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.”
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.”
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.”
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.’
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.”
‘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.”
Read the full report here.