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Norwalk’s $306M budget leaves BOE $900K short – at least

Board of Estimate and Taxation Chairman Fred Wilms talks about the difficulty in setting an operating budget Monday evening. "I wish we could find a budget that would make everybody happy," he said. "We have to make hard choices."
Board of Estimate and Taxation Chairman Fred Wilms talks about the difficulty in setting an operating budget Monday evening. “I wish we could find a budget that would make everybody happy,” he said. “We have to make hard choices.”

NORWALK, Conn. – A budget that is less than originally expected was passed Monday night by the Board of Estimate and Taxation. That means good news for taxpayers, as the tax rate isn’t going up as much as originally planned. For the schools, though, the news is not so great: A Board of Education member said the best case scenario is $900,000 less for Norwalk schools than expected when the process again.

Uncertainty at the state level makes it impossible to predict what the final outcome will be for the next school year, BOE Finance Director Mike Barbis said. “Right now we’re $2.6 million apart between what the city is giving us and what the board passed (in its proposed operating budget),” Barbis said. “All the new stuff is out the window.”

That includes not restoring the library aide and facilities manager positions that were cut last year, as well as not hiring a science curriculum specialist.

The BET unanimously voted to pass the recommendation from the finance department for a $306 million operating budget, $636,420 under the cap set by the Common Council and $311,243 less than what was approved in the tentative operating budget. The average mill rate had been expected to go up 3.9 percent, but it is now at 3.7 percent.

For a property owner in the Fourth District, this means a tax increase of 3.792 percent.

Taxes on a home at the median assessed value of $287,945 will be $6,388 in fiscal year 2014, which is $243.13 more than fiscal year 2013.

More information is available in the PDF attached below.

The budget includes a $1.74 million draw down from the general fund balance. Finance Director Thomas Hamilton said he didn’t think that would affect Norwalk’s Triple A bond rating status, but said Norwalk is now “toward the lower end of the median of triple A’s” while it had been at the high end.

Board of Estimate and Taxation member Michael Kolman discusses the $636,420 difference between the cap set by the Common Council and the recommended 2013-2014 operating budget Monday evening.

BET member Michael Kolman said he sent an email to other members proposing using some of the $636,420 discrepancy to reduce the draw down and give more money to the schools, but no one responded to his email.

Mayor Richard Moccia discouraged that idea. “The problem is we need to leave a little reserve because we don’t know what the state is going to actually give us,” he said. “We’ve got two different budgets coming in. One, the governor’s, which didn’t help us, and the Appropriations Committee, which basically killed us.”

It was not the Appropriations Committee, but the Education Committee recommendation that cut the increase Gov. Dannel Malloy proposed for Norwalk’s ECS funding by $1.4 million, Hamilton mentioned without overtly correcting the mayor. The Appropriations Committee subsequently recommended a $1.3 million increase for Norwalk school funding, but BOE officials are not yet certain what that money could be used for. If it is Alliance District funding, the BOE is basically handcuffed, Barbis said, but if it is Priority School money, the board will have greater discretion on its use.

Malloy’s proposal to eliminate some state grants has created considerable confusion at the municipal level. Moccia said he had been to Hartford four times in the past month and a half and that he thought a state Local Capital Improvement Program (LOCIP) grant could be used to fund safety improvements at the schools rather than funding those improvements from the operating budget, a conversation he said city officials have been having with BOE members.

“I think the Board of Ed and its members have to start looking again at the budget and thinking are there items there that can be removed from the operating budget that could keep programs or positions in place rather than spending operating money for alarm systems and other maintenance items that could lead toward school safety,” he said.

Barbis said the BOE had only planned to spend $100,000 on safety, money included in the capital budget. The board planned to study the situation this year and is not ready to invest in safety yet; planned improvements such as locks and numbering doors are not expensive.

“There’s really nothing in our operating budget for safety,” he said.

Barbis’s $900,000 “best case scenario” shortage is derived from the $2.6 million difference in what the board expected to have and what the city is giving, and the possibility that the state will give Norwalk the $1.7 million increase it expected in Malloy’s proposed budget in a form that the schools can spend freely.

BET Chairman Fred Wilms said no budget is perfect, but he sees many positive developments and he thinks Norwalk is turning the corner, as revenues that had “plummeted” are now on “an upward trend.”

That includes building permits, which are forecast to be $450,000 higher than originally expected.

He also said holding agencies responsible for the way money is spent can allow the city to direct funds to other areas.

“I like the fact that we continue to hold some groups accountable,” he said. “NEON came to us at the beginning of the year and continued to ask for $1.4 million. That’s not in this budget because we made a decision that groups that ask for taxpayer money have to be held accountable and spend that money wisely.”

Education reformer Lisa Thomson, who attended the meeting, said she was disappointed.

“I’m realistic about the budget,” she said. “It’s tough times right here now, economically, in the state as well as in the city. My frustration is this isn’t Washington, this is Norwalk, and we are in this mess because we have gotten rid of two reformers.”

She meant former Superintendent Susan Marks and Chief Operating Officer Elio Longo, who has resigned after 1½ years on the job.

Longo is credited with many improvements in BOE financial documentation and with finding budget irregularities.

“You can’t ignore the fact that the people who either made us more efficient or relevant are gone,” Thomson said. “You can’t ignore the people side of this business.”

Bet operating budget – May 6, 2013, 8-03 PM

Correction made, 3 a.m.

Comments

11 responses to “Norwalk’s $306M budget leaves BOE $900K short – at least”

  1. David

    This is like deja vu all over again. Only this time parents won’t need to protest outside city hall, they can just go to the ballot box in November.

