Updated, 7 p.m., new PDF
NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk officials have begun studying a financial comparison of education costs with a nearby city with similar characteristics to see where savings might be made.
Danbury has a similar number of students, and a similar percentage of students on free or reduced lunch, but the city spends considerably less – Danbury’s 2013-2014 operating budget was $118.3 million, while Norwalk’s 2013-2014 operating budget was $162.27 million.
Part of the difference is attributable to fewer school buildings and larger class sizes, but Danbury spends considerably less on custodians, special education and teachers’ salaries. In fact, the cost of salaries in general is much higher in Norwalk.
That’s all according to Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Rich Rudl.
Rudl compiled a comprehensive set of statistics in response to questions asked by Common Council members in January. The statistics were shared with members of the Finance Committee last week.
Not included in the report: When Connecticut Magazine rated the state’s cities and towns in 2013, Norwalk was ranked the No. 2 city, behind Stamford, but had the highest graduation rte (87.9) among the seven largest cities. Danbury’s rate was considerable lower at 76.8. Stamford’s rate was 85.2.
Another website, SchoolDigger.com, ranked Norwalk’s school system 110th out of 164 Connecticut districts. Danbury was 134th.
Council members were enthsiastic about Rudl’s presentation.
“This is the first time where we’ve got it in a format that it’s a good comparison,”Council President Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said.
“It was an eye opener to me,” Councilman Jerry Petrini (R-District D) said.
Norwalk has 19 schools; Danbury has 15, Rudl said. Danbury has one very large high school, with about 3,000 students, he said. Danbury pays $11,214 per student; Norwalk pays $14,648.
• $9 million more for fringe benefits and payroll taxes due to quantity of employees, type of insurance
• $6.3 million more for special education, out of district tuition/consulting
• $3.8 million more for the teacher salary table
• $2 million more for salary structure and quantity of school aides
• $1.5 million more for sick time/vacation time pay-out for retirees
• $1.2 million more for custodians
• $1 million more for administrator’s salaries
• $970,000 more due to class size restrictions
• $700,000 more for substitutes
If you could take all of that out, Norwalk would pay $12,191 per student.
Custodial salaries are similar, but Norwalk uses an average of five custodians per building while Danbury has four custodians per building.
Rudl said custodians’ contracts used to stipulate that they would be responsible for a maximum of 3,000 square feet per school. “They are kind of carved out into these little zones in each building, which has kind of inflated the amount of custodians you would have in a building,” he said.
That literally means that a custodian gets to a certain point in a hallway and stops, he said.
That has been phased out of the contracts, so things will improve over time, he said. Norwalk Superintendent Manny Rivera said the district is looking toward “contracting out and phasing that in over time.”
Rivera said that he and other administrators had already begun picking up on the custodian issue and the special education costs, but the comparison offered additional insights and a tool.
“We are entering to negotiations not only for the wage opener and NFT (Norwalk Federation of Teachers) but with NASA (Norwalk Association of School Administrators), that’s coming up right around the corner,” Rivera said. “I have been looking at these contracts for the last four or five months. There are some things that we didn’t talk about tonight that I think are potential opportunities even beyond that. But when you compare yourself to another city, like Danbury, which is comparable, you really pick up on other details. … There’s really good, rich data that hopefully we can use.”
The Norwalk teachers’ contract has eight potential categories, while Danbury’s has five, Rudl said. Norwalk’s most populated category has an average salary that is 8 percent higher than the top step of Danbury’s most populated category.
Norwalk pays retiring teachers who have been here at least 15 years their accrued sick time, capped at 55 days. Up to six days are earned for early notification. This costs Norwalk between $875,000 to $1.5 million a year, Rudl said.
Danbury pays nothing for sick days upon severance.
Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) talked about the nature of binding arbitration in Connecticut and said that, with negotiations coming up, there might be an opportunity.
“I always figured we were kind of limited in what we could do because of our region and the reference groups. But I am looking at this, and this is clearly not the case. It seems to me we can solve a lot of these problems,” Kimmel said.
He said that, from his perspective as a retired teacher, he wasn’t sure about the Norwalk contract. “But there has to be a middle ground. We are not there, that I can tell,” he said.
More than 50 percent of the difference in the special education expenditures from the two districts comes from tuition costs – Norwalk pays $6.2 million while Danbury pays $2.88 million, he said. In addition, Norwalk pays $3.3 million for consulting services, while Danbury pays $500,000, he said.
Rivera has previously mentioned that Norwalk needs to look into creating its own special education facility. He brought it up again at Thursday’s meeting.
“We went from 99 students in out-of-district placement in 2011 to close to 132 to 133 now, pretty big increase. We’re working to get that under control. I’m actually coming back to my board before the end of this school year, toward the end of June, with a recommendation to look at making some major changes in special education, how we run our PPTs (Planning and Placement Teams), the kinds of standards that we bring and how we get some control on this,” he said. “We are looking into creating centers that can even be revenue generating.”
That would involve services for hearing-impaired children and students with autism at “considerable cost savings,” he said.
“It might be worthwhile in our upcoming budget cycles to be very penny foolish and pound wise,” he said. “In the long run we will be generating income for the city. We might have to do that. It will be costly but we will have to do that.”