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NPS calls Norwalk budget strategy ‘fiscally irresponsible’

Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella, left, and NPS Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton are interviewed by NancyOnNorwalk.

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.”

NPS Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton. (Harold F. Cobin)

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.”

 

Efficiency study?

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.

Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella. (Harold F. Cobin)

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.”

12 comments

Curious April 27, 2021 at 6:12 am

It seems that Mr. Dachowitz is taking the position that the federal funds are fungible (he might have to look it up). By all published accounts, the legislation prohibits that use of funds.

Need for More Data April 27, 2021 at 6:25 am

At some point, it is time to stop talking about the “financial cliff” and other scare terminology, and face facts. The city’s taxpayers aren’t supporting the superintendent’s budget because it is unreasonable.

Many Norwalk taxpayers have to do with less because they are not among the high wage earners whose salaries have been unaffected by the current economy, and they cannot afford tax increases. Many can’t afford the taxes they already pay.

Let’s hope that the superintendent’s leadership results in NPS students’ academic outcomes that compare favorably to those of comparable districts. I am not yet aware of data to support that, but please let’s agree that it must be hard, not merely anecdotal, data. Prove that there is a plan that is yielding strong academic results, and perhaps there can be a discussion about increased funding next year.

The superintendent has significantly increased the number of central office administrative positions, welcoming a good number of NYC administrators to Norwalk, also at very generous salaries of $185,000+. I cannot recall another superintendent who added so many positions within less than a year.

Are there others who see this as an “emperor has no clothes” moment? Tens of millions of federal dollars added to the budget isn’t enough? Please have better respect for the taxpayers’ personal budgets, as well as for their intelligence.

Lisa Brinton April 27, 2021 at 7:39 am

A decade of construction & still not enough revenue for our impoverished student population of 60% free & reduced lunch. (It was 23% when my kids started in 2004-05.) The city has NEVER acknowledged or addressed this trend, preferring to financially reward developers. This BOE ‘fight’ is a mayoral election year gimmick to appear fiscally responsible yet fails to strategically address longer term budget issues that include an UNNECESSARY regional Norwalk High, yet needed additional SoNo elementary. No ‘efficiency audit’ can fix policies disproportionately impacting Norwalk (increased density housing & insufficient state education funding) while local politicians remain complicit, silent or just plain stupid to basic economics.

John O'Neill April 27, 2021 at 11:52 am

Thank God Henry Dachowitz has a backbone. That’s more than I can say about some others above. Based on the teachers I talk to this year has been a joke. That’s on Estrella and parents…Why was New Canaan and Wilton so successful in having in school learning this year?
Let’s call it what it is..NPS leaders are using money to deflect from their complete failure this year. It will never be enough… Maybe they should spend their time hiring QUALITY principals for EVERY school instead of the time spent on BS reports…Every parent AND teacher in Norwalk knows what schools have quality principals and which don’t..Maybe if NPS really gave a damn about kids they’d start with the Captains of each ship. It’s not rocket science.
How the heck does All Saints (built in 1959) survive on a shoe string budget? Maybe she could get some tips on bathroom maintenance for less than $ 1.5 million as a bonus..

Patrick Cooper April 27, 2021 at 12:40 pm

I cannot rationalize an argument such as this, between highly paid, qualified individuals who purportedly work for the taxpayers of Norwalk, to completely ignore salient issues, that are the legitimate driving forces of this beef.

The BOE increases are largely related to union wage & benefit cost increases (health). Steady increases in perpetuity. No one will point to this, and ask – should we draft these contracts differently? Discussing this is not a sign of disrespect for the administrators & teachers, and that deflection is nothing more than a ruse.

Here is the perspective: from Estrella – salaries are 61.8% & benefits are 17.8% (combined 79.6%) – representing 165 million of the 208 million dollar 20-21 budget. By this article, 9 million of the 11.7 million ask is related to those two issues, right in line with their percentage. And we don’t talk about that?

https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/norwalk-boe-to-consider-recommended-11-7-budget-increase/

Estrella & Hamilton are also fully aware of, and Dachowitz has noted it in his critical thinking, the CT statute regarding MBR (“minimum budget requirement”) for schools – which summarized for Norwalk says: it can’t ever be below what it was the prior year. Never.

The nightmare scenario is a steady increase in BOE budgets that can never decrease. The focus then will be on the percentages – not the actual gross dollars. The 5.6% ask this year (11.77 million) – if continued for three more years – would then represent a 260 million dollar BOE budget (24/25) and an increase from 23/24 of over 14.6 million .

Anyone care to guess how much the grand list would need to grow (using the current mill – or tax rate) just to fund the 14.6 million? How about 910 million dollars. About 3 malls – in one year. Formula: $910m x .7 assessed value = $637m x .023 mill rate = $14.6m)

That progression is our cities true fiscal cliff. Grand list growth can’t keep pace, and since apparently the only profitable development in FF county are apartments, then that type of growth actually (partially) fuels the problem.

