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Norwalk School Budget: A counterproposal and stab at some solutions

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I have spent the last few weeks speaking with around two dozen local and state officials, BoE members, and community organization leaders to learn as much as I can about school budgeting. In the near term: what’s possible and what are hard stops. Also the historical choke points and potential openings: what are pie in the sky ideas and what are legitimate opportunities. This doesn’t ignore the few years myself and many others have had these conversations, and the many more years other, more experienced Norwalk citizens have pursued them.

Likewise, I’ve tried to search for context. I’ve heard from teachers about their concerns: what works in the system, what doesn’t work in system, and their own personal experiences. There have been commonalities and differences, celebrations and frustrations, but most importantly, dedication and a strong desire to see their work succeed.

A couple brief generalities learned:

  • Although some have heard otherwise, the Common Council and Mayor’s office do indeed possess a full, itemized breakdown of the operating request from NPS. This may not account for some requests for specific context, but the breadth of information is in the hands of decision makers.
  • There is wide agreement across local and State Representatives on the validity and nature of the challenges in Norwalk, a city with a unique mix of gold coast property taxes, multi-family housing, and all in-between, along with incomes and learning needs that vary wildly in ways our surrounding towns do not possess.
  • There is agreement that there is no panacea for these challenges; that the solutions are likely multi-pronged and complicated, and will be a result of long game endurance vs. short term upheaval. There’s also some evidence there are opportunities out there that NPS could take advantage of to lessen some undetermined financial burden they apply to annual operating requests.
  • There is no established agreement, as far as I’ve found, on the recent decisions of NPS whether it be how ESSER funds were used, the success of those positions, recent curriculum changes, or other NPS initiatives with varying public support, such as School Choice. Some staff and parents are strongly against some NPS decisions and policy, while others have expressed support for aspects of them.

 

Like others with opinions but little merit, I’m ill-qualified to offer specifics on my own. But, I can say I’ve learned a lot from others, and wanted to put some of this down for those that are interested. I’ve also come up with some informed ideas* about potential steps forward: both line items for the near-term dilemma, and macro-level focuses for the long term systemic problems.

* Note: while my ideas may be informed as much as I can muster, that doesn’t mean they’re any good. I’ll leave that to the beholder.

 

A Compromise Budget Proposal for FY2024

 The Mayor has offered a 4% increase, less than a third of the requested 12.7% increase NPS requested. According to NPS, this is broken down into four major categories outlined in this document. There is no specific breakdown from the Mayor’s Office as to how they envision allocating the offer, but that is traditionally the responsibility of the schools to configure.

I’ve dug in and come up with the following 4-part detailed layman’s counterproposal and idea framework based on:

  • The uniqueness of the current demands post-federal relief dollars
  • The initial ask from NPS
  • The Mayor’s offer
  • Historical increases the City is willing to provide based on initial offers (and traditional levels of compromise)
  • Specific fixed needs

 

Get your slingshots and rotten fruit ready.

1. A 7.9% total increase to the operating budget, encompassing and paid for by these specific line items:

  • 1.6% to cover ESSER-funded Counselor and Social Worker salaries and benefits by:
    • reducing current 57 positions down to 31
    • One social worker/school (22)
    • One guidance counselor for each Middle and High school (9)
    • This covers expenses resulting from past flat budget and request for these to be moved to temporary ESSER coverage
  • 5.0% to cover FY24 Base Budget Request
    •  This covers fixed changes in contractual obligations, classroom and school services, operations, business services, administration, and professional development.
  • 1.3% from a one-time $3M drawdown of City’s Rainy Day Fund (no effect on property taxes) to cover:
    • SPED out-of-district costs
    • SPED contract service increases

 

2. A joint proposal from the City and NPS to produce a co-op partnership with local organizations to aide in the continued academic and social-emotional recovery (and associated issues like chronic absenteeism) from pandemic-related learning losses. This initiative would:

  • Be funded by additional state appropriations (more on this below) and philanthropic investment.
  • All-hands-on-deck leverage of community-based organizations like Norwalk ACTS, Mid-Fairfield Community Cares Center, Kids in Crisis, etc.
  • Financially managed as part of the City-side budget
  • Appointed program coordinators on both City and NPS sides

 

3. An expanded NPS initiative to further reduce out-of-district costs for SPED, currently accounting for a massive 1/3 of total SPED budget request.

