NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Public Schools’ budget would jump nearly $10 million in the recommendation presented Tuesday by NPS Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton and Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella. It’s an overall 5.4% increase, split conceptually as 4.5% going toward the base budget and .9% designated to begin establishing a South Norwalk neighborhood school, before the school is built.
“The original approved budget for the current year is $208,468,000,” Hamilton said. “The recommended budget basic budget for next year is $217,851,000, representing an increase of just under $9.4 million.”
About $3 million of the increase would go to contractual wage increases, Hamilton said. Other staffing factors account for almost $2 million and $1 million would go to increasing out-of-district costs.
Estrella stressed the need to support the students, citing research done by McKinsey & Company.
“Our analysis shows that the impact of the pandemic on K–12 student learning was significant, leaving students on average five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading by the end of the school year,” McKinsey said in July.
“Taking that into account coupled with already the large opportunity gap that currently exists amongst different subgroups within our community, the amount of learning for our students is significant,” Estrella said.
Her budget letter explains:
“Additional teachers and staff are … needed to ensure our high needs students can succeed. Behavioral therapists and paraeducators are required to make up legally required special education services that were missed because of the pandemic, and to also make sure that Norwalk is in legal compliance with individual education plans (IEPs). Like other districts in Connecticut, we are also recruiting for multilingual learning teachers, a shortage area throughout the state, to address learning loss. The proposed budget also increases staffing for our Gifted and Talented students, as we continue to better identify and serve more children.”
If you’re thinking this is early for budget discussions, you’re right.
“Mr. Hamilton’s team and I had conversations around was the importance of shifting the schedule,” because the administration has always presented a budget in January and the Board had to approve it by Jan. 15, ahead of the Common Council setting a budget cap in February, Estrella said.
“It limited the amount of conversations we were able to have in regards to the budget,” she explained.
Budget talk is even more complicated this year, given the infusion of federal funds designed for pandemic relief. Hamilton spoke of negative numbers in the chart explaining the changes from last year’s budget to this proposed budget. That’s because the City flat funded the schools this year and salaries were paid out of the relief funds, he said.
NPS was awarded about $45 million for COVID relief and as of Oct. 31 had expended $13 million, Budget Coordinator Kristen Karzcmit said.
About $5.4 million was spent on getting the kids back to the schools. “We spent funding on PPE, air filtration, learning pods, para educators and summer school,” Karzcmit said.
About $1.2 million has been spent from the $11 million “ESSER II” grant, designated for “academic support” and “family and community connections,” and $7 million is budgeted to fund 16 math specialists and 16 writing and reading specialists.
“This obviously is a recurring cost,” Karzcmit said. “We need the supports in order to continue supporting our students in their unfinished learning to accelerate learning and get them ready to be college career and career reading.”
There’s also $1.3 million budgeted for facilitators to combat absenteeism.
“Esser III” is $24 million and that’s “related to acceleration of learning, and SEL in support of students,” Karzcmit said. Nearly $5 million has been spent. The proposed budget uses the funds for:
- Social worker salaries $4 million
- School counselor salaries $6 million
- Enhanced summer learning program $4.5 million
“These were needs that have been in the district for a long time, and have been very quickly exacerbated by COVID,” Board of Education Chairman Colin Hosten said. “We were using this opportunity to fill those needs to kind of get us to where we have needed to be for three decades, really.”
Hamilton and Estrella stressed that education is a human-centered operation.
“We’re a very people-intensive business and wages make up such a large portion of the overall district budget,” Hamilton said. “Even a 2.2% wage (increase), which is pretty modest, still represents the single biggest increase in the district budget at about $3 million.”
“We have labor contracts that do provide for increases for employees,” he said. “…Given what we are all reading about with inflation, I think that the fact that we’ve locked in these contracts, in some cases for several years into the future is actually a very good thing from a financial standpoint for the district.”
Estrella spoke of “the importance of us having high quality personnel throughout our district,” and a need to honor labor contracts.
Employee benefits aren’t a major drive of the budget although there are projected increases because of the City’s flat funding and the Board’s subsequent decision to move positions to federal fund designations, Hamilton said.
Mid-year staffing increases account for about $780,000 of the budget, employees who were added to meet legal requirements, Karzcmit said.
The $1 million increase in out-of-district “appears to be a statewide trend,” Hamilton said.
NPS is “aggressively looking to other funding sources besides going only to the city asking for budget increases,” Karzcmit said. Grant funding accounts for $2.7 million of the budget.
Hosten called that “almost $3 million of new foundation funding.” He said, “I really appreciate that as a board member, and as a citizen.”
The presentation also lists new grant applications.
“We’re seeking to present additional resources that are hopefully coming into the district through philanthropic dollars,” Estrella said. “So in the next few days, we hope to bring forward additional resources that will be coming to the district as well.”
Hosten said NPS students are winning competitions and “achieving well academically, athletically, and otherwise… These are not just numbers.”
The ‘other .9%’
Columbus Magnet School is being renamed Concord Magnet School and moving to the Ponus building next year. NPS and the City expect to move ahead with building a new school in South Norwalk, and this budget factors in establishing a student body for the new school in the vacant Columbus building next year.
In a $1.8 million planned expense, there would be six classrooms of pre-K and kindergarten students in what’s referred to as an “incubator.” When the school is complete, three grade of kids would be able to move in with an established culture.
“It’s a practice that many have followed and have worked effectively,” Estrella said. “Places where you start incubating a school with a small subset of grades and then build up have shown the best outcomes. I can speak to it myself as someone who did that work. That is the best way to initiate a program and give the program an opportunity to one develop itself and morph into the being that it will be.”
She said that given the sentiment that services were not provided equitably to South Norwalk in the past, “we wanted to put make sure that all of the necessary resources to effectively support students have been put in place from school leadership, educators, social services, as well as the extracurricular components.”