    The difference between a 3.7% and 3.9% tax increase is, in the 4th district, median assessment example given, is….$12

    For that, we are sacrificing a Science Curriculum Specialist for the schools.

    I mean, of all the things, right, science. The STEM professions have been some of the highest paying, most resilient jobs through this recession, and we’re making it harder for our kids to enter into this profession.

    It’s time our elected leaders started to run Norwalk like a city with a future, not a village.

  2. Bryan Meek

    Please enlighten me. What exactly does a curriculum specialist do? If we have standard curriculum in 169 statewide school districts, what is the purpose of having a specialist at a local level? Are the teachers not able to interpret these guidelines or implement them? What am I missing? Don’t get me wrong, I would be all for more science and math teachers, I just don’t understand how human civilization has made it so far without all these education specialists that don’t teach any children.

  3. David

    If by a “standard curriculum in 169 statewide school districts” you mean common core? The common core for science hasn’t been released, just math and language arts for the moment. I *believe* science is due in a couple of years (2018 rings bell for some reason).

    Even when it does come out, it will define objectives and not a “read it from the book” template for teaching.

    I’m not a teacher, nor am I on the BOE, but I assume that’s where the need for a curriculum specialist comes in.

  4. Fred Wilms

    Until the State dropped their budget bombshell on us, we were only $400,000 apart from the Board of Education for Common Core funding and addback of select positions such as Library aides. We made it clear last night that we will continue to work with the Board of Ed on those areas. We decided that the State budget is so volatile that we will await their final decisions before taking any further actions.

  5. David

    Fred, the city made adjustments to education funding based on a proposal by the Governor, and nothing else. The Mayor and the BET counted their chickens before they were hatched.

    They didn’t hatch. The BET had a chance to amend the matter when it became obviously clear that the state wasn’t going to come through with extra money for Norwalk Education.

    You can blame Hartford all you want – and believe me, we do – but in the end you had the power to do something about school funding and you decided not to.

    You can blame whomever you want, but when election time comes in November, parents will be looking at the bottom line, and that bottom line is less school funding.

  6. Bryan Meek

    David, So if science is rolling in around 2018, why would we be filling a spot with a full time person who’s job will be obsolete in a few years? This is where a consultant should be employed short term. The financial difficulties of the NPS are easy to solve when you look at how we’ve been wasting money for years. We can and should continue to increase what we spend on teachers year over year for cost of living and merits, but anything not directly tied to teaching children can and must be done more efficiently. This includes so called curriculum specialists. Teachers are being paid to keep current and curricula need not change every single year for elementary subjects. These are patronage jobs for a select few that represent tens of millions of wasted dollars over the years. Time to put an end to it.

  7. David

    Brian,
    Common core gives learning objectives but it doesn’t set out the curriculum for achieving that (ie. which books, what to teach when). One of the reasons why Common Core was adopted by so many states was the fact that it allowed a lot of autonomy for the states, municipalities and even the teachers in HOW to implement it. Of course, we can’t have 19 schools in Norwalk all moving at their own pace in reaching the same objective. That would be unacceptable at ANY organization, either public OR private. A common system needs to be developed in order to ensure efficiency in the process.

    I am assuming, and again I don’t have inside information on this, that the curriculum specialist will develop and guide teachers through the process.

    As for the rest of your comment – it’s easy to end waste? “so called” curriculum specialists? You know what, curriculum’s SHOULD be changing every year. There should be a constant process of improvement. No private institution would sit still and let the world pass them by.

    Now, when it comes to STEM subjects, that curriculum should be changing at a lightning pace, and we should be developing the support mechanisms to make that possible. THAT directly ties into better teaching our children.

  8. Steve Colarossi

    The issue with the state’s Common Core State Standards is that it sets out specific facts and skills that must be acquired by students in each grade in a variety of subject areas. It does not specify how those facts and skills must be taught- it does not specify the curriculum that must be followed. The curriculum specialist designs the curriculum and assures that there is uniformity so that students move smoothly from one grade to the next (which becomes an issue when you have multiple schools feeding 5th graders into middle schools and multiple middle schools feeding students into the high schools). The curriculum specialist also needs to work with the teams monitoring student progress (the District Data Teams) to identify problems and then address them (which often involves teacher professional development).
    I have not known curriculum directors to be “patronage” jobs- they do provide an important function, as David explained, which advances student learning.

  9. Tim T

    Bryan
    You State
    “This is where a consultant should be employed short term”
    Are you aware the going rate for consultants at the BOE is 500 per day. It is just this type of waste that the Republicans such as Bryan support that is destroying Norwalk.

    If the taxpayer wants to truly take Norwalk back we need to vote out each and every tax and spend Republican. Let us not forget the Republican Moccia and the Republican Common Council have given us a 4 percent tax increase. They can say all the excuses in the world but the fact is a 4 percent tax increase due to Republican waste.

  10. Bryan Meek

    $500 a day for a short term job is a lot cheaper than $150,000 a year for 30 plus years plus pension costs. Curriculum standards can and should be a shared service accross geographies larger than a single city. Anyone arguing for the status quo isn’t offering anything new here. Partisan cheap shots … do not solve anything. Norwalkers, I’s, D’s, R’s, U’s alike need to come together to do something different. The current model is unsustainable. Whether it is a Democrat raising spending by 30% in 4 years or a Republican 40% in 8 years, I do not care. Things have to change.

    (Editors’s note: This comment has been edited to conform with our comment guidelines)

  11. Tom

    Hey Tim T: believe it or not, for once i agree with you!! Isn’t life full of surprises? Let’s not forget the HEFTY pay raise of 26% the Mayor was given. Of course it will not kick in until 2014 but the repubs are counting on Moccia getting back in so he will get it.

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