4. A hard cap of a more traditional 3% increase for FY2025 operating budget to stabilize property tax effect.

 

 

How We Can (Maybe) Fix This Annual Charade

I truly believe in the long-term opportunities that items #2 and #3 above could provide for better use of NPS budget dollars. They are locally driven ideas that, while incumbent on some for State involvement, are not entirely hinged on them. Norwalk can do some meaningful version of them if the interested parties could work together and think creatively (and humbly) about problem solving. Notably, some items are easier than others — there’s no question at the state level different districts have different dynamics and opinions on this matter, leading to mixed over/unders on success. But there are some baselines, some loftier than others, that we can start with, informed by individuals brighter than I:

 

1.  Additional revisions to Education Cost Sharing (ECS) formula

  •  Change the current base aid 70/30 (property/income) ratio something closer to 60/40 to more accurately reflect the dynamics in a city like Norwalk.

 

2.  Lower the threshold for the SPED Excess Cost grant

  • Lower the State funding threshold to twice the district’s average expenditure per pupil from the current 4.5x. This would bring more students under this funding purview.

 

3.  Move 504 students into the SPED count for State grant purposes

  • This would increase the eligibility and accessibility for kids that need support

 

4.  Create better and more responsive data models to better capture the needs of MLLs (multi-language learners)

  • There is wide agreement that there is a data vacuum in this area, and without verifiable information to deliver to our representatives, there is a challenge to reach equitable solutions
  • This would require deep partnership with local organizations to gather and organize this data for pre-established time periods

 

At the end of the day, I’m a loosely informed, thoroughly average citizen. I’ve lived a decade in this city I love. I want nothing more than to see all of the stakeholders be able to be frank, conversations be robust, and solutions, however flimsy, at least creative.

What people, more than anything, have told me across the board is this: The system is broken. I hope throwing ideas at the wall will serve people with a little leverage and bravery to chip away at fixing that sentiment. Maybe this can be a modest start.

Justin Matley

Reminder: NancyOnNorwalk requires full names from commenters. For more information, go here.

Justin Matley, founder of Norwalk Parents Initiative, is a Chapman Hyperlocal Media Inc. Board member. The views expressed here are his own.

Comments

16 responses to “Norwalk School Budget: A counterproposal and stab at some solutions”

  1. Steve balazs

    Justin,
    Wonderfully positive and well thought out recommendations .
    Love that there was no name calling etc…. I may have missed it but I didn’t see anything in the plan re: South Norwalk school and the welcome center. If not those seem to be hurdles that’s could significantly increase
    Your % increase

  2. John Levin

    Wow – what an impressive, thoughtful and truly well-informed set ideas. Appreciated most of all: the spirit that we are all in this together, and with good information, good intentions, reason and cooperation Norwalk’s big problems, like the NPS budget and school funding, can be addressed effectively. Well done, Justin.

  3. Bryan Meek

    You have it mostly wrong. And this is not a knock on NPS. This is the reality foisted on us by state laws and regulations. And the idea that if only this beast had more rules, regulations, and money, it could it do better is a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure and a race to the bottom.

    A system that requires 2000 employees to manage 11500 children 1/3 of which are teenagers is clearly broken. Thats a ratio of less than 6 to 1. You can almost stop right there.

    What you need to examine is what this has evolved from and ask yourself if the outcomes are any different with all this money and rules that has been thrown at the system.

    How is it possible that some the people who sent a man to the moon grew up in one room school houses and used slide rules to get the job done? Built things like the Golden Gate Bridge. Hoover Dam. Empire State Building.

    Some rules and regulations are good. Turkey’s building codes failed to save lives. School budgets, while important, aren’t life or death. We spend more money per pupil than many developed nations entire per capita income.

