NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Public Schools administrators took time Tuesday to respond to criticisms issued last week by Common Council members.
“Underspending is always better than overspending,” NPS Chief Financial Officer Lunda Asmani said, defending a chart that Council member David Heuvelman (D-District A) called “disingenuous” and explaining the difficulties in planning a budget 20 months before the end of the school year it’s funding.
While some Council members asked if NPS has a contingency plan in place should the Council not grant the Board of Education’s requested $27.6 million increase in its operating budget, Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella said hypotheticals are difficult to provide when the administration doesn’t know where the Council will land when it sets a budget cap next month.
“One thing we don’t want to do is create hysteria in the organization without knowing how we need to work with the budget based on the numbers that – we do not know what they are,” Estrella said.
Estrella and her administrators have presented much information in the lead up to making a request for a 12.7% operating budget increase, pared down from the original budget mockup of 18%. They examined special education costs in detail and recently reviewed mental health survey results, highlighting the impact of additional services as some appear on their way to being slashed as part of reducing the budget ask.
Last week, during a joint session that Council Finance Committee Chairman Greg Burnett (D-At Large) tried to keep to an hour, Council members stressed “needs over wants” in their concern for Norwalk taxpayers. Council member Jenn McMurrer (D-District C) described the new Welcome Center on Wall Street and the South Norwalk incubator school, meant to kickstart a school community before the actual construction of a new school building, as “wonderful ideas” but “wants, not needs.”
Neither project was funded by the operating budget allowed by the budget cap set last year by the Council but are now part of the school district’s operating budget request, touted as a “same services” plan at the start of the process.
“I’m pretty confident the families and the students in South Norwalk would find that (incubator) to be a real need. Those students have been bussed all over the district for way too long. And so I would put that in the need bucket,” BoE member Kara Nelson Baekey said Tuesday.
“Our budgetary request is based on needs, not wants,” Estrella said. “The 12.7% that we’re asking is to meet the fundamental work that we’re currently doing across the district. And the things that we’re doing are all necessary.”
NPS is seeing the student body improve due to mental health efforts, she said.
On Thursday, Asmani also presented a chart comparing the City’s general fund balance, or “Rainy Day Fund,” to Board of Education year-end surpluses, calling the City’s money “rollover funds.”
Heuvelman said that wasn’t a fair comparison, not “apples-to-apples.” Statutorily, the BoE can rollover 2% of its surplus into the next year while the City has siloed departments and “those city agencies are handled in a different way.”
Estrella said Tuesday, “Although we fall under the umbrella of the City, we do not operate like other departments in the City. We are governed by a Board of Education, we follow specific Statutes that are articulated by the State, which is very different … from how other departments in the City operate.”
Asmani, who worked as Norwalk Director of Management and Budgets before a stint as New Canaan Chief Finance Officer ahead of leading the NPS team, cited his City-side experience when he said, “Yes, it is a line item within the budget, but it is an organization in and of itself. In the accounting world, it will be considered a component unit.”
The chart was prepared in response to Council members’ questions, Asmani said.
While statutorily Connecticut school districts can rollover 2% of surplus funds, a recent increase from the previously allowed 1%, “not every district” seeks municipal approval for the rollover, he said. “We are unique in that we have that transparent process where we identify how much is left over, we go to the Board of Estimate ask Taxation and request it, and they vote…. Some Cities and Towns interpret that Statute differently. And they just automatically roll it over by an email or a memo from the superintendent.”
The Statute exists to discourage districts from hurriedly trying to use all their funds by the end of the school year, he said. “Underspending is always better than overspending” and 99.5% of City departments “don’t fully spend their budget at the end of the year.” For one thing, it’s difficult to predict staff turnover.
“We have almost 2,200 employees, 1,800 of whom are teachers,” Asmani said. “You add another hundreds of para educators. So 85% of our workforce, is of that kind, that is subject to turnover and retirements and competition, push and pull from different districts…. It’s not unique to Boards of Education. It’s one of the drivers in all of the departments, that drives turnover.”
Last year, NPS knew it would “underspend,” given COVID and staff turnover, he said. NPS went to the BET and explained how its rollover funds would be spent. “That chart was really more transparent than most districts would share.”
McMurrer on Thursday asked what contingency plan the district has if it doesn’t get its requested 12.7% operating budget increase because, “I’ve heard rumors that there’s gonna be massive layoffs.”
“It’s very hard to build a contingency plan when you don’t know what you are operating with,” Estrella said Tuesday.
The average school district salary is $118,000 a year and with 85% of the budget going to staff, any funding deficit will impact employees, Asmani said. As the current budget is about $217 million, 1% is equivalent to $2.1 million, or 18 employees.
“Just to kind of answer that hypothetical, not knowing where we’re going to land as we conclude this process,” Asmani said. “But I hope that those numbers kind of help kind of explain in a bigger picture, what we’re talking about here in terms of funding request.”
If NPS doesn’t get its funding, “the pain will be spread” across all of Norwalk’s public schools, Board Secretary Sheri McCready-Pritchett said.
“It’s district wide, and because of contracts, it’s going to be a ripple effect, because then it’s actually playing Tetris and trying to move people around to fill in other positions, just based on seniority, and based on contractual, whatever contractual obligations are” Board of Education Chairwoman Diana Carpio said. The budget is fluid because “enrollment changes all the time,” as do fees. It’s not like spending money on trucks. “Cutting the program is also cutting staff.”
“Programs are people in the business of schools,” Estrella said. “Materials are not a significant cost for a program. I think that’s a misconception. Programs are people.”
Some programs are funded by specific grants, only intended for that purpose, Ad-Hoc Special Education Chairwoman Erica DePalma said. NPS can’t “move money from this bucket into that bucket.”
“I am concerned about taxpayers, as well, as I’m sure the rest of us are many of us living here in Norwalk,” McCready-Pritchett said. “…At the same time, there’s a realization that there are needs that need to be addressed. And so it’s not as though we believe that it’s just a blank check. We are trying to be responsible in the provision of programs for students.”