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NPS Finance team lays out Estrella’s proposed 2022-23 budget ask

A slide from the Norwalk Public Schools 2022-23 recommended operating budget presentation.

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.

Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella, during Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting in City Hall.

“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.”

2022-23 Superintendent’s Recommended Budget Rev12.13.21

FY 2022-23 Operating Budget Workshop Presentation 12.14.21

11 comments

John O'Neill December 15, 2021 at 7:20 am

NOT A DIME UNTIL SOMEONE GETS CONTROL OF OUR SCHOOLS.
Two More fights at the High Schools yesterday. Neither one was even noticed by an adult. No students were disciplined. We know this because of cell phone videos, not because they were reported.
What exactly are our kids learning ?
The Dems had a chance to add a energetic dynamo to the BOE and went in another direction last week. Maybe it’s time for the adults in the room to get control before we reach a tipping point. The decision to bypass Jody Satler is an example of how Dems are focusing on politics over our children’s future. Shame on them.
All the FREE Fed money isn’t enough for schools? I humbly request we hear from Henry Dachowitz on this unless he’s been muzzled by those in power.. Shouldn’t we know how much money is really being spent in our schools INCLUDING the Federal injection. It’s December, do we have a principal at McMahon yet?
In my opinion, while taxpayers are looking the other way we’re having our pockets picked by a school administration, that seems to prefers to asking for forgiveness rather than permission..

DryAsABone December 15, 2021 at 9:40 am

A look at the pie chart says much about how education funds are spent. A closer look says more.
Thomas Hamilton made $185,014 in 2017, $193,036. in 2018 and $210,911 in 2020
A 14% increase in three years of almost zero inflation.

Next door in Stamford where transparency has vanished after ex-mayor Martins war against releasing public payroll records the raises would make most residents gag. Tamu Lucero, the superintendent is the third highest paid superintendent in the state at $300,500+. Sort of makes Norwalk’s Alexandra Estrella’s $290,000. seem like a bit of a bargin BUT go back and look at the increases. And keep in mind inflation, or rather the lack of. And then look at YOUR paycheck.

And results? One wonders about that. Do residents get what they are paying for?

Tom In East Norwalk December 15, 2021 at 11:55 am

Norwalk’s Public School system spending is out of control. At a time when families are struggling to put food on the table – the $100,000 + salaried administrators are seeking ways to spend more taxpayer’s money. Instead of trying to spend as much as possible – it would be nice to see cost control measures. Maybe the answer is to tighten the bloated administrative expense and salaries.

Seriously? December 15, 2021 at 12:07 pm

The city should not give another nickel over this year’s operating budget. While Norwalk families face a perilous economic future — as well as a challenging current economy, the board and superintendent continue on their spending ways, as though there were no problems at all, or as though every taxpayer makes $300,000 a year, as the superintendent does. I do believe she probably works very hard, but the point is still that she has a very comfortable lifestyle, one that only a small percentage of Norwalk taxpayers have. Who is considering inflation? the cost of gasoline? the costs of heating oil and propane? the cost of groceries? the cost of medicine? the cost of medical insurance?

One more thing. Every dollar added to the budget is a guaranteed dollar for the succeeding year’s budget because the state’s Minimum Expenditure Requirement doesn’t allow a community to fund at a budget lower than the previous year’s budget. In other words, if they were to get $10 million more for 2022-23, the city would be obligated to provide that $10 million for the succeeding year’s budget. By the way, by then, the tens of million dollars in Covid relief money will be gone, and they will be looking not for $10 million more, but for TENS of millions more, in order to continue the increased administrative and other staffing.

At some time, the public is going to see how many administrative positions have been added. I note that the superintendent is eager to yet add another administrative position for the South Norwalk school, which will have a total of 6 classes for its first year, and she offers her experience doing that in NYC, as though whatever NYC does makes sense for Norwalk. It doesn’t make sense.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that the $45 million in Covid relief isn’t counted in the current year’s budget, and the district is using some of the Covid money to pay for employees who have been hired because the district doesn’t have the funds in the operating budget. I think next year is the last year for Covid relief funds. Then what happens? Will the board be looking for a $50 million increase because of negotiated salary increases and probably medical insurance increases, as well as other “enhancements” that the superintendent says Norwalk needs?