    We have laws that have determined that labor laws that are good enough for you and I are not good enough for educators. Instead, they have binding arbitration on collective bargaining outcomes. There is a good argument that educators are critical to our economy and therefore they get raises every year in perpetuity, Cadillac health care plans, and tax breaks on pensions that are on average 3x what social security pays, while taxing the social security recipient at the full rate on their income. By itself that’s not equitable for society, but when you add the fact that it isn’t based on skills, merit, or performance and you get the system we have.

    Tenure, a system devised in the 19th century as a way to keep college professors like Albert Einstein independent of political influence of an administration has somehow made its way to grade school teachers with 4 years of experience. Administrators also have their own bargaining unit and enjoy binding arbitration laws as well.

    Massachusetts, by the way, came to its senses a few decades ago and ended the ability for Administrators to have these same protections as the rank and file, and maybe it’s a coincidence, but their school performance dwarfs ours. Could it be that a building administrator who is more accountable would make sure to wash those who don’t belong in the profession out of the system before they reach tenure? This isn’t to say that teachers need to be fired arbitrarily or that they are bad. Rather, as it is true of any other profession, they simply aren’t cut out for a long career in it. There are other opportunities in the world to match their skills, talents, and desires where in the long run they would be happier.

    All of this has created the scenario where we have tenured grade school teachers, making north of $150k in salary and benefits, but forces us to pay less than half that on HS math and physics teachers. Most all of these individuals are very dedicated, valuable assets to our school system and it is hardly their fault that we’ve distorted the markets with our whacky laws.

    What disservices educators the most is the fact that we can’t wash poor performers out of the system, short of them committing felonies on school property with multiple eyewitnesses. Instead, those poor performers get the same pay increases and benefits as the high performers. This system of socialism has failed its citizens everywhere it has been tried and here we are trying to perfect this recipe for disaster.

    The result is we have a stressed-out private sector trying to catch up with itself to feed this beast and constantly falling behind. It requires we work harder, longer hours, spending less time with family giving them the nurturing they need that compliments and fosters a well-rounded education.

    Bottom line is pouring gas on a fire is not the solution. We need real reforms in Hartford, not just the usual slicing of the pie and catching crumbs, and unfunded mandates that service no one in the long run. We need to look at other states for models of success, adequate faculty to student body rations. More is not always better.

  4. Patrick Cooper

    Solutions? Justin – noble effort but – you are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. You want real reform? Try a few of these….

    1. Charter Revision. A “Professional” non-political City Manager runs the show, and the Mayor becomes a largely ceremonial position. Ribbon Cutting. 5K a year.
    2. Ranked choice voting. Remove partisan politics from city management. Establish an independent board of ethics with real teeth (criminal penalties).
    3. Abolish the Redevelopment Agency (savings of what – 1m a year?) – stop the pay for play and the tax credits & abatements for “preferred” developers, who routinely show up on the list of max campaign contributors. Millions back into the tax rolls. Land use is the ONLY way we pay for schools.
    4. Mandatory investments into the infrastructure by mass developments – like the Glover Ave. apartments. Millions saved by the city – and real skin in the game for the investors. Could be off-set by tax credits – but they should vest over time, preventing the build, cut & run that is going on right now.
    5. Fight back against Hartford – where it hurts – the Walk Bridge, density development, sanctuary city policies, etc., all of the things that put cash into Hartford coffers but Norwalk largely pays for. Find and hold some leverage so ECS gets a real fix. Clearly – Norwalk will need a very different State Rep than Bob Duff.
    6. Negotiate a completely different labor contract with both NASA & NFT. Starting offer – a 8% across the board salary cut for NFT, and 12% for NASA. That’s worth 20 million right there. Norwalk pays like we are Greenwich – when we are West Bridgeport.
    7. In these same negotiations – no longer acceptable that staff are not properly trained – such as in reading literacy – research based reading programs. Lindamood Bell – etc. No need to outplace if the staff has the skills. Currently, they don’t thus the outplacement. That’s a few million right there.
    8. Merge duplicate operations. Find efficiencies in city and BOE departments that currently act in silo’s. HR, Finance, IT, procurement, facilities, communications. Millions.

