The Norwalk Public Schools have made extraordinary progress over the last seven or so years. One of us chaired the Board of Education for five of those years, during which the Norwalk schools steadily rose to become the highest-performing urban school system in the State. The other of us served on the BET, which funded those successes.
Our terms ended last November, so we haven’t been involved in this year’s budget process. But we have looked on in appalled astonishment at the behavior of the City’s new Finance Director as he has made unprecedented attacks on the school system, the schools Finance Director, and the Board of Education over this year’s budget request. There isn’t even a partisan aspect to this; while we are both Republicans, ALL of the people involved in the dispute over this year’s budget are Democrats. And our Democratic Mayor has sat silently by while his Finance Director accuses the staff of the school system and its all-Democrat Board of being liars and frauds.
The Mayor has certainly agreed with our assessment that the schools have improved dramatically. In his campaign statements last fall, among other things the mayor stated that he “supported increases in operational spending to support school improvement and curriculum development. Norwalk public schools ranked #1 on the state education report card – ranking first among peer districts including Stamford according to the 2019 CT Accountability Report. Significantly outperforming the state average,” and that Norwalk now has “a top-flight public school system.” We agree. So why the sudden blistering attacks on that school system by the City Finance Director?
We believe that this is a diversionary tactic – an unnecessary and counterproductive approach to the school budget, partially based on the Director’s rank ignorance of Connecticut law and local budgetary practices. For instance, the Director complained that school budgets are not allowed to be reduced from year to year under state law; that is indeed a highly questionable state policy, but the Director’s apparent ignorance of it is extraordinary. His accusations that the Board has made “misleading” budget requests and comparisons with spending on schools in other cities demonstrated yet more ignorance (he is apparently unaware that state calculations of school spending do incorporate local spending that isn’t directly appropriated to the school budget). The Director says it is ‘almost impossible to determine the schools’ headcount’; this is a ridiculous falsehood, as NPS’s accounting system has all of that data, easily accessible. He also said “[What] are they [Norwalk schools] spending their money on? We have no idea.” If he has no idea, then he’s been asleep at the switch, because all of that information is included in the NPS budget books submitted to the BET. Similar criticisms from him are equally ill-informed.
Furthermore, the Director’s personal attacks on schools Finance Director Tom Hamilton – one of the most respected public servants in Norwalk – are unconscionable. Tom served for years with distinction as Norwalk’s Finance Director before coming over to run finance for the school system. When his replacement at the City, Bob Barron, departed right in the middle of last year’s budget season, Tom agreed to manage preparation of the City’s budget along with the school system’s, serving as interim CFO for Norwalk WITHOUT PAY. Through all his time with the City and the school system he was totally without controversy and received high marks from all; and he was always accessible to the BET, BOE and the Council to back-up his budgets. Tom’s talents were recognized by his fellow finance experts when he was elected President of the Government Finance Officers Association of Connecticut.
Since the new City Finance Director (despite these examples of ignorance) isn’t a fool, how does one account for these unprecedented personal attacks on good people working to continue our progress in improving our children’s education? As noted, it appears that the City Finance Director has been set loose to disparage the educational leaders in Norwalk in order to justify the administration’s desire to provide far less funding to the schools than has been requested. The mystery is why these budget issues weren’t worked out in private Democratic caucuses (legal under the FOI Act) instead of being fought out in public with nasty personal attacks and false accusations. It is perfectly appropriate for the City to closely question the school budget and to reduce it if fiscally responsible; it is not appropriate to accuse the school system of “fraud” for making a bigger request than the City leaders like.
The needs of both our school children and our taxpayers are too important to be submerged under a name-calling barrage. In every one of his campaigns the Mayor has emphasized his insistence on “civility” in the operation of the City government. It’s time for him to remind his Finance Director of that policy.