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Norwalk telling BoE: Use your insurance surplus to fund special ed, keep tax increase low

Norwalk Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons, left, and Mayor Harry Rilling confer in last week's joint BoE/Common Council meeting regarding the Board's 2016-17 operating budget request.

Norwalk Board of Education Chairman Mike Lyons, left, and Mayor Harry Rilling confer in last week’s joint BoE/Common Council meeting regarding the Board’s 2016-17 operating budget request.

NORWALK, Conn. — A sharp difference of opinion is brewing between Norwalk’s city-side officials and the Board of Education over the funding of the universally agreed upon need to reform Norwalk Public Schools’ special education department.

Also causing disagreement is the city’s announcement of a $600,000 cut to the BoE’s requested operating budget, over and above the $1.5 million reduction agreed to by the Board.

BoE Chairman Mike Lyons said Tuesday night, one day after Norwalk Finance Director Bob Barron laid out his recommended 2016-17 operating budget to the Board of Estimate and Taxation, that he is “a little confused.”

“We thought everything was fine the other night” when Lyons responded to a NancyOnNorwalk question, he said. “I said, ‘Yes, as far as I know everything is fine.’ The $600,000 cut was a surprise.”

In an email later Tuesday evening, Lyons said, “We’ve gone overnight from open communication and cooperation to a shut-down in communication and attacks on us for our efforts to responsibly reconstitute our insurance reserves.  We’re all over here scratching our heads over this dramatic change in the behavior of the city’s representatives.”

Common Council President Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large), during Tuesday’s Council meeting, commented on the recommended budget.

“So far things are looking very good,” said Kimmel, who was part of high-level meetings with the BoE. “As things stand right now – and things could get better before the final mill rate is set in the spring – as things stand right now, the tax increase proposed in the budget is probably the lowest in at least 10 years. … I am also happy to say that the funds are in that budget right now to fully fund the total restructuring of the Board of Education’s Special Ed department. So we are very pleased we were able to achieve both.”

Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski recently announced that he was requesting $1.2 million a year from the city’s fund balance, or “rainy day fund,” for a special education transitional fund to enact his 12-point plan to reform the Special Education department in accordance with the recommendations made by the Capital Region Education Council (CREC).

Again, that fund would not be part of the operating budget.

“That’s 12 steps year one, which we can cover two out of our operating budget,” Lyons said. “So there’s two out of those 12 that we can cover out of the operating budget. The other 10 out of the 12 we can only do if we get the supplemental appropriation. So there’s obviously some confusion on the city side. I mean, I thought we were abundantly clear. We put all of this stuff in writing. We have given it to all the Council members. It’s not just verbal conversations; when we had the meetings last week we laid it all out in writing and now they are making statements that are inconsistent with that. So I think we have to work on clearing up that confusion.”

The Board requested a 3.9 percent increase in its operating budget. Barron’s budget calls for a 2.7 percent increase.

“All I did was remove from their budget $2.1 million,” Barron said on Monday.

“The (BoE) insurance fund has a surplus, and has had over-contribution of deposits versus the disbursements in each of the last three years, to the tune of $4.4 million, $8.6 million and $4.8 million,” Barron told the BET. “When the mayor, Bruce Kimmel and myself met with the superintendent, (Norwalk Public Schools Finance Director) Tom Hamilton and (BoE Finance Committee Chairman) Bryan Meek, we had come to the conclusion that the methodology they were using for forecasting their insurance has been wrong three years in a row. We felt comfortable at removing, we all agreed, $1.5 million from their current estimate for the coming year. I think that was a conservative reduction.”

Barron’s $600,000 cut was based on anecdotal information, he said, mentioning that Hamilton had come up with an additional $300,000 in savings due to insurance projections and Kimmel had said heating oil would be cheaper.

“We have, we believe, worked very hard and we have put together a budget, as I have stated before, that not only meets and funds the critical programs necessary to bring the (Norwalk Public Schools) Special Education program up to speed and to fix the problems that were existing in those programs, but also a budget that is being very, very responsible to the citizens of Norwalk, the taxpayers,” Mayor Harry Rilling said at the BET meeting.

The “we” he referred to was Rilling, Barron, Kimmel,  Hamilton, Lyons, Meek and Adamowski.