    Just a few of these would balance the budget. All of them? More than enough money for the schools for the next generation.

  5. Lisa Brinton

    Justin, your optimism is laudable and there is much we agree on, but not surprising, I’m more aligned with Bryan & Patrick’s points. After 19 years, three mayors and five superintendents (not including the half dozen of interim superintendents) I just can’t ‘buy into it’ anymore.

    It’s not about the kids – never has been, save for classroom teachers, at their wit’s end- courtesy of politicians, administrators and families, abdicating their parental responsibilities.

    Until the mayor and superintendent speak honestly and candidly to the fundamental issues outlined by both Bryan and Patrick, we’re just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

    To date – no elected or formerly elected official (save Bryan, who incidentally has served on both the council and BOE) will speak candidly or honestly to the issues that have landed us with double digit budget increases. There is no end in sight and it is not sustainable.

  6. steve balazs

    Good attempt Justin. The nattering nabobs of negativism continue to try to pull the system down. “only the teachers care about the system” except for all the overpaid, lazy, poor performers that Bryan cites. Just as an FYI Bryan, 96 died building the Hoover Dam, 11 died building the Golden Gate Bridge and 5 died building the Empire State Building. incredible structures but safety concerns were not paramount. I don’t understand at all why Math and Physics teachers are forced to make less than 4th grade teachers—when they’re all paid on the same table. Most of these diatribes have trouble staying on point. First it’s the schools, then it’s the building, then it’s the mayor and corruption, then its…whatever. They all simply want to tear down the system — for them its TOO CORRUPT— they want to clean the swamp—well we see where that got us 2+ years ago—. After all no one really cares about what’s happening except for them—they are the only ones who can see through the haze. The rest of us are too deaf, dumb and blind to see the apocalypse coming. There are problems in the system, some of them endemic, but having taught for almost 3 decades, I can say that 99% care; politicians, administrators, teachers, paras, maintenance. Those people on the BOE—do it without any compensation—tons of time, frustration for the benefit of a community—some of whom are only willing to criticize them. All of us sometimes lose sight of our goals and hopes —but the premise among many of the commentators —who cry SOCIALISM—or a 1000 other buzz words intended to gaslight—lacks maturity and insight. Justin, I hope you continue your positive and constructive message- and work with those who want to be part of the solution not simply name callers.

  7. Bryan Meek

    Nice deflection Steve. How many engineers and architects died designing those?

    And since you seem to have the moral high ground, pray tell us what a proper student to faculty ratio is. Is 6:1 not enough? Should it be 4 to 1? 1 to 1? Should we just install dorms at the schools and fork our children over?

    At least you yourself are aware of one of the problems stating they are “all paid on the same table”.

    The “table” doesn’t work and is why we are in this fiscal mess.

    Why would a math major go for a teaching cert to make $55k a year when they can go work for a software company making double to start?

    Why wouldn’t someone making north of $175k in salary and benes continue teaching 7 year olds with guaranteed raises in perpetuity….making 2 to 3x what counterparts at private schools make?

    Thanks for letting me know I lack insight. Here I thought I was learning something serving the city for 10+ years both on city and school board sides. Thanks for letting us know that you’ve enjoyed being on the payroll for 3 decades.

    Enjoy your retirement that gets tax breaks no one else gets. Please enjoy your retirement that you paid into less than 20% of what your contributions would have been in the private sector to get the same benefits. Please enjoy your retirement that is 3x what average Social Security pay is. You deserve it.

  8. Sarah LeMieux

    For context, Darien just released their approved budget of 114,000,000. That sounds like a lot less than the mayor’s recommendation of 226,600,000 — but Darien only has 4,653 kids and we have 11,509. So that works out to kids in Darien getting 24,500 per student, and kids in Norwalk getting 19,688 per student. That creates an enormous difference in budget per school building and an enormous difference in the quality of education the students receive. Darien has .9% of students identified as economically disadvantaged. Norwalk’s teachers and administrators aren’t overpaid.

  9. Patrick Cooper

    For a different “context”, Property Club on 12/25/2022 voted Darien the richest town in CT, with Riverside, Westport, Old Greenwich, and Wilton rounding out the top 5. Norwalk? 48th.

