NORWALK, Conn. — A debate over what constitutes “the greatest good” that can come of federal COVID-19 relief money has Norwalk Public Schools at odds with the City over how that money ought to be spent.
Mayor Harry Rilling says a zero-tax increase would be the best way to spread the greatest good across all residents and businesses, given the prohibition on lowering taxes with the money, and the City has tentatively approved a budget that keeps NPS at the same funding it had for the current school year, denying the Board of Education’s requested increase in light of the millions of federal dollars that are on the way.
Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella calls that “fiscally irresponsible,” charging that the City is using pandemic relief money to fund ordinary expenses. At a recent Board of Education Finance Committee meeting, both she and NPS Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton warned if the relief money is used to spare taxpayers, NPS won’t be able to meet the escalating needs of students who have fallen behind due to COVID-19.
Video by Harold F. Cobin at end of story, interview with
Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella and NPS Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton
Along with expensive accelerated learning, Estrella said, a “significant number” need extensive intervention to mitigate the loss, hardship, food insecurity, and depression caused by the pandemic. Those hardest hit, BoE Chairman Colin Hosten said, “tend to be our black and brown kids.”
Both Hamilton and Estrella say that using COVID funds to supplant ordinary budgetary needs runs counter to the intentions of Congress that the money be directed to address pandemic-created issues. And sparing taxpayers now will mean higher costs later.
“And I have to just reiterate that because in the long term, it’s going to have a devastating impact in terms of what will happen for the future of our children,” Estrella said.
NPS had originally requested $220 million in funding for 2021-22, a 5.6 percent increase over the current budget of $208.4 million. That request dropped to $218 million, an increase of 4.6 percent, when health insurance cost estimates came in from the State.
The 4.6 percent was regarded as “pretty flat” by the BoE , as it would mostly be eaten up by contractual increases and health insurance, as opposed to measures to help students recover educationally and emotionally from the pandemic’s effects.
The Common Council’s budget cap further reduced the increase to 2.6 percent, which BoE members said would lead to cuts and layoffs. That planned 2.6 percent increase would have meant an additional $4 million for the district. Instead, on April 5, the Board of Estimate and Taxation voted to leave the district’s budget at its current level.
Parental outcry was slight, not exactly a virtual version of the packed Concert Hall of previous years, as Estrella and Hamilton pressed for funding with then-BoE member Barbara Meyer-Mitchell acting as primary public spokesperson for an increase.
Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz said the BoE will use the federal money from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to “somehow compensate for the increase that they are anticipating.” Early this month, he said it appeared that NPS would be getting $27.5 million from the federal relief act, divided over two years.
NancyOnNorwalk asked Estrella and Hamilton last week why $27.5 million spread over two years wouldn’t be enough, given that the planned schools budget already included math and literacy specialists to beef up instruction for students suffering from a remote learning-inspired educational deficit.
While NPS hasn’t been given final numbers yet, “It’s been estimated around $22.9 million,” Estrella said.
Because school officials don’t anticipate the entire student body being vaccinated by fall, the district will still need to follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines for social distancing and mask-wearing, Estrella said. Those costs weren’t in the budget because “we were counting on these additional federal dollars that were coming in to address those expenses.”
“We need to figure out how much funding we’re going to need to continue to maintain the measures that we currently have around safety and well-being of our students for another year,” she said. “When you start putting those numbers together, there’s no money left for the instructional component that is essential for us to move forward. There’s not enough money left to do the social/emotional work that is necessary as a result of what’s happened with COVID. And that’s where the challenge lies, right, that we have all of these factors that we need to take into consideration.”
“The student needs are substantial in terms of catching them up dealing with the learning loss dealing with social and emotional issues,” Hamilton said.
Dachowitz said Monday that the $27.5 million figure came from the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM). He pointed out that NPS has already received COVID-19 relief funds, before the American Rescue Plan was passed, and said the total relief money committed to the school district is $40-45 million depending on which ARP estimate you use.
NPS Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams said Monday that the district has no updates on how much it will receive through the American Rescue Plan.
NPS charges COVID funds won’t go to kids’ needs
NPS wants to use the one-time funds to “create the opportunities necessary to accelerate learning because past that point, we most likely won’t receive any additional funds,” Estrella said. “But now that we have to reappropriate the funds in different ways, we are limited in terms of how much of this money we could effectively utilize to support students in the way that they need to and the way this funding was intended to.”
Rather than direct those resources to additional interventions – summer school programs, additional education time, and added social and emotional supports, Hamilton said, “we’re really going to be using those funds to balance the budget.”
At an April 14 meeting of the BoE Finance Committee, Hamilton explained that unlike most federal grants, the American Rescue Plan does not have a non-supplementation clause. For that reason, the money could be used to “in essence, balance the budget,” he said.
“This is not how we expected that we would be using these funds. This is not how we recommend using these funds. … We all know these funds are appropriated to help school districts, help our children overcome the serious … learning loss that’s been created as a result of this past year of learning,” Hamilton said.
