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.”