NORWALK, Conn. — There’s “a certain level of anxiety” in Norwalk Public Schools due to talk of layoffs, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella said Wednesday.
NPS Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton, without once mentioning the federal American Rescue Plan passed by Congress earlier in the day, laid out for Board of Education members a potential $2.5 million in budget cuts that could happen in response to the Common Council’s budget cap. Those include eliminating six teacher positions and six paraprofessionals, as well as a 10% reduction in high school sports and hits to the middle school sports program and music classes.
Hamilton said Gov. Ned Lamont’s plan to delay the increases to the Educational Cost Sharing formula is “quite concerning,” and stressed a fear of a financial “cliff” in two years when the federal stimulus funds stemming from last year’s CARES Act run out. NPS needs to be careful to not create “just a horrendous crisis two years from now,” he said.
Hamilton also explained the budget line presented early this year, reductions to Central Office. NPS plans to eliminate the chief of specialized learning position, now held by Yvette Goorevitch, and the Chief Talent Officer position, now held by Javier Padilla, Hamilton said.
Those plans are independent of any need to cut the budget, although they do represent a reduction in the Board’s request, Estrella explained at the Board of Education Finance Committee meeting.
“Early on, when we knew that we needed to kind of rethink how we were supporting students given the learning loss that we knew took place that as a result of the pandemic, we wanted to make sure that we strengthen the areas in curriculum and instruction that needed to have additional supports,” Estrella said.
A reorganization is moving specialized learning to be under curriculum, to provide “appropriate supports to specialized learning,” Hamilton said.
Estrella mentioned the effort to create a new strategic operating plan, to “create better systems that will target our focus around the areas of concern, one as a result of the pandemic, but also as a result of what we’ve learned from the different studies that we’ve conducted within the past few months.”
Though this is a $945,000 reduction, the decisions were made not “with the primary intent of just saving money,” Board of Education Chairman Colin Hosten said. “They were meant mainly for the intent of increasing efficiencies in the way that we deliver instruction.”
Federal CARES funding, budget cut ideas
The Council’s budget cap would, if City budgets remain where there were when it was voted on, provide room for a 1% Norwalk Public Schools budget increase. Hamilton presented cuts based on a 2% increase, saying that the Board of Estimate and Taxation is working to scrub budgets.
Mayor Harry Rilling said last week that he’d asked all City department heads to cut an additional .5% from their budgets. NPS will begin working with the BET on Tuesday, Hamilton said. That will be followed with a public hearing on the operating budget, although he wasn’t sure when that will be held.
Hamilton stressed that the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER Fund) grants authorized through last year’s CARES Act can only be used for certain things. They cannot, for instance, pay for a heating bill, he said.
But they should be able to fund “math improvement teachers” because they’re not in the current budget, he said. An analytics developer is also a new position that should be funded by ESSER and NPS has identified another tech position that could be funded by a different grant.
“What that leaves us then is a balance of about $2.5 million to cut from elsewhere within the budget, in order to meet this cut of about $5.5 million, which would represent the cut that we need to make in order to get down to a 2% budget increase,” he said.
NPS could cut one day off its calendar and save $253,750, Hamilton said, explaining that NPS has more calendar days than legally required and that the day had been added a couple of years ago to increase instructional hours for students.
It will be easy to cut the American Sign Language position created last year.
“Unfortunately, the district was not able to find a American Sign Language teacher, and was not able to fill that position,” Hamilton said.
NPS could also cut two additional Central Office positions, over and above the slashing of the Specialized Learning and Talent chiefs, to save another $200,000, he said.
So those, in addition to the six teachers, the six paraprofessionals and the music and sports program cuts would reduce the budget by $2.5 million, Hamilton said.
While it’s too early to begin recommending cuts, “we did want to kind of start to get this information out there so that people can start to think about it,” Hamilton said.
President Joe Biden is expected to sign the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan on Friday. The Connecticut Post reports it will send $77 million to Norwalk’s budget, of which $38 will go to the schools. While the Platte Institute reports that the rescue plan allows greater flexibility in how these funds may be used than in last year’s original CARES Act, it does contains some restrictions.
ESSER II has provided $9.2 million to NPS, but getting the expenses authorized by the State is a cumbersome process, Hamilton reported. Some funding submissions have been denied, as the State declared them ineligible under ESSER, he said.
NPS needs to be mindful of the future, Hamilton said.
“We do believe that we need to set aside some portion of this grant for additional expenses that may impact the district next year due to COVID,” Hamilton said. “We really, really don’t know to what extent our students are going to need to be, and staff are going to need, to continue to be socially distanced, and are we going to need to continue to maintain these auxiliary classrooms.”
He said, “We just believe it’s prudent to anticipate that some amount of this ESSER II money will be needed for what I would term sort of unbudgeted continuing COVID expenses next year. We don’t really know how much that is. But we think that that is certainly a possibility.”
ESSER II can fund efforts to “deal with the social emotional fallout, if you will, from COVID, and making sure students are ready to learn and their families are in a place where they can support their students to learn,” Hamilton said.
Lamont has proposed suspending the ECS funding increases authorized by the legislature, freezing the funding at its current level. Stalling the increases in the ECS grants will help Lamont close the state’s deficit, which tops $2 billion over the next two fiscal years. He is instead relying on the ESSER money for school districts to meet their needs.
“It’s really reneging on what had been a commitment from the state government, to school districts to phase in increases to the ECS funding formula,” Hamilton said Wednesday.
NPS would get $1.2 million less in ECS over two years than was planned. This contrasts with the $9.2 million from ESSER.
“Although we are grateful for the additional one-time Federal funding under ESSER II, it is critical that the use of the ESSER funding remain focused on emergency relief from the impact of Covid, as it is intended,” NPS Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams said recently in an email to NancyOnNorwalk.
If NPS uses ESSER funds for math and literacy specialists, “this is going to be a big budget problem two years from now, because it will mean that when that grant goes away, and is no longer available to fund those positions, those positions will all need to transfer to the local budget,” Hamilton said.
“It’s going to cause a big budget problem two years from now,” Hamilton said. “So, we want that on the record, that, you know, we’ve made this point and made it loud and clear so that people don’t suggest that… there was some malfeasance two years from now when we say we need, you know, millions of dollars more money to continue our existing programs and services.”
“Ideally, these funds should really be used for extraordinary, almost one-time type expenses to catch students up to address, you know, learning loss, and to, you know, deal with other impacts and expenses directly related to COVID,” Hamilton said.
“I think there is perhaps some kind of perception that some of these expenses that may be exacerbated by COVID will go away once COVID goes away,” Hosten said. “And I think it’s important for people to understand that some of these expenses that are exacerbated by COVID, are actually things that we need to have in our budget anyway.”
‘A more equitable approach’
Estrella also said NPS is realigning its Title I funding, to “any school that has a based on the title one criteria, 35% or more of students that receive free and reduced lunch.”
That’s every K-8 school.
“This will allow schools to have additional resources to address the needs of students,” and lead to “a more equitable approach and how we are disseminating resources across the district,” she said.
Hosten commented, “We do know that there are so many moving pieces to this budget puzzle and appreciate one the work that that our team are doing here to bring it all together and make sure that we do not lose the resources for our learning communities. But also to just keep in mind for the general public that a lot of these grounds are still shifting pending so many decisions to come.”