By Nancy Guenther Chapman
NORWALK, Conn. – A “guesstimate” regarding a far-ranging change in the way Norwalk pays for certain school employees’ pension funds prompted Board of Education members to postpone definitive action Thursday on the budget request for the next school year.
The board’s finance committee was expected to recommend the entire board approve Interim Superintendent Tony Daddona’s nearly $165 million budget request at a Jan. 9 special meeting, but an addition of $60,000 announced Wednesday prompted the board to look into whether it really needed to make the payment.
BOE member Stephen Colarossi said he would send an email to Attorney Tom Mooney asking, “What does state law dictate is our responsibility as a school department?”
Daddona said he had been informed by a Dec. 31 email that the city has changed its pension plan to 401a, a defined contribution plan for employees hired on or after July 1, 2012. Non-certified employees must make a 5 percent contribution to the plan and the BOE must match it.
“The board has never paid into the pension contributions prior to this year,” he said.
The $60,000 is a guesstimate, he said, as new employees may be hired over the course of the year as people retire. In addition, costs will escalate over time. “Over the course of several years, it’s almost exponential growth,” he said.
Members of the three-person committee thought that, by recommending approving the budget, they’d be assenting to the change, and any other changes to come.
“There’s a bigger issue here,” Daddona said. “Today it’s the retirement, the 401a. Then it’s the workers comp. Then it could be a fee for using MUNIS (an accounting system) … I think there needs to be a conversation as to what is the process whereby which these fees are transferred, and it’s just not ‘you have to pay.’”
Finance Committee Chairman Mike Barbis said, “These employees are our employees, therefore their pension obligations are our responsibility that, until now, the city has been handling. The city has decided they don’t want to be responsible for that anymore. Legally, they are our employees, so I don’t see what grounds we have to say we don’t want to handle it.”
The decisions are being made by a city pension board, on which the BOE has no representatives, Chief Financial Officer Elio Longo said.
Board member Rosa Murray objected, saying, “We need to know when we lost the authority to make these decisions,” she said. “It seems the board of ed has no say here. … We’re going down a slippery slope here and it seems we have no control.”
Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Bruce Mellion, who sat in on the discussion, pointed out that the city’s personnel department has a full-time employee to deal with pension issues, and there is a person who takes care of worker’s compensation claims, full time. The city is shifting responsibility to the board, he said, and not providing personnel to deal with it.
“We are getting more and more bills, so to speak, from the city,” West Rocks Principal Lynne Moore said. “To send out an email on Dec. 31, to me that says ‘We don’t respect you, we have the power to do whatever we’re going to do.’ At some point there will be a demise of this school district because you will be so busy paying bills that you’re not going to be able to rebuild, as Tony has been using that word.”
Barbis said it’s currently “a one-way conversation.”
“The chairman of the board has got to have a conversation with the mayor,” he said.
He was skeptical that the committee would be able to give the full board the information the committee is looking for from its lawyer.
“My guess is we’re not going to get a definitive answer, we’re going to be right where we are tonight,” he said.
The board must submit a budget request to the city by Jan. 11.