This may sound like a doomsday prediction, but at some time, and I think sometime soon, reality is going to crash into the taxpayers’ faces.

Piberman December 15, 2021 at 12:26 pm

As in past years higher budget requests by our Supt are never accompanied by discussions on how student performance has improved with data secured from the CT Dept of Education’s website. Despite paying comparable salaries with surrounding wealthy towns student performance in Norwalk schools remains below CT Education Dept standards for grads. Especially for maths and sciences. Or ever secure 4 yr college degrees.

More monies haven’t improved these deficiencies. Much better oversight by our BOE and demands for much higher student outcomes will. Sadly neither seems on the agendas of those involved in educating our kids. When is the last time our BOE published a list of colleges where students secured acceptances ?

Old timers remember when we had a crackerjack public school system. One that attracted many new homeowners. What happened ? No one interested ? Half of our adults have 4 yr college degrees. Yet most of our school grads never secure one according to CT Edu Dept data. Why is that ? Not prepared ?

Readers are urged to use the CT Edu Dept website and compare student performance between Norwalk and surrounding towns/cities. And then ask how do we do much better. If we collectively love our kids and want them to secure the American Dream why not provide them with the best possible school outcomes ?

Norwalk Parent December 15, 2021 at 1:07 pm

Estrella and Hosten will make quick work of not only running up the NPS budget year after year but also running NPS into the ground.

These two individuals are the definition of dangerous when it comes to NPS. They are in no way held accountable yet they ask for budget increases with the money going to areas that done help any of the students.

Wouldn’t it be nice to get a once in a lifetime federal grant due to a global pandemic and actually use it in a way that directly benefits the NPS buildings and students?

Keep giving these individuals positions of power within the NPS system and watch where we end up in 5 years. Every parent in Norwalk who wants not only a good education, but a safe environment for their kids to get that education will be faced with 2 particular costs in the next couple of years. An increased property tax bill(where you get nothing more for the increase) and the cost of private education.

I encourage anyone to have a face to face conversation with either individual and tell me whether you think they are the right people for the job. These are people who will lie straight to your face to further their own narratives.

Seriously? December 15, 2021 at 2:19 pm

Norwalk Parent,

Not only have I had face-to-face conversations with Dr. Estrella, but I know of others who have also done so, all of whom work for the school system. Speaking for myself and for everyone else I’ve talked to, Dr. Estrella is not the right person for this job in this district.

I have not spoken with Colin Hosten, but his performance as chair of the board of education last year left me shaking my head in dismay.

Georgio December 15, 2021 at 3:10 pm

Stop virtue signaling with your mask. The mask mandate in Norwalk and surrounding towns is over. The mask does nothing to protect against COVID, nor do the vaccines.

MyTwoCents December 15, 2021 at 6:18 pm

There’s no rational world where it makes sense to spend 1.8 million on an incubator. Assume 6 classrooms is roughly 150 kids, that means 12 thousand in additional spending per kid. The key there is it’s additional relative to what it would cost otherwise – that means that the district spends 12 thousand more on those kids relative to others.

I don’t deny that it’s a nice idea, but that’s too expensive. There has to be a better way to spend that money – just spitballing but you could fund a lot of after school sports programs with almost 2 million bucks. It’s also an ongoing expense until the new school opens, likely growing each year as the school gets bigger.

The Welcome Center is also a tough expense to swallow – it does nothing for those of us who already have kids in the system, and it’s expensive.

Otherwise – yep, inflation is happening. The budget will go up.

Piberman December 16, 2021 at 1:12 pm

I would urge readers to go through the Supt’s new Budget request. And then ask how the additional Budget requests will improve student performance and overall management of our school system.. Best I could judge, and I’ve read more than my share of financial documents, those questions are not addressed. Which means they’ll likely remain unaddressed even with a higher Budget.

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