In addition, he said, using a one-time grant to raise the budget without raising local funding, the strategy the mayor favors, is creating “a fiscal cliff.” If the budget goes up 4 percent next year and the city maintains its no-increase approach, then in year three Norwalk taxpayers will be expected to fund $28 million more than the previous year.
“This is not some theoretical, potential problem,” he said.
As an alternative, Hamilton suggested that next year, the Council and Board of Estimate not “double down” on using COVID money, instead “smoothing” the increase by cutting it in half, to fund $3.5 million from the City coffers.
Hamilton also presented a tentative budget of $216 million, an increase of $7.9 million from 2020-22, created by permanently shifting some expenses to grants.
Remember, NPS says the COVID funding for two years is estimated at $22.9 million. Half that is $11.5 million and NPS is increasing its budget $7.9 million without factoring in added COVID expenses beyond adding learning specialists.
Board members were united in their opposition to using the federal money to cover budgetary shortfalls. “I really just need to echo what everyone has said, this seems fiscally irresponsible, but I agree this is morally irresponsible,” Suzanne Koroshetz said. “This is not what those funds were intended for. These are young people that now we’re kind of turning our backs on them in ways that we could set up programs and time and, and so that’s disappointing.”
“It saddens me,” Diana Carpio said. “…Who knows where we’ll stand in January, the numbers could be higher on our end because right now we’re not giving them the programs and the help the children need.”
And with NPS seeing a spike in enrollment, Estrella said, “we might have a significantly larger population of students in September than we were anticipating.”
In setting their cap, Council members referred to an upcoming efficiency study that will look at both City-side and school systems to see where efficiencies could be created.
Dachowitz has said the city is hoping recommendations from the study will help offset funding gaps. BoE Chairman Colin Hosten called that “not realistic at all. “I don’t think we can think of that as a way to find 27 million dollars,” Hosten said, referring to the third-year forecast.
Estrella said the study could bring about a more efficient working relationship between the city and the school district. As far as reducing costs, however, she said “it could go either way,” since it might also reveal areas where more staff is needed.
‘Do right by the children’
NPS uses assessments and anecdotal information from teachers to identify how the students are doing, Estrella said.
If the City had funded NPS with an increase, “I think a chunk of the money would encompass first maintaining the safety and well-being of students, thinking about social distancing, what that needs to look like next year, given the COVID cases in the area,” she said.
Supplies are needed; the HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters alone are $70 each, and NPS has more than 1,000, she said.
“A number of organizations have suggested that the relief grants can be used for indoor air quality concerns,” Hamilton said. “So that would be a terrific use of funds, because it would be a one-time expense that’s been supported from a one-time revenue.”
“Additional social workers and guidance counselors to support our students, bringing in additional personnel to provide intervention services for students that might be lagging behind because they had a significant amount of learning loss,” would be another appropriate use, Estrella said, adding that even if remote learning returns in the coming year, students will still need support.
“We really want to do right for our children,” the superintendent said. “And I understand that they there is a cost associated and everybody is financially suffering. But I think if we think about the long-term impact of not funding schools well and providing the services necessary for our children to be successful, the loss long term will be greater than if we tried to address some of the challenges now and make sure our students stay in on track and on a positive path forward, to do the work that they need to have a successful life.”
Dachowitz: It benefits all Norwalk taxpayers
Dachowitz, reached Monday, said he had no comment about the efficiency study. The consultants will come in, analyze the procedures and make recommendations, he said.
NPS got $2 million in the first round of COVID-19 relief, through the State, and $9.2 million in the second round, Dachowitz said. Terms used on this vary; Dachowitz referred to CARES funding, while Hamilton often says ESSER, Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. Both titles refer to federal funds administered by the State.
Dachowitz said that in addition, the State set up a COVID Relief Fund (CRF) with CARES funds and provided $8.3 million to NPS through that vehicle.
So, a total $42.3 million if you use the NPS estimate of ARP funding or a total $47 million if you use the CCM estimate, according to Dachowitz’ account, although he had said $40-45 million.
An NPS budget document from March said there had been $7.5 million to $9 million spent on COVID-19 at that point.
“We’re using the monies we’re getting to benefit the most taxpayers as possible, which is keeping the tax rates flat. And that benefits everyone who pays taxes in Norwalk,” Dachowitz said. “And I guess with that kind of money, $45 million, coming in we would expect that the school district would be able to use some of that money to fill the budget gap, in addition to cover all of their COVID-related expenses.”
He acknowledged that COVID-19 funding comes with restrictions, at least in the first round.
“We’ve had some guidelines on ours as well. But my perspective is that money is money,” he said. “So let’s assume that the school has a budget. And some of the grant money cannot be used for certain items. Well, but if they could be used for other items, then you use it to the items for which it is not restricted. And that frees up money for the things that might be restricted. So when you have a pot of $45 million, there’s plenty of room to allocate for all the financial needs. At least that’s the way we’re seeing it.”