    Further – the Darien budget of 114.5m was up from 110m – a 3.5% increase. Of course, it was reported that parents were not happy with the cut made to the initial ask (1.2m), and teachers wanted more teachers.

    For further context – Beverly Hills spent about the same in 2016-2017 for only 4000 students. But there – they received 12.4% of their funding from the state. To put that in perspective – an equivalent contribution in CT would mean an additional 18+ million in funding – for – surprise surprise – a $244m budget.

    For context.

  10. steve balazs

    Sarah that $24,500 doesn’t include the millions that come from Foundations (within just a couple of years after the new HS was built (2005), the sports foundation amassed over $5 million dollars to upgrade fields) and of course parental expenditures. Parents in wealthy school districts surrounding Norwalk spend $1000s on tutors, trainers, school counselors and plethora of others. College counselors start at over $20k per kid (that was 10 years ago–and note: they also have their school counselor in their HS), tutors- $250 hr an hour (I’ve known of some science teachers that get $400 hr!), SAT/ACT/AP courses, sports trainers, sports camps, and another $5,000 for a psychologist to get extra time on exams. It’s fair to say that the average HS student in those districts is spending upwards of $5,000 a year to get an edge on the competition (of course, some parents don’t do any of that–but there are others who do everyone of those things).And thanks Bryan for your well wishes–BTW teachers in Ct don’t get Social Security—and I’m pretty sure that teachers in private schools in Ct earn the same salary whether they’re teaching 4th grade or BC Calculus- but feel free to prove me wrong.

  11. Drew Todd

    And as time goes by with Bobby Boy still is office Norwalk gets screwed with ECS. His BS “Fix” a few years ago isn’t worth the paper the bill was written on. OH and WAIT a $250 Million plus an extra $40 for a new Bob Duff High!! Thats right imagine if the BOE ask just just got the $40 Million or a fraction of that money. But does he care?!!? We all know the answer to that. If we EVER get properly funded we wouldn’t have these issues year after year after year. But we did have some years where we actually had fiscal responsibility! But the last 3 years? Thats a Joke. Maybe if Estrella would get off her Social WOKE BS and agenda we would actually have funds to teach the kids: Math, Writing, Reading you know basic skills. NOPE, not on her or the Rubber Stamp Board watch. It’s Little Johnny got a 50 so now little Jimmy gets one. Little Jimmy did all of his work and studied for his exam got a 90 but since little Johnny didn’t want to and decided to play XBOX and play on his Smartphone instead we will punish little Johnny too. We don’t want poor little Jimmy to be upset…And that is NPS under her reign. The teachers are frightened of her. Her Mini Superintendents all making over $200K are constantly watching and “evaluating” the teachers to death. If maybe we actually get back to the basics of education and get our scores up..Oh wait I think Erica posted on FB that scores went up like 13%..Oh GOODY! If that’s what she and we accept as success then we really are screwed. It’s funny how one party answers are throw more money on it that will fix it. NO it wont. It gives more of a reason to make things worse because just like children when you tell them not to touch the stove. The 1st time they get burned they think it wont happen again..Well guess what…And here we are now. If she can’t make $9 Million Dollars on top of all the funding we received the last few years work then she must GO! Or the CC better set up a watch dog committee and have to approve all of her spending! Something MUST change here!

  12. Bryan Meek

    @Steve. It may surprise you, but the reason teachers do not get social security….is because….YOU NEVER PAID INTO IT.

    Unless of course you had side jobs, which many do during the summer, then you get to have both pension and SS.

    By themselves, teachers do not pay into social security. They pay into the TRS system. The contribution is anywhere from 6 to 8% of salary depending on the school district and the state is supposed to match it with about 32% of salary. Of course they haven’t been doing this and it is one of the worst funded retirement systems in the country, but that’s a story for another day.

    The city or town picks up your Cadillac health insurance costs for the period from when you retire to when you become medicare eligible, which you pay into 1.45% same as the private sector.

