NORWALK, Conn. — With charges of “misleading statements” and “cherry picking facts” hanging in the air, Norwalk finance chiefs and elected City leaders met online Thursday for a “great conversation that we should be having more of,” in the words of Board of Education Chairman Colin Hosten.
The joint meeting of the Board of Education and Common Council finance Committees featured pointed questions from both sides and a mini-debate between Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz and Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella, which included that telling phrase, “with all due respect.”
At the end, all agreed on a basic sentiment articulated by Dachowitz: “It’s just going to get tougher going forward.”
Tit for tat as the ‘dialogue’ begins
Dachowitz skipped the part of his presentation that claimed NPS has added 292 employees in the last two years, saying “there have been concerns about that.”
Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton on Wednesday said Dachowitz had erred in the calculation.
In skipping it, Dachowitz said, “That was originally shown just to show the importance of having an independent expert come in and examine the numbers and help reveals the city operating budget expenditures by department.”
Hamilton tried to pin down Dachowitz on the likelihood that Norwalk would actually draw $8 million down from its Rainy Day Fund this year. Dachowitz demurred, saying “it’s hard to get a handle right now.”
“I’m hoping that we come in with only a $4 million draw down, but it could be plus/minus 2 million either way,” Dachowitz said.
Common Council member Tom Livingston (D-District E) asked Hamilton if NPS expects a surplus this year.
“It’s really too early to project that at this point,” Hamilton replied. “You know the district has had what I would term to be relatively small surpluses. As you know, we don’t have a fund balance. At the end of the year any funds we have rolled back to the city.”
Hosten asked if the City would revise its budget given the updated health insurance cost projections, lowering the City’s expected expenditures by $750,000.
“No, not at this time,” Dachowitz said.
“Conversely, I’d ask the same question of Tom Hamilton,” Council member David Heuvelman (D-District A) said, asking if NPS would revise its request given the $2.1 million reduction in its expected health insurance costs.
“Having the reduction in our insurance costs significantly lowered the amount that we need to request in order to meet our contractual obligations and the increase in insurance costs for this year,” Estrella said.
The Board hasn’t voted on any changes, but a 4.6 percent increase in the schools budget would fully fund NPS, as opposed to the 5.6 percent increase that had been requested, Hamilton said.
“The way I budget with my departments on the city side is very tight. There’s not a lot of fluff,” Dachowitz said.
Estrella and her team “put together an operating budget that has not really an ounce of fluff in it, too,” Hosten replied.
‘We’re in the service business, too’
Dachowitz pointed out that NPS gets funding beyond its allocations from the City, from grants and other sources. He mentioned her intention to hire literacy and math specialists to help children in light of the pandemic.
“I am not knowledgeable at all about how those decisions get made,” Dachowitz said. “When do certain requests go through the funds? … That’s a bit of a mystery so I leave that to your experts. All I do is look at our city and what our expectations are, our annual costs. We have put a lot of contracts out to bid to get better service and better quality at more competitive prices. We went through an exhaustive evaluation of all of our human resources.”
He said, “We examine all of our costs on a regular basis. And at the same time we have to be flexible, whether it’s a snowstorm that comes or voting expenses. So that’s what we’re trying to do. We’ve done that on our side. I understand you’re doing it on your side. It’s just the reality is it either has to be paid in taxes or other revenues. And I just don’t see where those other revenues are coming from.”
Estrella said a clarification was needed: NPS is not seeking money to pay for math and literacy specialists, “I think we clearly articulated the fact that we were reducing certain programs to be able to build others.”
NPS plans to reduce its magnet school funding from $2.55 million to $1 million to support that effort and, “I think we clearly articulated how we were reappropriating funds to address the current needs that we are having as a result of COVID and the challenges that it’s presented for for our students in this pandemic,” she said.
“Like you said with your departments, we met with every single department and basically stripped their budget to the minimal possible state, so that we presented a budget that focused on only addressing the contractual obligations and the unfortunate reality that we have this insurance hike, that we have to address,” Estrella said.
Hamilton mentioned that NPS has cut costs dramatically by hiring staff to provide in-house services.
“The other point I’d make is that although those (specialist) positions are needed to help, are needed, especially because of COVID, and to put in place better supports to help our students, the fact of the matter is, those are positions that should have existed, all along,” Hamilton said.
“I just want to add that schools are complex, we have policies that are governed by the state by the federal government,” Estrella said. “… We are hit with unfunded mandates that we have to abide by because they’re governed by state and federal policy, and that situation coupled with the complexity of working with people, because when we think about the budget, one of the things that we sometimes tend to forget is that we’re talking about human beings. When we talk about the students and families that we’re serving in our schools, and they don’t come in a cookie cutter fashion, everybody is very different, everybody’s very unique. I think that’s what makes schools very special.”
“Dr. Estrella, with all due respect, we’re not running a manufacturing company here. On the city side, we’re in the service business also,” Dachowitz said.
“I’m glad to hear that,” she said.
“We serve 100,000 residents of the city. We serve their whole family. We provide 35 different services,” Dachowitz said. “We have staff and our staff, that’s very important to provide those services. So we’re in the same business, we have the same complexities that you do. We have regulations in what we must maintain and how we have to spend resources, because there are unfunded mandates on safety of bridges and all sorts of other things that we conduct. So, we’re in the same boat. It’s not like you’re in a different.
“I’m not saying that we are I just think it’s important to preface the importance of the work we do because sometimes we get caught up in the numbers and not in in the most important thing that we’re here for the community,” Estrella replied.
Council member Barbara Smyth (D-At Large), a former teacher, later said the Council was shocked last year to learn that Fox Run Elementary School didn’t have literacy specialists.
“There were quite a few schools, and the elementary schools in the middle schools that did not have reading specialist or math specialist,” Hamilton said. “…
“That is standard practice across many schools that we don’t have the most of our schools. And it’s needed. And that’s why we made the decision to pull money from one area, like the magnet funding to be able to bring this resource in so that we created an equitable playing field for all of us schools,” Estrella said.
Agreeing to meet regularly
Mayor Harry Rilling said he and Estrella had agreed that both sides should meet more often to discuss the situation.
“There’s a lot of mystique on both sides,” he said. “The Board of Education has a lot of layers to it, there’s a lot of things going on the Board of Education and the Norwalk Public Schools that, you know, we may not totally understand. And on the flip side of that, there’s a lot of things going on in the city that, I know Mr. Hamilton has been here before, so he understands a lot of it, but there’s a lot of information that we have to share back and forth. And this process of the budget development should start as early as it possibly can with Mr. Dachowitz and Mr. Hamilton sitting down.
Rilling initiated the joint Council/BoE meetings seven years ago shortly after he was first elected, working to ease the acrimony that had marked budget cycles.
Estrella said, “The more conversations and the more transparency there is around the work, I think the less misunderstanding and misconceptions develop as a result of not having enough information to make informed conclusions of things.”