The last issue that no one wants to talk about is – it’s an election year. Why is it that our mayor is always worried about taxes every other year? Look at the pattern.

What is truly, seriously “fiscally irresponsible” is to not present Norwalk Taxpayers with real facts about the real issues. The Mayor, the common council, the BOE, and the Superintendent, are all doing a little political dance around the truth. It would be refreshing if for once they could tell it to us straight.

John Miller April 27, 2021 at 4:05 pm

Spot on @John O’Neill and @Patrick Cooper. Thank God for Henry Dachowitz, who appears to be the only city official who actually considers the “social/emotional” and fiscal wellbeing of the Norwalk Taxpayers in spite of the fact that this is an election year. Someone needs to remind the Superintendent that she is no longer in New York and that Wall Street in Norwalk is far different from a financial resource perspective than Wall Street in New York. The BOE/NPS spending is out of control and fiscally irresponsible and the Taxpayers of Norwalk simply cannot afford it.

James April 27, 2021 at 10:57 pm

It’s a democratic town and voters are not concerned with school funding. Harry likes to keep development strong, grand list growing yet school funding flat. Democratic voters in Norwalk are not interested in school funding

Mike Barbis April 28, 2021 at 8:43 am

It is easy to attack NPS for the need for revenue increases but this is all due to State law — the law allows for collective bargaining for all NPS employees. Interestingly, in Massachusetts, educational administrators are not allowed to unionize. In addition, NPS is burdened with many unfunded mandates from Hartford. Thus, the problem is not in Norwalk but in Hartford. IF everyone is so worried about school budgets, you need to get Duff, Perone, Simms, Thomas and Wood to do something about it. That’s where the challenge stands! But has anyone ever bothered to ask them???

And lets not hyperfocus on MBR — our school population continues to rise and rise — so NPS costs continue to rise and rise — until the population trend reverses, MBR is a moot topic. #wakeup

Patrick Cooper April 28, 2021 at 3:02 pm

@Mike Barbis – unexpected, but understood you would defend the BOE, as a member – of course you would.

I’m glad you highlight the issue with Hartford – and our representatives. But we only have two – Simms (140th) and Perone (137th) who “represent” Norwalk – with Perone MIA 90% of the time and Simms only concerned with equity. Duff (Darien) Wood (Darien) Dathan (New Canaan) and Thomas (Westport) all serve two very different constituencies. THAT’S a problem. The synopsis’s of which is – given its population – Norwalk is the single worst represented town in the state. It explains why we get bupkis.

Maybe once they release the 2020 census – the state will consider redrawing the lines? Ha – sure.

The drive for population growth – with emphasis on density, is also a Hartford driven agenda – and that falls squarely on the mayor and the CC for total capitulation. They have been asked and they answered – they don’t care what it does to the city. Agreed it’s going to get worse.

Superintendent Estrella didn’t sign the NFT & NASA contracts – she inherited them. But to not address these costs is “irresponsible”. Hey, maybe we got a deal, but we would never know that. The BOE silence on the Bob Duff High school makes them complicit. The mayor pretending his fingerprints are not on every core issue related to these funding problems is disingenuous at best. The common council is a rubber stamp for Harry / the DTC/ and Hartford D-party planning. They all need to go.

Oh, and don’t hyper focus on MBR? That’s the problem in Norwalk – we don’t explain the math. It’s why every year – the budget process is this ridiculous political dance. A 260m BOE budget in three years isn’t a problem? A billion a year in Grand list growth simply to fund the school budget INCREASE (not the whole budget)? Get out of here – you lost me there.

The main point you highlight is correct; the root cause of these core problems starts in Hartford. However, the central tenant of my complaint is this: these key points are not openly discussed IN NORWALK, by Norwalk officials, with Norwalk taxpayers. Why the silence? What’s the risk? Why don’t we talk about them? Answer me that.

DrewT April 29, 2021 at 7:56 am

At the end of the day Mike Barbis is 100% Correct! Do nothing Duff has been in the job for far too long and has failed Norwalk Education again and again. Oh but wait he’s shoving Bob Duff High down our throats that will only barely serve Norwalk Students! We don’t need not want it!! But does he care NO! But let’s really get to the pint here. Duff and his cronies have allowed Norwalk to continually get SCREWED out of ECS money over and over and over again. Duff and Co care about pot holes, traffic and garbage pick ups. Then again if you look at any social media of his if you’re not blocked that’s all people ask him about. Wonder Why?!

Resident April 30, 2021 at 12:57 pm

In any of these scenarios, are teachers, admin and staff asked to contribute to their health care costs (like the rest of the working world?)

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