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Norwalk education budget reflections: State of the Schools

A graphic from the 2021 State of the Schools report.

NORWALK, Conn. — Some education-related information for you, stemming from recent developments concerning the budget:

  • Achievements listed in NPS annual report
  • Multilingual learners
  • Sanctuary city?

‘Some residents haven’t seen the State of the Schools report’

A graphic from the 2021 State of the Schools report.

Some Norwalkers need to review the annual Norwalk Public Schools report to the community, one Board of Education member said.

The report, also called State of the Schools 2021, is “important to address questions/concerns around achievements and outcomes of NPS students,” Sheri McCready Brown said.

“Each year, NPS compiles the State of the Schools report as a look back at last year’s achievements. As the district moves forward to develop Future Ready for All! to guide NPS through the next five years, the State of the Schools reports on recent accomplishments,” NPS states on its website. “The report also provides a snapshot of NPS as a whole, focusing on facts such as student enrollment, high school graduation rate and languages spoken throughout the district.”

The 2021 report highlights COVID-19 adjustments and the new Strategic Operating Plan.

McCready listed key takeaways:

Academic Achievements

  • District-wide STEM Expo
  • National History Day
  • National Geographic Geo Bee

Award Winning Arts

  • Award Winning Marching Band
  • Award Winning Orchestra

Competitive Sports

  • Students excel at baseball, golf, basketball, and more
  • NHS Baseball team earned title of 2021 State Championship

 

• State Seal of Biliteracy

• Five Strategic Priorities

 

NPS states that 113 students earned the State Seal of Bilteracy and 23 P-Tech students graduated with associate’s degrees. In September 2020, NPS was one of the few Connecticut public school districts that opened in-person learning for its elementary school students. NPS became a 1:1 school district as all students were provided with their own laptops or mobile devices to level the educational playing field.

 

ELL. MLL.

A graphic from the 2021 State of the Schools report.

There was another response Thursday to the City’s Finance Director asserting that Norwalk doesn’t get enough “return on investment” from the school system: Common Council member Heidi Alterman (D-District D) brought up Norwalk’s multilanguage learners and special needs students

CFO Henry Dachowitz said, “More than half of the children are not doing work at grade level,” Dachowitz said. “… I don’t care whether it’s $100,000 or 10 million, if I’m going to spend any amount of money and I don’t get a return that’s valuable to the city, I say no.”

“I don’t think he’s inaccurate. We have a lot of students that do not read at their level,” Alterman said.

But, she said, “I do not think that is through the fault of the Board of Education or our teachers or the plans from different superintendents over the year, over the years…. As far as I understand these kinds of students require more funding, they need more services and more help.”

As of Oct 1, Norwalk Public Schools had 2,040 multilingual learners enrolled, according to Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella’s budget book. That compares to 1,977 MLL students in 2020-21 and 2,095 in 2019-20.

NancyOnNorwalk could not find any mention in the budget book about the cost of multilingual learners, formerly called English Language Learners. Neither Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella nor Norwalk Public Schools Chief of Staff and Communications Brenda Wilcox Williams answered a Saturday email asking for that stat.

A graphic from the 2021 State of the Schools report.

Special Education out of district tuition is budgeted for an increase. The 2021-22 approved budget allows $8 million for SpEd out of district tuition, and the requested budget estimates $9.1 million.

Alterman said a child came into her daughter’s classroom last year not speaking one word of English, but now, “We have conversations, which is really sweet to me.”

“I think it actually speaks to how well they are doing in our schools,” she said. “But it’s extremely demanding work. And it’s why I believe, I think to Nora’s point, if (the coming tax increase) was 13 or $14 a month, I do not think that’s too much to ask.”

But, she said, it’s up to Dachowitz “to tell us what our city can withstand.” It’s also up to Estrella “to tell us what the schools need.”

 

‘We do not work aggressively with ICE’

Alterman also said she understood Norwalk is a sanctuary city.

Not true, Mayor Harry Rilling replied.

There is “no definition of a sanctuary city,” Rilling said, explaining that former Gov. Dannel Malloy “issued a Title IV where the city of Norwalk and other cities within the state of Connecticut do not work with or contact ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) based on the person’s status.”
NancyOnNorwalk could not find a record of a “Title IV” from Malloy.

