616 or 37% more than Danbury. Our 5 surrounding wealthy towns with per capita incomes 3 to 5 times Norwalk spend an average $21,132 per pupil. Norwalk’s Supt is paid $287 – highest in CT and matching wealthy Westport. Norwalk spends 70% of its City Budget on schools compared to 60% for CT cities. Norwalk’s teachers are paid comparable to surrounding wealthy towns with 3 to 5 times the per capita income. By any reasonable measure Norwalk over spends on its public schools.
Stagnant home values over the past decade since the 2008 Recession reflect that overspending. Data taken from the CT School Finance. Org site.

Bryan Meek February 21, 2020 at 7:35 am

Nick Sacchinelli needs to look at the overhead ratios of all departments. The BOE has the lowest administrative costs of all city departments and runs the largest budget by far.

How many people does it take to run a mayors office?

Where is the economic director explaining how Fat Cat and Peaches bailing is good for Wall Street area? Or the draconian parking enforcement? Or is the plan to drive the businesses out and cram it full with more cheaply built taxpayers subsidized apartments?

Where is Josh Morgan to better craft the message that gift cards are the reason the school budget is exploding, not the school building full of new children that have been arriving here?

Where is Assistant Mayor? Up in New Haven learning how to increase our city side budget from $2500 per capita to $5000 like theirs is?

And when are we going to hire someone who can read the mail and not miss things like Firetree, which cost us millions?

Or does the mayor’s office need more attorneys to fight off the $13 million we are expecting to lose in lawsuits in the short future? I understand this doesn’t even cover the expenses required to adjudicate the 400 commercial real estate valuation appeals. Maybe hire an assistant for Josh Morgan to explain all of this?

And while we are all concerned about public finances, are we ever going to hear about the internal controls that were fixed so that $900,000 doesn’t walk out the door again? Is there any basic oversight for the vendor master file maintenance? Or can I still call and give you a new routing number and checking account where you can send me the rainy day fund?

Also, when are we going to find out our new insurance rates from CIRMA? With $ millions on fire tree and real fraud going on, are we still getting the good driver discount?

Bryan Meek February 21, 2020 at 7:40 am

As for your use it or lose it budget, that just flies in the face of reality where surpluses were achieved in the past few years. Those weren’t achieved from padding budgets and spending like mad. They were the result of tightening belts as much as possible. AGain, the gift card issue was corrected and will not happen again and that remedy was disclosed….how exactly are we preventing $900,000 from walking out the door again? People who live in glass houses…..

Frustrated Parent February 21, 2020 at 7:43 am

Let’s talk about where the money goes!! Definitely not the children! Admins walk around with new iPhones, iPads and new MacBooks and meanwhile some kids can’t get a simple chrome book! How does this make sense? The frivolous costs of lawsuits against parents who want what’s best for their children, how much does that cost the district? The list could go on.

nora king February 21, 2020 at 8:59 am

Nick – perhaps you need to understand the issue instead of just blaming the BOE and the kids that need to be educated. It is very easy to take stands especially when you don’t have kids in the school system. If you don’t understand the concept that when the City of Norwalk is not enforcing zoning and people are being packed into unsafe apartments and housing – this is what happens. The city has chosen to not enforce zoning with lax zoning enforcement. So kids are then sleeping in foyers, and unfinished attics and attending our schools. Many don’t speak English. We then need to educate those children by federal law. You know what is happening that I am even more upset over…. I am not happy about my taxes going up and up and up but I am really pissed off that my kids are having to deal with the over capacity and the growth. They deserve better than that. We follow the rules. I work sixty hour weeks to provide for my children and now I have to deal with this in the school system. If your administration wants to be a Sanctuary City – that is your decision – but then suck it up and pay the costs associated with that. So Nick you want to get on a soap box and not provide funding and listen to the very arrogant and rude Henry the CFO -…… or would you rather use your time on the Common Council and try to clean up zoning – which is leading to the over crowding. This type of growth is not “Norwalk on the Move” or Norwalk is growing (all of our Marketing materials) to the benefit of all this amazing new development like the mall. It is growth that is going to strangle our school system. Having to educate kids that don’t speak English comes at a great cost to the existing taxpayers children (because their kids get less) and it comes at a great cost to other taxpayers in the city of Norwalk. The average taxpayer can’t fix zoning but you can!