Told about Lyons’ “confusion” on Tuesday evening, Rilling had this to say in an email:

“We have crafted a budget that provides approximately $175 million for the Norwalk Public Schools. (The schools) have a $14 million surplus in (the) insurance fund and should tap into that to help them correct the problems in their SPED program that have existed for many years due to mismanagement. We want to work with the Board in a cooperative manner to provide all our children with a world class education. However, the Board needs to work with us towards that end without over-taxing our citizens. With a budget of $175 million, finding a way to shave $600,000 should not be too difficult. There are anticipated savings of $300,000 in the Board’s fuel consumption. Moreover, if it becomes necessary to request a special appropriation due to unexpected expenditures, we are prepared to work with the Board.”

Kimmel said in an email:

“The BOE requested a $6.6 million spending increase. After the city identified an $18 million surplus in the BOE insurance reserve, the city decided that taxpayers could afford to provide the BOE with a $4.5 million spending increase. The mayor, the city’s finance director, and I believe that the $2.1 million difference between the city and the BOE can be funded from the BOE insurance surplus. We also believe that the remaining difference of $600,000 can easily be funded by lower insurance projections and from miscellaneous accounts, such as the heating oil account or the professional and technical services account. That, of course, can be worked out between the BOE and the Board of Estimate.

“The city has already indicated that the BOE’s $1.2 million transitional fund for a restructuring of special education can also be funded from the $18 million surplus in the insurance accounts. It is important to stress that this $18 million is from taxpayers, and we have a fiduciary obligation to draw down that surplus before we ask taxpayers for additional funds.

“The bottom line is that the mayor and I, as well as Council Democrats, strongly believe that Mr. Barron’s recommendation provides the BOE with the money it needs to fund all of its programs, including the restructuring of special education.”

Lyons, in a late-night email, said, “I think they are planning some kind of massive draw on the insurance fund to cover this, but that’s just a supposition – they aren’t talking to us and we have no idea what they’re actually doing.”

21 comments

Non Partisan February 10, 2016 at 7:42 am

So next year there will be an automatic increase of 1.5mm to net operating expense because this years it was taken from an insurance fund balance.

The “lowest mill rate increase in years” is looking more and more like one shot funding with a lot of commitments made for future tax increases

J. Evans February 10, 2016 at 9:38 am

Although minimal, it is refreshing to see a partial rejection in BOE funding requests. The BOE has become synonymous with egregious budgetary overreach in recent years. So far, Adamowski does not appear to be a “tighten the belt” superintendent and hopefully this will serve as a wakeup call for him to make the tough choices necessary to get the BOE financial house in order.

What puzzles me is the city is barely over the departure of a “highly acclaimed” superintendent yet finds a way to claim mismanagement across departments/funding lines. Go figure?

Joe February 10, 2016 at 12:28 pm

Kassich comes in 3rd and the press says “Great Finish.”

If Trump came in 3rd they’d be saying “He’s finished!”

(My wife came up with that.)

carol February 10, 2016 at 1:06 pm

so glad the boe is finally being told to use there surplus $$$$.we cannot afford to keep funding their mistakes.

Mark Chapman February 10, 2016 at 1:07 pm

@Joe

There’s a lot more to it than that.

Kasich came in second in NH after being in the bottom of the national polls for months. He is on the rise. Trump has been the front-runner by a wide margin and was expected to easily win NH. If he had finished anywhere but first, after losing in Iowa, it would be a sign he is crashing. For Kasich to jump over Cruz, Rubio and Bush is a big achievement and could signal the party is turning to him as the electable alternative.At the very least, by jumping up to second, he gets a spot in the main debates and likely attracts big donor money.

The national media is looking foolish enough with its “inside-the-Beltway” myopia and its laser-like focus on Clinton or Bush as the president-in-waiting. At least now some are looking at the rel trends and data and reporting what is happening. Not all, but some.

Mike Lyons February 10, 2016 at 1:57 pm

J. Evans – “The BOE has become synonymous with egregious budgetary overreach in recent years.” Do you have any evidence to support this claim?