In February 2017, Malloy and other State officials issued recommendations in response to an executive order by then-President Donald Trump, including such lines as, “ICE detainer requests are requests, they are not warrants or orders and this should only be honored as set forth in Connecticut law, unless accompanied by a judicial warrant.”

In 2019, the legislature expanded The Trust Act, which Act sets conditions for state and local law enforcement authorities for voluntarily cooperating with ICE officials seeking to detain and deport undocumented immigrants, a news release from Gov. Ned Lamont’s office states.

The changes include:

  • prohibiting law enforcement from detaining someone solely on the basis of a civil immigration detainer unless the person is guilty of the most serious felonies, is on the terrorist watch list, or a judicial warrant has been issued;
  • limiting law enforcement sharing with ICE; and
  • requiring law enforcement to inform an individual when ICE has requested their detention.

 

 

Rilling said Thursday, “If ICE comes in with a civil warrant for a person within our city, we work with them to help them find that person. But we also go with them to make sure that the person they’re taking into custody is safe, and that they are safe. That’s all we do. We do not aggressively work with ice or search out people who are in our city undocumented.

Sanctuary cities come up as a topic regularly. In 2017, Rilling said that while Norwalk is not officially a sanctuary city, it met the definition.

“Connecticut is a sanctuary state and as a result, I would imagine that the municipalities are sanctuary cities by virtue of the fact that Connecticut is a sanctuary state,” Rilling said. “In Norwalk, we have always met the same definition of a sanctuary city because we do not seek out undocumenteds, we do not work with ICE to come down and go around and sweep up people, asking for their papers.”

Why not?

“We want people in our city to not be fearful of the police,” Rilling said, explaining that “a very vulnerable population” would be targeted if it’s known that they absolutely won’t go to the police out of fear of being deported.

9 comments

Piberman February 14, 2022 at 2:11 pm

When management oversight fails to achieve their objectives the standard practice is to “expand the discussion” about what they’ve done right. The primary mission of public schools in CT is to secure students meet the standards set down by the CT Dept of Education for graduation achievement.

Norwalk public school students fail to meet those standards for the majority of students. That’s deplorable. Both our BOE and senior school administrators are responsible. No one else.

Its not for not spending monies. We match per student outlays and per teacher salaries with our surrounding very wealthy towns with incomes 2 to 3 times ours.
No amount of additional monies will likely bring much improved results. When our BOE members are claiming much larger sums will bring better results they are simply demonstrating their lack of qualification to serve as BOE members.

Improvement requires more competent oversight by our BOE and much stronger achievement by our highly paid public school administrators. If we compare the backgrounds/achievements of Norwalk’s BOE members with those of surrounding towns we see major differences. Norwalk’s BOE members do not have similar experience managing substantial firms or public entities. Our surrounding BOE
members do have these skills. And they demand results. Norwalk’s BOE does not.

Beating up on our City Financial Director is unacceptable. He’s a highly regarded finance professional by those of us with senior level financial experience in public firms. His hiring is a credit to Mayor Rilling.

Long term residents are generally proud of our City. But our public schools seriously under perform. And the solution is straightforward. Not writing bigger budgets. But encouraging and electing BOE members with the competence and professional/business backgrounds to guide our school administrators. And demand competence. Our surrounding towns get the job done because their BOE demands performance. We greatly embarrass our City giving our Supt the highest salary in CT when our public schools are not meeting CT Edu Dept graduation standards.

Simply put funding a public school system that doesn’t meet CT Edu Dept standards for most students is an ongoing tragedy. Both for the community and especially for the students. If we care about them why send them out with 2nd rate educations ?
That’s just mean spirited.

Yes we know the “excuses” from the BOE and administrators. We have kids who are not native English speakers. And some are recent immigrants. Some have single parent families. But we’re no different than America. When kids need help give them help after school ends, on holidays and during the long summer vacations. Make it our goal that every kids succeeds in our public schools.

Blaming our kids and City demographics for public school failures makes as much sense as blaming workers in a failing business. It’s the responsibility of our BOE and senior public school management to educate our kids. They are and have been failing.
If our BOE members aren’t committed to getting the job done then please resign so other citizens can step forward. But don’t tell us the problem is lack of funds. That just advertises lack of commitment to excellence. We spend the monies but have a very serious management and oversight problem. Just read the comments made by our BOE members shifting blame to others.

