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Norwalk school district struggles to meet budget cap set by the city

Norwalk Public Schools CFO Lunda Asmani presents the budget plans to the Board of Education.

After a tough budget season, the Board of Estimate and Taxation approved a 2.39% increase in the city’s budget and a 3% increase in the Board of Education’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year. 

The 3% increase equates to a $233,360,344 budget for the school district, significantly lower than the $245,087,744 proposed budget approved by the Board of Education. The proposed budget was an 8.2% increase over last year. 

“There is a gap that needs to be met,” Lunda Asmani, the district’s chief financial officer, told the Board of Education at its May 21 meeting. 

Superintendent Alexandra Estrella voiced her concerns over potential cuts that could have to be made to meet the budget cap.

“We are already strained as a system—my biggest concern is having to engage in further elimination of people that we desperately need,” she said. “Teachers are already overburdened—if we lose anymore it’s going to create unbearable stress in the system.”

Board of Education members expressed their frustrations and sadness over the budget.

“Overall I find this heartbreaking,” said board member Mary Ellen Flaherty-Ludwig. “I know how desperate it seems to put more work on the workers already there now, especially the teachers.”

Board Chair Diana Carpio said she felt “very deflated” looking at these numbers.

“It’s unfortunate that we are looked upon as a corporation where people just think you can cut,move and do whatever, when in reality we are bound by state regulations and laws, and by law we have to have certain resources for children and it’s not easy to decide what to cut, what to move,” she said.

Asmani said the district’s “goal will always be to safeguard the frontline instruction, those that provide frontline services.”

“That is very challenging when our staffing looks like this chart here,” he said, referencing a chart that showed more than 90% of the district’s staff is in the schools. 

So far, Asmani’s team has identified about $6.25 million in cuts from the board’s proposed budget—primarily programs that were going to be added as well as an additional $500,000 in carryover funds from this current fiscal year. However, they still have about $5.5 million in cuts to be made. 

“It’s a challenge—you can see the reductions that we’ve already made,” he said. “We will continue the process. We do have meetings scheduled this week with the city and the mayor’s office and we’re hoping there’s some positive outcomes for those.”

However, without additional help, Asmani said they’re facing some difficult conversations.

“If we don’t get any additional resources then we will have to evaluate and prioritize where those reductions would come,” he said. “We would start looking at non-certified positions that we have but again looking at that chart, I don’t believe you could make that up entirely in non-certified positions and continue to run a district.”

Proposed Ways to Close the Gap 

Asmani’s proposal to reach the initial $6.25 million in reductions includes: 

  • Eliminate a teacher release time plan that would have allowed for extra planning time for staff to save $2 million
  • Eliminate $2 million in funding that’s available to schools that provide magnet programming “above and beyond the base”
  • Eliminate $1.25 million in transfers to the school lunch fund 
  • Receive an additional $500,000 in state grant funding 
  • Carryover an additional $500,000 from this year’s budget

Asmani said he and Estrella are “working with the mayor’s office to see if there are possibilities to plug that number.” 

Last year, the mayor’s office allocated $2.5 million to the school district to help them close their budget gap. 

Asmani noted the school district is “in this situation every year,” in terms of having to reconcile the board’s proposed budget with the actual budget cap from the city.

For the 2023-2024 fiscal year, for example, the Board of Education approved a $245 million proposed budget, or a 12.7% increase from the year prior. The Board of Estimate and Taxation ultimately approved a 4% increase for the schools, which required the district to reconcile an $18.9 million difference. 

To help meet the gap last year, Asmani said the district eliminated about 100 positions—mostly vacant ones—to cover the gap.

“Although we went through that process last year and eliminated those roles, it didn’t mean that we didn’t need those roles in schools,” Estrella said. “Having to lose more would be detrimental to the organization, which was one of the things we were trying to have the BET understand when we were going through the process. The amount of work it takes to support students and to do the work well is significant.”

Estrella noted it’s “very difficult to yield those outcomes” in terms of student success when there isn’t “proper investment in our schools.” 

“If we have to engage in further reductions it’s going to be very difficult to do our work well,” she said. 

Carpio said the board is in a challenging spot because it hears the need from teachers, staff, and parents about providing services to students, but they have to meet the city’s budget.

“I think that’s where miscommunication comes,” she said. “It’s not that we don’t care. It’s not that we don’t understand. It’s not that we don’t listen. It’s the fact that our hands are tied.”

Next Steps

Asmani and Estrella said they were continuing conversations with the mayor’s office to discuss potential additional funds for the school district. For example, the state legislature passed a bill allocating the last of Connecticut’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, which included some money for municipal governments. 

Norwalk is set to receive $5 million in additional ARPA funds, thanks to this bill, which is one area Asmani and Estrella said they’re “in conversations with the mayor’s office” about potentially receiving some of those funds. 

“I thanked the mayor for his support last year,” Estrella said. “I’m hoping our continued dialogue will help us acquire additional funds to help us close the gap that we currently have to balance this budget.”

Asmani said he plans to present a full budget reduction plan at the board’s June 4 meeting.

Comments

5 responses to “Norwalk school district struggles to meet budget cap set by the city”

  1. Bryan Meek

    Norwalk getting fleeced once again. $60k is probably doesn’t even cover the bike lane markings that were just destroyed that barely made it a year.

  2. John O’Neill

    Wait one second — Complaining about running the Board of Education as a business is a bad thing? Really? Should we just open the flood gates and spend as requested?
    Everyone above should have planned for the DC “Fun” Money to dry up. They obviously didn’t and now seem to be in scramble mode. IF they ran things like a
    business they would have PLANNED for the drop off. Someone who’s more paranoid than me might think the plan all along was to ignore proper planning. AND
    to use the sympathy card and have us hand over our wallets. It wouldn’t shock me.
    Guessing the next card played will be cutting sports to drum up more emotional support. Not sure that’s going to work this time.
    Regarding wallets — I don’t have a city pension and my property taxes will be going up. Sadly, my budget is not subsidized by local taxpayers.
    Meanwhile NO ONE has done an investigative piece on unequal revaluation numbers in Norwalk. There seems to be a 10%-20% discount in the wealthier sections of Norwalk. Maybe the Board of Ed can commission a study to get to the bottom of that issue. They can keep any increased tax money from those areas.
    Win/Win —

  3. Adam Kalunian

    The main issue is that we are prioritizing positions/initiative created with temporary money. Now the money is gone, we want to keep those but use sensationalism to manipulate the public into raising their taxes. Estrella makes as much as the President of our country. Looking at a line-by-line analysis of the budget, there are cuts that can be made that will not impact student learning. We have instructional coaches to provide support for our teachers, which is a fantastic resource, but not necessary compared to extracurriculars, special services, etc. Given the positions prefer a master’s and about 5 years experience that equates to a $60,000 salary, plus benefits (about $24,000) so about $84,000 at the lowest PER instructional coach. Multiply that times 2 (reading and math) and by the 19 buildings. for a budget of 3.2 MILLION. And this is just one of many examples likely found with a little more research. I want to see schools funded enough, but I also want to see the funds managed effectively. In tight budget years, the latter takes precedence.

  4. Drew Todd

    Funny how my past comments won’t get posted. Let’s try this ESTRELLA MUST BE REMOVED NOW!!!!!! But I know this won’t be posted but if it does maybe I’ll donate a dollar. Doubtful.

  5. John O’Neill

    Drew: Good Point — Moderation has certainly changed in the last 12 mos. I would bet 50% of my posts have not made it thru
    I’m glad I’m not alone. It’s hurting the site for sure —

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