Our last two budgets came in with increases of 2.6%, the LOWEST of any major city department. Over the last two years the rate of increase in the Fire, Police and R&P budgets were over TWICE that high. If proposing the smallest increase of city departments in recent years constitutes “egregious budgetary overreach”, what do you call the budgets of all the other departments?

Mike Lyons February 10, 2016 at 2:02 pm

Carol, interestingly, the City has a FAR larger ‘reserve’ (fund balance) – built up from your tax dollars – than that in the BoE insurance reserve. Our insurance reserve is specifically dedicated to covering insurance costs, while the City’s fund is undesignated. Does it make sense to make possibly excessive draws on a dedicated insurance reserve (possibly laying the groundwork for shortfalls and budget crises as happened as recently as in 2012 from underfunding that account) in preference to drawing against a $40 million plus undesignated reserve account with no dedicated purpose?

George F. February 10, 2016 at 2:16 pm

Why can’t the BOE make cuts commensurate with the times? Almost automatic, each year, a new dog and pony show emerges from the BOE to demand more funds to support out of control budgets. This is simply unsustainable.

George F. February 10, 2016 at 2:22 pm

I have to laugh at the argument that “because other departments spend a lot more” we can justify our budgets. Is this like saying “we are the best house in a bad neighborhood?” With no wage growth in recent years, this is simply bad policy and sticking it to the taxpayer.

Notaffiliated February 10, 2016 at 2:27 pm

Can our leaders wake up some day soon??! I do not have all the current numbers but with a budget of $165mm and somewhere around 11,000 students the city spends approx $12,000 a year per student.

This may not be popular but have you been at a school like Tracey lately and wonder what percentage of students are in this country illegally? I’d far prefer tax dollars go to supporting schools and services for our underprivileged citizen population. Of course this discussion will never see the light of day shy of Trump and Sanders deciding to run for office in Norwalk.

In the meantime, maybe someone will wake up and enforce our laws. Back to burying my head in the sand

Notaffiliated February 10, 2016 at 2:35 pm

@mr chapman

Do you imply that Mr Sanders is the electable alternative? What history can you share to suggest that Trump is not electable?

Tony P February 10, 2016 at 2:47 pm

In the private sector, would they celebrate having the lowest increase? Or having no increase, or even savings?

Mark Chapman February 10, 2016 at 2:49 pm

@Notaffiliated

I’m not implying anything. I probably should have put “electable alternative” in quotes. Are Trump and Sanders electable? Kasich? Cruz? Anyone who thinks they have the answer to that question, given the mood of the country, is either arrogant beyond belief or simply a fool. And I don’t recall mentioning Sanders at all in my reply.

Mike Lyons February 10, 2016 at 3:19 pm

Tony P, no one is celebrating any budget increase. But every time I point out the errors in various criticisms, people just change the subject instead of addressing the errors. I could play whack-a-mole all day on this site with the false and misleading statements people post here (in fact, some posters will criticize us for cutting spending on something one day and then criticize us for increasing spending on another day (remind you of anyone?)).

George F – “Why can’t the BOE make cuts commensurate with the times?” George, 85% of our budget is personnel. Almost all of our personnel are in unions. Unions practically control the state capitol, and the binding arbitration laws adopted there favor those unions. If you can provide me with ONE example of any board of education or city that has successfully arbitrated a pay CUT for a union in that system, I’ll give you a hundred dollars. I don’t like it any more than you do, but I’m not a person sitting at a keyboard behind a screen name ‘solving all the problems of an (artificial) world.’ I have to live in the real one, with the constraints Hartford and Washington put on us, and try to do the best I can.

George F – “I have to laugh at the argument that “because other departments spend a lot more” we can justify our budgets.” Who made that argument? I didn’t. I simply pointed out that we have the lowest budget increases of any Norwalk department, which refuted another poster’s false claim that our budget was uniquely synonymous with “egregious budgetary overreach.”

George F. February 10, 2016 at 7:17 pm

@ Mike Lyons – I get the union thing and that Connecticut is one of the highest cost per students states because of this. But still, a budget apart from personnel of roughly $27 million is serious coin. Further, the optics of “regretfully” losing a highly respected superintendent only to find material mismanagement under his watch thereby creating more funding needs is a hard pill to swallow if you get my drift.. . but please, keep beating the drum on the other 85% to Hartford which needs to get with the times.