Admiral February 14, 2022 at 5:20 pm

How about the BOE does something about the carloads of kids who travel from Bridgeport each morning to attend Norwalk Public Schools. Some even take the train.
Yet the BOE and downtown turn the cheek. This would NEVER happen in Darien, Wilton, etc..
Think of how bad Bridgeport schools are if they are illegally nneaking into NPS.
Our city slogan should be “Welcome to Norwalk. We’re trying to be like Stamford, but we’re more like Bridgeport.”

Tysen Canevari February 14, 2022 at 9:12 pm

Harry Harry Harry. always trying to put a spin on things. I suppose we are a sanctury city by default. How many illegals do you think there are in NC, Wilton, Darien, and Westport schools? I bet zero! SHouldnt they be by default too? The marching band is independent of the BOE and thats why they are so succesful. They are a seperately run entity. Schools have success in basketball? Really? That couldnt be farther from the truth. The list goes on and on. In middle school the schools are told they cant play each other cause the buses cant be paid for. Between Harry and Estrella they make almost Half a million dollars!

Admiral February 15, 2022 at 7:43 am

Golf? Basketball? Have you seen the league and state standings?
Harry R, now you’re just making things up.

Oversight February 15, 2022 at 9:34 am

The Spotlight is on MLL (ELL) progress? Where are the usual benchmarks – 3rd grade reading at/above grade level, Math % at 3rd grade, 8th grade, 10th grade? Where are the comparisons in Cohorts? If the BOE is touting athletic performance – what percentage of those are NLI commits (i.e. having some percentage of their college paid for). D-III commits – going to colleges for academics and athletics – athletics helped them get there. Same for band? Where’s the data???? The NHS Baseball success was amazing – how many of the seniors are in college and playing baseball? What’s the average GPA of the sports teams vs. non sports students. How are athletics in NPS working together with academics to benefit the students???

Academic achievements are a STEM expo and a Geography Bee. Seriously? They’re great as events, but where’s the data to show how are kids are doing in school YOY? If these are the benchmarks for student success the taxpayers should ask for a refund. Oh wait, BOE gave Supt. a raise based on this data set.

Piberman February 15, 2022 at 11:31 am

Judging by the responses in Nancy’s our BOE has no substantive answer to questions why most students in our public schools are failing to meet CT Education Dept graduation standards. Pointing at our non-English speaking new immigrant students doesn’t hold water. They’re a relatively small portion of our student body where most of our students are not meeting CT Edu graduation standards. Questioning Finance Director Dashowitz’ well documented statement that “we’re not getting an adequate return on our investment” is similarly diversionary.

From the responses by BOE members its hard not to conclude our BOE is not up to the task of properly overseeing the education of our children so that they meet CT Edu standards. That City leaders also criticize Finance Director without presenting credible bona fides further illustrates the seriousness of Norwalk’s public school leadership problem. That our BOE in its “wisdom” pays the highest Supt salary in CT for a demonstrably failing public school system further illustrates the issues.

All the more reason for our Common Council to hold the Norwalk public school operating budget fixed and unchanged. And not proceed with any new public school construction. We have a major lack of public confidence in our public school system. It’s now out in the open and ought be dealt with. Resignations are in order. As well as appropriate statements from our Common Council and Mayor demanding major improvement.

When major problems are well recognized they’re never solved by remaining silent
We’re not talking politics here. But the lives of our children. Our obligation as citizens is to provide them with a suitable public education meeting CT standards. Norwalk’s elected leadership has failed that responsibility for years. Now lets do something.
If the BOE can’t provide a comprehensive plan for major improvement in a timely fashion then lets encourage them to resign. And lets not further insult Finance Director Dashowitz for doing his job in a professional manner.

Patrick Cooper February 15, 2022 at 3:02 pm

@Piberman – I need to address multiple points in your post above, one of several 100 where you hammer home the point – our kids are “failing to meet CT Education Dept graduation standards.”
Now, we know that the schools are presently struggling, and from my time, we have seen a yearly increase in spending primarily to cover the contractual obligation to the unions. Understood.

