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NPS pushes back, warning of ‘cliff;’ City focuses on efficiency audit and collaboration

A stencil at Marvin Elementary School in August, 2020.

NORWALK, Conn. — The “cliff” feared by Norwalk Public Schools now has a dollar figure attached to it – 27 million.

If you assume the City continues its “0% increase” for school funding in the 2022-23 operating budget as it’s doing for 2021-22, then the “cliff,” the amount of schools’ increase that will result three years down the road when the federal COVID-19 funds dry up, could be 13%, Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton said at Tuesday’s Common Council meeting.

The Council held a largely ceremonial review of the operating budget, affirming approval of the Board of Estimate and Taxation’s plan in the absence of any action needed by Council members. There will be no tax increase for Norwalk citizens due to the American Rescue Plan, passed by Congress after the Council set its cap, Finance Committee Chairman Greg Burnett (D-At Large) explained. City-side expenses will be offset by $12.9 million in federal funds and Norwalk’s expected $8 million drawdown from the Rainy Day Fund is off the table.

“This is obviously a welcomed assistance during the difficult economic times and impact of the COVID pandemic. However, the infusion of the American Rescue Plan funding will not appear each and every fiscal year, so we must move forward with caution and beginning to extrapolate our operating expenditures and more new posture, two and three years ahead,” Burnett said. “And I would say that also includes looking at the Board of Education to operating budget.”

The Council and Board of Education Finance Committees will meet quarterly, starting in June, Burnett said.

NPS will be getting $27.5 million from the American Rescue Plan, divided over two years, Norwalk Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz has said. The City had planned to allocate a $4 million increase to the schools and now is planning to keep the funding flat.

“While we appreciate the importance of minimizing tax increases in this economically challenging time, (using federal funds to fill the gap) creates a fiscally irresponsible ‘cliff’ for Norwalk’s school budget in the years to come,” Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella and Board of Education Chairman Colin Hosten said in a recent oped.

It depends on what assumptions you use when you run projections, but in year three “it equates to something on the order of about a $27 million increase, that we would be looking at. So that is a big concern of ours,” Hamilton said Tuesday.

The joint Committee meetings and the efficiency audit that’s expected to begin soon should make the cliff “not as severe as it might appear,” Dachowitz said.

Council member Tom Livingston (D-District E) asked about restrictions on federal funds.

A government cannot use these funds to cut taxes, Dachowitz said. Also, “these funds should not be used for pension plans or OPEB funds which pay for post-retirement health costs.”

The schools “still do not have definitive guidance from the state of Connecticut,” Hamilton said. “All we have is the actual bill that the Congress had passed, but it’s unclear what restrictions, if any, the state of Connecticut is going to impose.”

Previous COVID relief funds did set parameters and, “we do expect that the new round of funding may have some similar types of restrictions or they may be more flexible, some indication that they may be more flexible,” Hamilton explained. It looks like at least 20% of the funds will need to be spent to address learning loss brought on by the pandemic and it’s yet to be determined how that’s defined.

“We may be able to take a certain percentage of our elementary school teacher salaries and suggest that you know that is being used to address learning loss,” Hamilton said. “So I don’t fundamentally disagree with Henry’s assessment that the funds can be probably can be used to cover what would really be a normal ordinary increase in our operating budget.”

But, Hamilton said, “Really our first preference would be to use those funds for those additional needs that our students are facing, so I do want to put that on the record.”

11 comments

Mike Barbis April 14, 2021 at 8:38 am

The problem with the City’s strategy is that there will now not be a penny for supporting and helping students in a post-Covid world. What does this mean? It means there will be no $ to get students back on track after a year of learning loss, no $ to work with students on social/emotional challenges after the traumas some endured during Covid … NPS will just be staying in place. This is shortsighted … and the $27 mm cliff is even more shortsighted.

nora king April 14, 2021 at 8:43 am

We have a week Chairman of the Board for the BOE. He basically rolls over for anything that Laoise King and the Mayor want. Hence why they interfered and put him in place. Tragedy how the mayor is starting to run town hall like a dictator. VOTE HIM OUT IN NOVEMBER.