Concerned Parent February 21, 2020 at 9:28 am

Fox Run performs badly because of poor leadership by the principal and an unstructured curriculum. Teaching methods are haphazard. Intense focus on reading and math occurs to the detriment of all other critical learning, and doesn’t improve scores. They don’t test or quiz routinely as a quality control measure on student retention of material. Sorry, ELL and socioeconomics do not make the district underperform. Poor teaching methods do. To think otherwise is to say that the surrounding districts have more intelligent student and/or money makes you smarter. Wake up, Norwalk! Good money on a bad bet doesn’t work.

John ONeill February 21, 2020 at 9:35 am

Some thoughts to ponder:
Everyone talks about this treasure chest called the rainy day fund. We’ve seen articles written about it, we’ve heard officials lament the need to tap into it. Well, I hate to break it to you folks but part of the reason we have that fund is because we’ve borrowed to pay for projects we could’ve paid cash for. So we may have more cash, but we have more debt! The “spenders” in the group don’t want us to understand this. For God’s sake, will an adult please step up and let the public know this!!
As I’ve pointed out countless times over the past 6 months, resources have been reallocated to cover the ELL crisis which is reaching a tipping point. I find it disingenuous to hear about a surge of new students over the past year. THIS has been evolving over the past 10 years. Although I was born at night, it wasn’t last night! Holy Cow!
Note to Fox Run parents: When you vote in November think about the lack of state support we’ve received regarding this crisis. Your children have been greatly effected by lack of support and transparency in handling our schools.
Note to Current State officials: If no support comes for our schools I know of some rental prices in Florida where you can vacation next winter. The weather is nicer than Hartford and you may be looking for something to do.
Note to Teachers Union Leadership: Please step up and help your union members. Due to the band aid approach on crisis, your teachers are not able to effectively do their job. Hell, there are substitutes who won’t work in certain elementary schools.
Note to Mayor: That phone call to Jim Himes in September – Has he called you back? Did you talk about clamming and producing honey from his freaking bees, or was it a productive conversation? What’s the status from DC?
Note to Students: Your elected officials are letting you down.
That being said, I do love Norwalk. However, I am incredibly disappointed by our elected officials. How stupid are we that we actually elected some of these people? So maybe we’re not as smart as we think are. OR, maybe we have a lot of dumb neighbors. Maybe both…

Bruce Kimmel February 21, 2020 at 11:06 am

In past years, going back to the Moccia administration, I worked closely, in my capacity as chair of the Council’s finance committee, with the leadership of the BOE to ensure there was constant two-way communication and constructive dialogue between the Council and the board. Each year, we had one or even two joint meetings during the early stages of the budget process to hash out differences of opinion. We did not always agree, but the flow of information and, more importantly, the tone of our discussions were a whole lot better than the what seems to be going on today.

During the 2018 and 2019 budget cycles, there were what I consider pro forma meetings between the board and the Council on the operating budget. Unfortunately, they were highly structured and there wasn’t much real discussion of issues or differences. In 2018, members of the Council seemed more interested in ending the meeting at a specific time, which they did, than in having a robust discussion.

Indeed, the gift cards were a mistake, to the tune of about $75,000. Please remember: The budget under discussion exceeds two hundred million. Also, there seems to be a willingness to assume everything is peachy keen on the city side when it comes to spending practices and personnel. I agree with the Mayor: An audit of both the city and the board is the right way to proceed because we are one city with one operating budget. I know there are numerous efficiencies that can be found on both sides of the budget debate.

Regarding the alleged kindergarten class or classes without paraprofessionals: That is the kind of issue that should be investigated and discussed thoroughly before remarks are made in public. There are numerous factors that impact that daily functioning of a school, and a variety of laws that need to be respected, so perhaps the problem is a lot more complicated than one would think at first glance. As a member of the board, I was regularly bombarded with accusations from teachers and parents about alleged outrageous situations that turned out to be quite different than what was initially reported.

jacqueline gillett February 21, 2020 at 11:08 am

It is not about spending more money. First, it’s about not mainstreaming chronically disruptive special-needs students. Second, it’s about more teacher observation and for administrators to come into the classroom unannounced to observe how the teacher is performing.

