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Norwalk CFO draws wrong conclusions from dive into NPS data

The Board of Education Executive Team and the Superintendent of Schools wish to provide context and clarity on several statements made by Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz in his Monday presentation to the Board of Estimate and Taxation.

First, Mr. Dachowitz compared the staffing levels at Norwalk Public Schools with those at the City of Norwalk, questioning the need for new teachers and staff hires.  We disagree with this apples-to-oranges comparison, as well as conclusions that Mr. Dachowitz draws from school staffing data.   

Schools are a people industry. Municipal and corporate standards simply cannot be applied to a profession dedicated to educating children. Teachers, paraeducators, principals, counselors, speech and language pathologists, nurses and custodians, to name just a few, are the heart and soul of any school system. Without adequate staffing to meet enrollment needs, a community will not graduate students who are college and career ready.

Importantly, increases in teachers and staff have been a direct result of planned, clearly articulated objectives and budget goals under the district’s Strategic Operating Plan. While a rise in enrollment is a factor, two priorities are responsible for the largest staff increases:  special education and high school faculty.

  • Special Education: Historically, our community has had significant concerns about the delivery of special education services in Norwalk. To adequately serve our students with disabilities, we committed to adding special education services and building capabilities in-house, reducing our reliance on outside contracted services and out-of-district tuition.  We do not believe that it is appropriate for Norwalk to bus children to out-of-district private schools, at a cost of $150,000 or more per student.

 

This was a planned, strategic action item, supported by initial funding provided by the Special Education Development Fund.  Although it required the district to add staff, this has clearly produced overall financial savings, and revamped a special education program that had been the subject of three highly critical CREC reports in the past.

 

  • High School Study Halls and Full Classes To address full classes and intolerable circumstances that had high school students sitting in two or even three study halls per day, NPS added high school teachers across the district. High schools teachers were also added to make sure schools had enough classes to expand high school graduation requirements to 26 credits, so that Norwalk could comply with more rigorous graduation standards.

 

Finally, a note about the efficiency study Mr. Dachowitz referenced. By stating that the RFP for the efficiency study was put on hold because Dr. Estrella was new to the schools, Mr. Dachowitz has misrepresented the situation.

The City launched an RFP this fall without input from the NPS or the Board of Education. The RFP omitted the District as a key party, and did not include an equal review of functions for both the City and District.  For example, the RFP included a review of educational technology resources, but left out a comparable up-to-date analysis of City technology resources.

If the review is intended as a full analysis of potential areas for efficiency, Norwalk Public Schools must be an equal partner in the efficiency study. We have discussed with the Mayor’s Office our recommendations for moving forward in way that is mutually beneficial.

With the Board’s approved budget recommendations now publicly presented, we look forward to learning more about the City’s full proposed budget at 8 p.m. Thursday (Feb. 11) during the joint meeting of the Common Council Finance Committee and Board of Education Finance Committee.

This post was edited at 1:36 p.m. to correct the time of Thursday’s meeting.

6 comments

Joel February 10, 2021 at 9:09 am

So, Dr. Estrella, it is within your purview to tell the City that an RFP regarding the NPS is unfair because there is not a comparable review of unrelated City functions? I don’t think so. I would also politely remind you that taxes are becoming entirely too frothy in Norwalk and that, while we all benefit from excellent schools, taxpayer patience with these enormous annual budget requests by the NPS is limited. Surely you cannot disagree that a city Department that commands a large majority of the overall fiscal budget must receive a hard look. I also respectfully disagree with your notion that education is not in any way comparable to traditional business. It is the business of educating our children, and it should be run with one eye on the bottom line.

John O'Neill February 10, 2021 at 9:15 am

Henry Dachowitz has been a breath of fresh air. This saga reminds me of a parent telling a child no for the first time. The Board has gotten their way over the past few years and it’s time for a reality check. Our local taxes will be going up. Our State taxes will be going up. Our Federal Taxes will be going up. Our Gasoline will be going up. Our insurance will be taxed by the state. Our electricity costs will be going up. For those on the fence, just think about what I just wrote, and tell me we shouldn’t follow Hank’s direction. Quite honestly, we’re sick and tired of this dance every year.

Margaret February 10, 2021 at 10:04 am

Okay so now we know that the BOE knew fully well that staffing levels were being increased to 292 positions in Norwalk Public Schools. This goes way beyond Study Halls. If the Superintendent and BOE wants backing from the taxpayers break numbers down for us. You state that BOE saving money on Special Education show us the numbers. Vague statements about Study Halls don’t cut it.

Bryan Meek February 10, 2021 at 3:05 pm

So let’s gut Special Ed and ignore FAPE and get sued for $50 million like Darien was proportionately. Great ideas from the commentators. Let’s ignore the explosion in student population and needs and federal and state mandates. Let’s take cherry picked data from a political engine gearing up for its re-election bid and trying to push these issues off on the first available scapegoat. Very productive.

A Numbers Game? February 10, 2021 at 3:54 pm

When providing the headcount of BOE staff, it should be for 2019-2020, 2020-2021 and 2021-2022, just so the public can see the trajectory because there have been many people hired. The old saw about NHS and BMHS students in 2 or 3 study halls per day is about as false an argument as I have ever witnessed. High school staffing saw an increase beginning 2 or 3 years ago, when there were some students in 2 or more study halls, and staffing has seen increases since then. If there are students in 2 or 3 study halls, it may be a matter of requiring them to fill their schedules or of establishing better master schedules so that there are fewer scheduling conflicts.

Also related to the BOE staff headcount, please be sure to include the number of new administrators – and their salaries. Central Office has advertised for new administrators for Early Childhood education, for STEM, for Humanities, for School Quality, for technology and probably more. Some of these people command salaries of $180,00, plus benefits.

Finally, be adamant that the headcount must reflect staff paid from all funding sources, including grants. I don’t care if a salary is paid entirely by a grant; it is still another drain on the budget.

I see a situation spiraling in a very uncomfortable direction.

Maybe February 10, 2021 at 6:57 pm

Maybe if Norwalk stopped building so many apartments and Condos… the schools wouldn’t need to hire more people?

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