But you suggest that we flatline – “All the more reason for our Common Council to hold the Norwalk public school operating budget fixed and unchanged. And not proceed with any new public school construction.” I really don’t think starving the machine is the solution, but you do? The issue is – we have a funding problem that is tied to other initiatives – that Bob Duff and the mayor have championed and fully embraced: density, and tax abatements / incentives for favored developers. New school construction and repair is long, long overdue – except for the vanity project – the new NHS. That should be stopped – except – that’s “all politics”.

And while this is not germane to that point – your comment “our non-English speaking new immigrant students …..they’re a relatively small portion of our student body” – how do you know? To my knowledge, the census data has not been released yet – for reasons that can only be considered “political”. No – where I think we agree is – we need better performance, and we need a professional BOE that drives this point home. Sure, more dollars would help. But where do I see you ask the state to increase their contribution, given the changing demographics? Does our representative Duff – 16 years in his seat – have an ounce of culpability here, Peter?

But this is where we differ the most: “We’re not talking politics here. But the lives of our children”.

Peter, this is – 100% – politics. This is political calculation by a 100% political mayor, who has decided that Norwalk parents will blindly vote the D-party line no matter the candidate. Of late, the local GOP has offered scant options – making the choice easier to justify.

Now Peter, you – a longtime politico in Norwalk, know full well that by Charter – the mayor is the de facto head of the BOE. And it is no great leap to say – he controls the local DTC – really, it’s more like the “HTC”. So, the candidates and ultimately the members of the CC and BOE – are all – to a degree – selected by the mayor and his loyalists. It’s no secret – the current chair Colin Hosten – was hand-picked by Harry. Groomed.

So then Peter, with great gusto – you say – “Resignations are in order. As well as appropriate statements from our Common Council and Mayor demanding major improvement”.

Peter – I’m confused. You have long said many, many complimentary things about our mayor. I have not. So I ask you – where does the buck stop? Resignations? How about the mayor?

I look forward to a rebuttal that doesn’t use a single sentence found in any of your previous posts – you know, something – original. Fresh. Can’t wait.

Piberman February 24, 2022 at 2:21 am

Patrick:
Appreciate your comments. Some 3 or 4 decades ago Norwalk had a good reputation with our public schools. With strong competition for BOE seats amidst high expectations. Each of our 3 political parties – Dems, GOP and Independents – generally put up candidates with strong business backgrounds and commitment to high student achievements. In return BOE members were well regarded. Our Supt earned about $50k I recall. Most teachers in those days lived in our City sent their kids to our City schools

What’s changed ? We’re now a One Party City and our BOE members lack the management/business backgrounds traditionally found with that office. From the available information none of our current BOE members have significant business management/financials backgrounds appropriate to providing oversight for a $200 million entity. Not likely would they get elected in our surrounding towns.

Composition of our student body has changed from a modest white majority to a modest minority student majority. Relatively modest numbers of new immigrants.
Overall no major changes in our student body. Nor ethnicity or incomes or family structures.

What’s so disappointing is that neither our BOE nor City leaders have publicly addressed our unacceptable student achievement levels with a plan of action.
It’s as if everyone agrees not to discuss the lack of our graduating students meeting CT Edu requirements.

I don’t understand why our City’s leadership writ large doesn’t want to correct our public school system so most grads meet CT Edu requirements. We spend the monies but there’s not much interest in getting much better results. its as if we don’t talk about the problem it will just go away. Paying a Supt $300k shows “we’re serious”. But where’s the Supt public plan for major improvement in student achievement ?

Why wouldn’t we want our kids to get good public school educations ? Schools take up about 70% of our City budget mostly funded by homeowners. We spend the same per pupil as our surroudning towns. What’s the secret of their success ? They seek out and elect BOE members with strong business backgrounds and demand excellence. Sadly we have different expectations and standards.

Our kids pay the price. Both in what they don’t learn and in reduced chances of securing admittance to a first class college. The obvious question is why our City’s leaders aren’t deeply concerned about improving our failing public school system.
Our City generally gets high marks for police, road maintenance, etc. Why not its school system ? If we love our kids why not do our best to give them a strong public school education ?

Our charter doesn’t give a major role for our Mayor in fixing our failing school system
If we’re going to fix our failing school system we need seek out and elect much more capable BOE members who demand much better results. And that’s the opportunity for our City’s Dem leaders. If they don’t seek out much more competent BOE candidates who when elected will demand much higher results from our administrators we’ll not see major improvement in our public schools.

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