Bruce Kimmel February 21, 2020 at 11:10 am

For clarity: I was chair of the Council’s finance committee from 2001-2005 and from 2013-2017. I was a member of the board’s finance committee in 2018 and 2019, and had nothing to do with how the Council handled the joint meetings of those years.

Another Opinion February 21, 2020 at 12:31 pm

With a budget as large as the public schools, measures to enact a top down review of school spending is long overdue. The unabated trajectory of school spending will all but seal Norwalk’s appeal for prospective home buyers given the implications for tax rates and property values. I would also encourage the board to taper down on the all or nothing rhetoric on budgets – cutting several million is a mere rounding error and not life shattering. The well paid superintendent should be able to work around.

Banks February 21, 2020 at 7:57 pm

@ Meek, you ask some good questions. I don’t understand why the $900k is coming to public attention just now. Did I miss something? How should this have been handled?? That’s basically a million dollars and a weakness in a few very important areas. It would have been nice to know about. This happened 18 months ago?

Tysen Canevari February 21, 2020 at 11:37 pm

How come no one questions the mayor for making this a santuary city? Educate yourselves people. We are paying the free ride for all the illegals going to school here. Do we need to employ an assistant principal at elementary schools at $150,000 plus a year? Eliminate them and that buys a lot of chromebooks! The Norwalk school system stinks because of all the wasted money and energy. Bruce Kimmel quits and now wants to pat himself on the back? He wasted $40000 to do a traffic study on the effect of changing school start times. That would buy a lot of chrome books. BTW, he should volunteer to babysit all the kids for the extra hour in the morning next school year while the parents go to work.

Bryan Meek February 22, 2020 at 7:28 am

@Tysen. Spot on, this is a total distraction from the real issue. Rolling out the welcome mat to families and children without providing the services required is finally bringing the school system to its knees.

They want to point out a few thousand in gift cards while ignoring that they have squandered millions of our dollars.

The individuals who bought these gift cards no longer work for the city and other internal controls are in place.

For the $900k that walked out of city hall, who knows. 3 years later and we still don’t have many answers. No one lost their job over it.

For the 12 people up from 9, now working in the Mayor’s office…..if only one of them had read the mail we wouldn’t have the $ million Firetree screw up.

As for the assistant principals we never had when we were kids, you can thank the State Department of Education and the Legislature for saddling school districts with one unfunded mandate after another. I questioned the expense too, but they’ve put so much paperwork into the system its near impossible to keep up with. An old timer was telling me the first school principals in Norwalk Public Schools taught classes 1/2 time.

Al Bore February 22, 2020 at 10:38 am

Nick, thank you for asking the questions that no one else thinks or cares to ask they just hand out tax money like candy. The money should be questioned not only for the schools but for everything else. Lot’s of waste in city hall and lot’s of highly paid people not working for the tax paying citizens of Norwalk. Time to bring salaries pensions and benefits in line with corporate america so we can spend more on the actual child’s education books supplies ect.

M Murray February 23, 2020 at 8:03 am

If only Norwalk could go back 100 years and look at it’s neighbors in Darien, Westport, Wilton, and New Canaan as see how they controlled development………….

Curious Voter February 25, 2020 at 2:06 pm

Does the BOE have a Rainy Day Fund or any surplus? If the answer is yes, use that to bridge the gap.

For the Youth February 27, 2020 at 3:16 pm

In response to public hearing comments about social emotional and suicide rate in young people..

You want to know whats causing this? Gen Z and Millennials have been screwed over by the older generations. Norwalk being a prime indicator of the older gens ability to MIS manage a budget. All the young people being hired in this community and across USA are underemployed, offered no training, a joke of job benefits/retirement/pensions compared to the past AND drowning in student debt .

City officials Please do not cut funding to our schools and leave Gen Alpha to the wayside too! This is wrong

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