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Norwalk efficiency study released: A book, hopefully not a door stop

Betty Ressel presents Evergreen Solutions’ efficiency study of City and Norwalk Public Schools operations to the Common Council during Tuesday’s Zoom meeting.

NORWALK, Conn. —  The long-awaited Norwalk Efficiency Study report is public, offering much fodder for conversation and thought. Communications is identified as a key “cross-cutting” issue that inspires “unproductive infighting” between the Board of Education and City leadership; technology improvements are described as long overdue, hampering efforts in every nook and cranny of City Hall.

Evergreen Solutions, winner of a $275,000 contract in July, heaps praise on Norwalk’s operational successes and makes many recommendations for improvements in the 533-page report, presented at Tuesday’s Common Council meeting. The document was widely lauded as “comprehensive,” described as “amazing” by one Common Council member and “fantastic” by another.

Board of Education member Sheri McCready Brown called the report “very informative” and “very clear.”

“I really appreciate the fact that you’ve been able to illustrate some of the challenges that we face and some of the work that we need to do,” McCready Brown said.

Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella offered little comment. In a statement, she said, “We are pleased to see that many of the study’s findings align with what we identified last year during the development of our comprehensive five-year strategic plan, and we look forward to reviewing the full recommendations in depth.”

Board of Education Vice Chairwoman Diana Carpio said she had only received the study three hours ahead of the Council meeting, while school administration was given the opportunity weeks ago to review it for technical accuracy.

The school district’s Central Office would see changes under Evergreen’s recommendations.

“We are recommending the elimination of the Chief of Staff and communications position and a restructuring of communications under the Deputy Superintendent. We found redundancies between what the communications chief and that area were doing and what the deputy was doing. And we recommend a reorganization of their communications function under the deputy superintendent,” said Betty Ressel, Managing Partner of Ressel and Associates.

An efficiency study, or audit, was first mentioned publicly in February 2020. Evergreen began work in October, according to Ressel.

Ressel advised that she didn’t want to see the study become “a very expensive doorstop.” Council President Tom Livingston (D-District E) said the Council would begin working on one key recommendation – a plea to completely overhaul the City’s charter – next month.

Ressel said one recommendation was already being addressed by NPS. Evergreen had immediately found that Munis, a program that handles government data functions, wasn’t being used efficiently. Last month, a joint committee was formed to research “all of the possibilities for maximizing the use of Munis.”

An excerpt from the efficiency study’s look at Norwalk Public Schools.

Evergreen: NPS should examine its staffing

Evergreen recommends that Norwalk Public Schools “develop a staffing plan to establish educationally sound, but more efficient teacher and paraprofessional staffing guidelines, particularly at the elementary level.”

This isn’t a recommendation that NPS cut staff but realign personnel, Ressel said.

“The major recommendation is really the result of years of ‘this is the way we’ve always done it.’ And what Evergreen is recommending is in the area of regular education teachers, regular education paraprofessionals, the ratio of students to paraprofessionals, student to teacher in the core regular education areas, is low. And the student population is different today than it was 10-12 years ago when this model was put into place,” she said.

It’s not unique to NPS, Ressel said.

“What the world needs now, in the current situation, is more targeted, focused help,” she said. “…When I was growing up, there was one teacher in the classroom, and there were 20-some of us in sitting at our little desks. That’s not the world today. Because half the kids sitting at that desk have a special need of some sort.”

She said, “When you’re putting supplements into that classroom to help, they have to be targeted, they have to be addressing the needs of the kids that are there, not the kids that were there in 1989.”

 

An excerpt from the efficiency study.

More NPS recommendations

NPS needs to be more transparent about its staffing, Ressel said.

“We felt there could be a change is to consistently report total staffing, including any staff paid through grant programs, etc., so that the city and NPS are all working from the same chapter and page as to how many staff are in the district,” she said.

School principals don’t appear to have input into the budget before it went for City review, and this should be changed, Evergreen said.

“Another area where we felt there was a serious need for review is in the extra duty pay categories that are being paid out. We believe there needs to be more accountability,” Ressel said.

NPS legal costs came under scrutiny.

“We’re recommending that the school district attempt to reduce the cost of legal services back to the 2018-19 level, there were some unusual … legal expenses that occurred due to an environmental study and also the renegotiation of labor contracts and so forth,” Ressel said.

A positive step has been taken in the hiring of a legal counsel/labor relations person, Ressel said.

Estrella said, “One, we didn’t have legal counsel on staff for a while, but I think the second thing is the cycle of collective bargaining agreements. And we had that particular year, almost every single contract do renegotiation. That comes with an associated cost.”

The City and NPS cannot combine its IT departments, Ressel said. “NPS has unique needs, and the City has unique needs. There are crossover areas like Munis but neither one of these organizations is technically capable of taking on the others work, period.”