Jean Evans February 10, 2016 at 7:24 pm

Hi folks,

Friends and former colleagues began telling me about the post above by J. Evans because they were thinking that person’s comments are mine. I want to clarify that I, Jean Evans Davila–the former K-12 English Language Arts Instructional Specialist–did not write those comments which disparage the sitting Superintendent and his predecessor, nor would I characterize Norwalk’s budget proposal in this way. I wish Norwalk well, and I appreciate its budget is focused on improving teaching and learning for all students. Best wishes to all in achieving your goals and reaching a middle ground that helps everyone walk away feeling whole and like they have been heard and their views have been respected and considered.

J. M. Evans Davila

Tony P February 10, 2016 at 7:40 pm

@MikeLyons, doesn’t ring a bell – I’m still waiting to hear why or who asked for the middle school restructuring. I’m not sure how spending millions to save hundreds (restructuring the middle schools) is helping – especially when the guys suggesting there’s an issue (with no data to back it up) are making $400,000+++. But the same BoE chair and administrators who say that things are so tight that the need to cut back on teaming is going to help the bottom line is proposing an increase? In addition to trying to raid the rainy day fund? Come on Mike, is that how a private company is run? Penny wise and pound foolish comes to mind, But feel free to keep playing whack-a-mole.

Drewt February 11, 2016 at 1:29 pm

My questions to a lot of the posters who want to continue to PUNISH the BOE for Sins of the past have ever been in any of our schools or attended a BOE meeting recently. And by recently I mean at least the last 3 years. I keep reading the same negativity with the same arguments over and over again. As a parent and someone who is very involved in the schools and have gone through the really bad times where we couldn’t cut more money out of the school budget if we tried. But things have drastically been turned around over the last number of years. The schools are doing well and are on a path to do even better but lets be honest here it costs MONEY. And Mike is right we have Union Employees that have very good benefits and rightfully so especially the teachers, administrators, custodians etc. But thats just life in America. However, they all do a very good job educating our children! My son is doing very well in both Elementary and Middle School. And so are there friends! And that doesn’t happen without the support starting at the top with the Superintendent and the BOE! Is it a perfect system no and we still have very far to go. Are we where some of our more affluent neighbors are with all the “Bells & Whistles” No we are not. Are we striving to get there or dare I say even better?!!?!? And that answer is YES! I constantly speak to teachers, children, administrators and they all like the way the schools are heading. It’s the right path, the expectations and bar are being set high as they should be! So, before all of the “old Norwalk Way” folks which BTW, I am so sick of that term already. But its OVER, BEEN OVER AND NOT COMING BACK! I’ve said it for years that the children are the future of everything this great City has to offer. Without them, good schools foundations NO ONE WILL WANT TO MOVE HERE! And this additional $600K should IMMEDIATELY be funded from the Rainy Day Fund without question! I’m not sure why its even a discussion. So, as one of our former superintendents said either get on this train or get hit by it! Enough with the Sins of the Past!!! The Future is BRIGHT for this City and our Children…But before I go, if you really, really want to help this City and Budget how about Calling our legislators in Hartford DAILY and demand they FIGHT for our fair share of ECS!!! If we really got what we are owed we would be having discussions of what can we do next instead of do we have to cut?!?!!?

Tony P February 11, 2016 at 6:46 pm

Drewt – interesting points. I was a teacher in the NPS and my spouse still is. The schools WERE headed in the right direction. You should check in again with those folks you referenced since Adamowski came to town. He will gut the system – and is in the process of doing so. And, oddly enough, you mention the ECS formula. Why then, would the BOE hire a guy that actually gave testimony FOR THE STATE in the past in relation to the current suit now in court, and against towns including Norwalk? I wonder….

Drewt February 11, 2016 at 9:06 pm

Tony, we heard all of this before he was hired he did this he did that. And you don’t think the board asked him about his past and background . He was vetted and everyone from the unions to the Mayor all signed off with praise. So far things are good and he has us in the right direction. As for ECS I’m pretty sure Dr A understands this system better then most of us and knows how badly we get screwed by Hartford. He is the man to lead us for the next number of years.

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