Jeff H. April 14, 2021 at 1:41 pm

Not sure I follow. So the argument is that if city funding is flat this year and next that they will need $27 million more in two years? Or is it that the budget will be $27 million more in two years so we should allocate more this year and next so that it is not a $27 million 1 year increase (but ends up costing taxpayers more total?)? Reading this makes me think they want more money from the city for two years so the cliff is “not as severe as is might appear.”

Norwalk Native April 14, 2021 at 2:22 pm

@nora king

What is the difference between Laoise and the “Mayor”? This is a trick question because of the two are of course synonymous.

The real cliff that is coming our way very soon is a new influx of ELL students resulting from Biden’s border policies (or lack thereof). While Lamont has been has publicly sympathetic and complicit (see below article), it’s clear that Greenwich, Darien, Westport and New Canaan will continue to not accept these students through their exclusionary zoning laws. Expect large future tax hikes in Norwalk that can be directly attributed to the border crisis.

https://www.courant.com/politics/hc-pol-lamont-migrant-children-middletown-prison-20210409-nxhywl37vjfx7ayzoxiknigqne-story.html

Alexandrea Kemeny April 14, 2021 at 2:41 pm

Hamilton said ” our 1st preference would be to use funds for those additional needs of our children due to Covid” (and may I include the results from the open door policy of our Federal Government). The Federal Covid-19 funds should go directly to the students that need to be brought up to speed with the education they have lost. (not that it is likely to be possible). And the situation of ELL students will have to be addressed. Like it or Not! They need to be immersed in English before they are thrown into a classroom holding the class back and leading to their frustration. Pulling them out by an ELL teacher for an hour a day is useless and disruptive to the entire class. They are our future and aren’t going anywhere so we need to assimilate into our city. (Perhaps we could get Federal funds to help us?) T
Then many of the regular students who have been learning remotely are pushed on in grade level even though they’ve lost a year of learning. Many should be held back a year but will be pushed on and fall further behind with no chance of catching up. Perhaps Covid money should be used to hire a teacher on each grade level to teach those students that would benefit from back tracking the curriculum and bringing those identified up to speed.
Next,the Board of Ed has to prioritize how their money is spent. If the funds aren’t limitless, they need go back to their mission statement and philosophy and decide where the funds are best spent. Is it best to spend it on a State of the Arts High School where students of surrounding areas will benefit from our tax money? Or should we spend the money on the fundamental education of our youngest students , where they must learn basic reading and writing? If they don’t learn the basics before they leave elementary school- they will never catch up! Perhaps we should spend the money on our South Norwalk young children? On ELL students? SPED students? Strengthening the early years, PreK. ? I don’t know. But it seems to me that the Board of Ed needs to figure out their priorities.

Justin Matley April 15, 2021 at 12:32 am

A few points on Alexandrea’s post et al:

1. All students suffered some learning loss this year on some level. The answer is not to hold kids back at will, but to consider how the subsequent couple grades can help prop them up academically, but also socially and emotionally. Mike Barbis is right above in that that’s a big component of how this federally money should be used, and will instead be forced to supplement operating costs.

2. Federal legislators are looking at ELL issue and it’s true that we absolutely need more support in that regard, but wrangling them together and forcing them to master English before entering regular classwork is classic covert racism. This country does not have an official language for a reason. That said, sure, we could offer more integrated and equitable services for that population, which I know is a BOE priority.

3. The issue with this federal Covid money is we have two years to use it. And it’s gone. History. It’s split basically in half across this coming year and the following and thats the end of it. You cannot use that money to just start a bunch of new programs and enter a hiring spree because it’ll be wasted infrastructure; none of it will be funded post 22-23. So it has to be either for Covid related measures (social emotional support, expanded summer school, tutoring, paras, etc) in a direct response to this year, or – as the city is forcing – support current operational costs to keep them functioning; costs we have no control over like salaries and healthcare that are state or union mandated.

4. People constantly conflate operating and capital budgets. New schools, bathrooms, fields; these are capital expenditures. Salaries, healthcare, programming; these are operating costs. They are not one in the same. It’s not a giant pot of money. It’s various different pools of cash, credit, debt, and bonding – some with state or federal support – that fit into different categories. Not all city expenses cross-pollinate.