Betty Ressel presents Evergreen Solutions’ efficiency study of City and Norwalk Public Schools operations to the Common Council during Tuesday’s Zoom meeting.

 

‘Joint’ considerations

Ressel also recommended a joint City/NPS Committee to review how federal ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund) funds were used, and “areas where those funds may have been used to supplant ongoing operations.” She said, “This is all a part of that original communications issue.”

The deteriorating state of school buildings was also highlighted.

“This has not been an issue that has been addressed as proactively as other communities have addressed it within Connecticut and other parts of the country,” Jeff Ling of Evergreen Solutions said. “So we are recommending that you conduct the joint City Schools assessment and prioritize the needs – critical given this level of and given the breadth of needs that you have on the school side.’

 

Betty Ressel presents Evergreen Solutions’ efficiency study of City and Norwalk Public Schools operations to the Common Council during Tuesday’s Zoom meeting.

City-side

Ressel praised a recently created Common Council handbook and the recent reorganization of City administration, the creation of a system of Chiefs under the Mayor.

The handbook is a “living document” that’s being updated, and Council Committees reconfigured, and Evergreen found that that the reorg “was needed in order to break down silos among the various departments. And it is a work in progress,” Ressel said.

The TMP (Transportation, Mobility and Parking) Department created under the reorg “inherited $17 million in grants backlog,” Ressel said. “That backlog is preventing them from being able to apply for new grants until they have used the money in the old grants.”

Evergreen recommends hiring “at least one project manager” to clear that backlog over the next two years, she said.

Norwalk needs to invest $12-15 million in technology, Ressel said.

“We are recommending that you hire a chief information officer, that you put someone in charge and this transformation, technological transformation, that has occurred within many of your peers and many local governments nationwide, that you fill the vacancies that are present within IT,” Jeff Ling of Evergreen Solutions said. “IT staff is very stressed and spread very thin.”

An excerpt from Evergreen Solution’s efficiency study.

‘Operating as a small town’

The net effect of implementing the recommendations would be a $9 million savings over five years, Ressel said.

Rilling said the administration appreciates that Evergreen presented its report ahead of the final approval of the 2022-23 budget.

“We will be taking a look at some of the recommendations where we may be able to implement some of those savings in the 23-24 fiscal year,” he said.

Council member Dominique Johnson (D-At Large) asked if the recommendations would make Norwalk more equitable.

Ressel said that Evergreen picked up on Norwalk’s “small town” vibe right away.

“The more I got into city government, I realized that you may still be operating as a small town but you are not a small town,” Ressel said. “And in terms of equity and in terms of services to the community, these reinvestments are really, really important because it is through that, that you can open up the services and, and make them available to more people. When I say technology, technology, technology, I really mean it. Because it’s, it’s the equalizer.”

Ressel said, “The report, I think, maybe we haven’t emphasized enough, it tells a story. And for anyone that is has been wondering what goes on in this department, how does this work, etc. I think just reading the report will give you an idea of the story of how this whole big organization works, and how the pieces fit together.”

efficiency study executive summary

Read the full report here

Tuesday’s Common Council meeting on Zoom.

13 comments

James Cahn March 23, 2022 at 10:52 am

https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/consultant-needed-in-norwalks-proposed-reorganization/

Nice work. Only took 4 years to go from “we don’t need no stinkin’ consultants” to, “You guys!! We have a report from the consultant we didn’t need.” In municipal government, that’s like lightspeed.

Page 13 of the EXSUM tells us all we need to know. $9MM in potential taxpayer savings over the next 5 years.

I will say that it’s a little weird that we were found to not have a “robust grants management program.” Isn’t that what we supposedly hired Josh Morgan for? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that getting us Facebook “likes” and a full 6% of the population of Norwalk to follow us on Twitter is a more than fulltime job. But, what happened to the grants we were told not to worry about? Maybe we can trade our “likes” for Bitcoin or something to offset budget items? I don’t know how this stuff works.

Seriously? March 23, 2022 at 1:17 pm

The staffing numbers date back to the Adamowski administration, but the number of administrators is considerably higher now. Even back in 2019-20, Norwalk had far more administrative support staff than did Stamford, which is a much larger school system. The Estrella administration has significantly increased the number of administrators.

What’s also interesting is that the report refers to the “deteriorating state of school buildings,” which “has not been an issue that has been addressed as proactively as other communities have addressed it within Connecticut and other parts of the country.” Yet, Norwalk is focused on replacing one of the high schools, a building that is far newer than many of the elementary and middle schools.

The reference to legal counsel in the HR department was not addressed as honestly as it should have been. Dr. Estrella said that the department hadn’t had counsel for a while, but the reason is that she got rid of the last person and didn’t fill the position for a long time.

