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.
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.
“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.