Alexandrea Kemeny April 15, 2021 at 1:56 pm

I must to clarify a point that Justin Matley wrote in his comments. No where in my comments did I say that ELL student must master English!! Do not imply that I am racist! I lived in a foreign country for two years not speaking the language and I know that stress and fear it puts on students. How dare you imply such a thing. I clearly said they should be immersed learning basics as “yes” “no” “bathroom” “I don’t feel well” etc. I was a teacher for 31 years and I know the fears that not knowing a language creates and how it helps to ease the children into the unknown.
Please them me your personal experience with children entering our country who are unsure of their surroundings.It is improper for you to slander. I suppose English isn’t our official language according to the Constitution but really? You want to hold these children back by NOT teaching them proper English? By not giving them the foundation they need to be successful? In my eyes, you are the one lacking in sensitivity!

Justin Matley April 15, 2021 at 4:38 pm

Alexandra,

My apologies for the lost in translation. I was not insinuating you were racist. I’d never do that, but I can see how that may been drawn out of my comment.

That said, there’s elements of what I thought you had implied – and again, just may have been how I interpreted it (these issues are not easy to navigate), that are of deep historical race origin and can set off alarms. “Assimilation” in many circles is a very loaded and dated term. You did say immersion as well, and I do to a large extent agree with that, but again, this is a term that sometimes can get misconstrued easily.

You clarified your point but offering some details that I think helped better detail your position. Based on that, I mostly agree.

Justin Matley April 15, 2021 at 5:00 pm

I think all of this is a super useful lesson, frankly. I’m glad this discussion happened, because we can all learn from it. As a white, Anglo-Saxon male, I have very little to stand on, but just want to offer some language context – because I’m sure I’ve screwed up on this topic before. I’m no expert.

Assimilation is a process that says a minority culture is enveloped by a dominant one, in such a way that suppresses the minority culture into, in practical terms, extinction. It’s historical implications in the US date back to the Native Americans, obviously, and the term in sociological and anthropological venues is, with no doubt, disrespectful to minority culture. It’s the root of many of the race pushback today, some of which I find extremely important for our generation and ability to relate to others and grow as a society, some of which I find a bit troubling and reactionary.

Anyhow; respect all around. Just adding some context to my specific comment above and where my own reaction originated from.

Alexandrea Kemeny April 16, 2021 at 10:10 am

My definition -assimilation- the absorption and integration of people, ideas, or culture into a wider society or culture. Yours is a very negative connotation and you apologize because you happen to be white? We are the United States and we are not a racist society . The people who continue to drag our country down portraying us all as racist, putting guilt trips on people who happen to be white, will be the ruination of “The American Dream”. I am a first generation Hungarian. My parents didn’t speak a word of English and worked in factories and struggled to give our family a better life. But my parents learned English,my father served in the Army in WWII and became American. They assimilated! This is why these people took the dangerous journey. They want the American Dream and they won’t and shouldn’t have it unless they become one of us. American! That is what America is and we should expect nothing less.

Justin Matley April 16, 2021 at 10:02 pm

Alexandrea, once again, not speaking about you, so there’s really no need to defend yourself. I never once brought you as an individual up, just the sociological theory you cited. We’re all good.

Now: It’s true; I probably disagree with some aspects of how you’re using the term, and not others. And we’ve already established you aren’t coming from a race connotation (based on our mutual acquaintance’s note to me, we actually have some interesting things in common), but I am coming from a cultural one: one that assimilation does confront. Also, I’m not of the *woke* variety you reference, and although I do not apologize for my own heritage, I’m gladly able to say I’m little able to start shoving my heritage onto others, while suppressing their own, which is what assimilation historically is. Again, I don’t imply that’s what you meant, just said the word was loaded.

In the end, the point and common ground are clear. We need to view our ELL students through a lens that:

1. Produces state and federal dollars that allows us to promote the welfare of children however they enter our system. We can disagree about the system itself, I have my concerns, but if they get here they need our support.

2. We need to rediscover our secular Constitutional values that promote shared cultural institutions and yes, help them integrate into using English in a functional way, but also embracing their own identity and values and integrating what THEY offer into the majority’s. In some schools, however, they make up almost a majority. So it’s tricky. This will be different for every child, depending on their age. This is where after school and summer programming needs to step in and offer more intensive, working group approaches to this integration. There’s also wonderful new curriculum out there being piloted that makes great use of new approaches to this challenge.

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