Finally, there is still the question of how many administrators and teachers are paid with grant funds. Are they reflected in the numbers?

I’m not optimistic that this report will make a meaningful difference or that NPS will do business much differently in the future.

Nora King March 23, 2022 at 4:51 pm

Why do we need a Chief of Staff position? It was created so Rilling didn’t have to do alot of the work himself. No mayor has ever had that so it is top-heavy. Norwalk has become very top-heavy. That is what we elect a mayor for. Perhaps the solution is Norwalk hires a General Manager that is paid a higher salary and we eliminate the popularity contest that goes on for Mayor.

Justin Matley March 23, 2022 at 9:18 pm

I’m glad this study came out and we can all look at the hard results versus guessing and pointing fingers. What it shows is massive underinvestment on both citywide and NPS. Yes, long term there are savings; but for now, pony up. What does the council and mayor intend to do with this? Anyone’s guess.

As for the oft-cited NPS top-heavy administration. Norwalk actually ranks BELOW average in the state in percentage of total budget allotment for Central Office positions. In fact, as a total percentage of budget, the number has gone DOWN in the last few years. People like to cite all of the deputy superintendents as evidence, but really it’s a lot of semantics.

I don’t cite the above because I have a strong opinion on their specific roles or the need for them or not. Just that this argument is just not true. It’s fun bulletin board material though.

Seriously? March 24, 2022 at 8:26 am

This is a study based upon staffing that used to be, not staffing that is now. That’s like having my doctor give me medical advice based upon my blood pressure, cholesterol, weight, BMI and other data from two years ago, even though the numbers may have significantly changed this year.

As I stated in my earier post, the 2019-20 data is from a previous superintendent’s administration, and much has changed since then. For this to be at all meaningful, the taxpayers need to see the 2021-22 staffing data, and recommendations regarding that information.

Justin Matley, I respectfully disagree with your conclusion about Norwalk’s central office spending with regard to state averages because, for reasons that I cannot understand, there are two New York school districts included in what should be Connecticut data, and those two districts have massively high numbers, thereby distorting the average. If you look at the percentages of only the Connecticut districts, NPS is the highest. Again, however, these are old numbers, and I assure you that Norwalk’s numbers are even higher now.

Justin Matley March 24, 2022 at 9:07 pm

@Seriously: it’s not a statement of opinion. It’s a statement of fact. I have the charts to prove it, sadly I’m unable to post them in comments (site doesn’t have that technology). I’ll upload them tomorrow.

Seriously? March 25, 2022 at 4:58 pm

@Justin Matley – Thank you for sending the data. Is that from one of the state websites? If so, there is a problem because the most recent state data I was able to find on a public site is from 2019 – 20, the year before Dr. Estrella’s arrival, when central office was much smaller.

If I am mistaken and yours is more recent data, please let all of us know where we can find it. Honestly, I’m not challenging you; I really want to know.

Justin Matley March 26, 2022 at 9:08 am

@Seriously: this data came from the School+State Finance Project and is from the current fiscal year.

The Central Office is no more expensive under Estrella. This is what gets missed frequently. Her changes were cost neutral. Yes, she elevated more people to high title roles, but removed more mid-tier roles. The changes were net zero. As the budget has gone up slightly and funds reappropriated for covid learning, Central Office accounts for a smaller total.

I am not defending or promoting her changes. I really have no idea how they help or hurt the cause. But, the idea that we have a bloated Central Office budget relative to the state is just not true.

Seriously? March 26, 2022 at 7:57 pm

@Justin: First, I thank you for providing that website, which is one I hadn’t seen before.

The report is dated 2022. However, I looked at the source of the data at the end of the reports on that website, and it says: “Source: Connecticut State Department of Education. (n.d.). Connecticut Public School Expenditures Report 2019-2020. Available from https://portal.ct.gov/SDE/Fiscal-Services/Connecticut-Public-School-Expenditures-Report.”

I’m familiar with CSDE data, and much of it (with the exception of test scores) is often 2 years old, which means it is from the last board of education budget under Dr. Adamowski’s leadership.

I’m not being critical of the School + State Finance Project, which was working with 2019-20 data, which was the most recent data available from the CSDE. I know that districts send annual reports to Hartford, but I don’t know why it takes so long for this kind of data to be included in CSDE reports that are made available to the public. I also don’t know if grant funds are included in the state reporting.

I really did appreciate your responses.

Justin Matley March 27, 2022 at 8:54 am

@Seriously: My point is you’ll find it basically unchanged for subsequent years. Yea; there are more high tier positions at CO. I’m not defending or criticizing that. But those moves were cost neutral with the removal of mid-tier positions.

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