    In the private sector, wages are taxed at 6.2% and employers are taxed 6.2% on those same wages. Self employed pay the full 12.4%. These monies are supposed to go into the Social Security fund.

    The current average payout for social security is $18,000 a year beginning at age 66. The average TRS pension payout for a teacher retiring today, regardless of age is $55,000 regardless of age. Then you get a tax break on that deferred taxable income roughly a $2k handout and they are looking to make that completely tax free for you.

    Essentially the state is giving you tax free money equivalent to 25% of your salary on top of what the private sector gets. It isn’t sustainable and certainly not equitable.

  13. steve balazs

    Thanks Bryan but I don’t think I ever said teachers deserve social security- As teachers we don’t pay into the system so we don’t take from it either. I understand that you are an accountant so I’m sure you are also aware that ONLY teachers who have the requisite contributions of significant contributions to social security for the requisite number of quarters (which I believe is based on 20 or more years) can get some of their contribution back– but still reduced (those that don’t meet that threshold simply forfeit whatever they contributed to the social security system). I believe if you have 30 years (120 quarters) than you are entitled to your full contribution. Likewise if you are a spouse who’s normally entitled to social security due to your spouses income –when your spouse dies you don’t get it- if you are are receiving a teacher’s retirement. My pension is one of the benefits I contracted with upon deciding to be a teacher in Ct.. I am fully entitled to it as a contractual obligation. I’m sure you know why we get a small reduction in our Ct reported income for tax purposes. I don’t know where you get the idea that the average pension is regardless of age—my pension is base on my years of service (2%) per year and the number of years I have in the system provided I’m 60 or over and have 20 or more years in the school system. I’m pretty sure that most pensions are “regardless of age” once you hit the qualifying terms–that’s how social security runs too. Moreover, you are wrong that anyone other than the retiring teacher pays for their medical insurance once retired. if you retire before medicare steps in (age 65) you pay for your own insurance—there are no contributions from the State. the pension is an incentive for people to enter the profession and perfectly legitimate. I would imagine that as an accountant you could get certified to teach business or math—come join the profession. I loved my career as a teacher–and I continue to teach.

  14. steve balazs

    Curious Bryan, why are so aggressively critical of teacher salaries and pensions but aghast when The Hour or Nancy on Norwalk publishes the salaries of some police officers and firemen who make a teacher salary look like a pittance. Likewise, police officers and firefights pensions are payable w/out reduction when a person is as young as 52 (apparently moved up from 48). For some reason those public employees pensions are sacrosanct but teacher’s who don’t get close to the same benefit—or salary? Reminds me of Scott Walker in Wisconsin who went after the teacher unions—that didn’t support him—but safeguarded the police union that supported him

  15. Bryan Meek

    I am equally appalled at publishing teacher’s names as well. These lists should not have personally identifiable information other than department heads. I don’t begrudge the contracts in place, I’m simply stating they are not sustainable, evident by the state’s inability to fund it’s promises. If we had local control of this, it wouldn’t be an issue. On top of the disproportionate share of ECS we are also beholden to a system where towns have the ability to dictate salaries they can’t afford and drive up pension costs that get passed onto places like Norwalk. And last point the towns do pick up your healthcare after you retire before you hit 65. We have $120 million put aside for this.

  16. Bryan Meek

    About half the retired teachers I know collect SS benefits along with other deferred compensation. You’d be surprised how much work some can squeeze in with an extra 18 weeks a year. Very profitable side businesses in some cases where self employment taxes max out SS benefits too. Still, I have no issue with giving tax breaks on retirement income, but it should be done with equity.

    The move to do this for teachers only is a direct violation of the equal protection clauses and even if not illegal it is completely unethical.

    And Lamont is back at it again using our covid relief to shore up Uconn pension funds where some pull out $250k a year in retirement benefits replete with colas.

    Bottom line is the market is rigged and not sustainable.

    And while education is one of the more noble professions, we can’t cater to just it and expect the rest of society to function. The double digit increases in health care costs are invisible to those in the public sector, but out in the private sector people are hurting and at some point at the current pace will not be able to afford the largess of the public sector.

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