Opinion: Rivera’s achievement

Bill Dunne
Bill Dunne

Bill Dunne is the Republican candidate for State Senate in the 25th senatorial district, which includes all of Norwalk and most of Darien.

Manuel Rivera, Norwalk’s superintendent of public schools, has put a strong hand to stabilizing a system that seemed to be flying off in all directions not long ago.  In his own words, he’s been “changing bad habits, bad practices, and the old ways of doing business.”

Good. But what may be Dr. Rivera’s most lasting achievement is more fundamental.  He has shed a bright light on the long-term effects of sloppy or careless handling of human-resource issues.

The point here can be summed up with a simple question: Are Norwalk kids 31% better educated than Danbury kids?  The question is raised because Norwalk taxpayers are in fact paying 31% more per pupil than Danbury taxpayers are paying.  ($15,075 in Norwalk versus $11,456 in Danbury.)  Danbury taxpayers are looking at a total education outlay in the upcoming fiscal year of $118 million.  For Norwalk it’s $167 million.  A difference of $49 million.

It’s an apples-to-apples comparison because Norwalk and Danbury are fairly close in basic respects.  Both are Fairfield County towns. Both have similar populations (80,000 for Danbury, 85,000 for Norwalk).  Both have similar demographics in terms of ages, incomes, and ethnicities. Both have similar K-12 student populations (10,300 for Danbury, 11,078 for Norwalk).

What are we Norwalkers getting for the $49 million extra we spend in one year compared to Danbury?  Forty-nine million is twice as much as Norwalk’s entire capital budget. The capital budget pays for all the municipal construction around town — the school facilities, youth athletic facilities, street repairs, sewage and drainage projects, plus municipal vehicles and firefighting and police equipment.

Imagine if we had anything like $49 million extra to spend each and every year. All our overhead power lines and cables, so vulnerable to winter storms, could be put underground. Every road could have spanking new sidewalks. We could make all the athletic facilities at our schools world class. We could make tuition at Norwalk Community College free to Norwalk residents. We could enhance a full range of public services while reducing property taxes at the same time.

So when a discrepancy like $49 million — in one year alone, mind you — pops out, we have to wonder why.  Dr. Rivera didn’t just wonder why, he demanded answers.  Here’s a sample of what he found:

Salaries and wages in the Norwalk school system on a per-student basis are 30% higher than in Danbury.

Norwalk spends 30% more on employee fringe benefits (health, dental, and life insurance). That alone comes to $9 million more per year than Danbury spends.  (Note, however, that this gap will narrow considerably because the Norwalk BOE is transitioning all school employees to a combination of health-savings accounts and high-deductible health plans.)

When Norwalk teachers retire, their departure package includes a check for any accrued vacation time not taken during the years they worked. Danbury has no such provision.

Good teachers and school administrators deserve good pay, because nothing is more important than a good public education system for our children.  It is a tribute to the negotiating skills of the Norwalk public school unions that they acquired such superior compensations for their members. Indeed, Norwalk teachers and administrators are among the most handsomely compensated in Connecticut, and indeed the entire nation.

Norwalk taxpayers, though, may rightly wonder if they’re getting their money’s worth since academic performance among Danbury and Norwalk students is about the same.

The full analysis referred to here is contained in a little-noticed report issued by Dr. Rivera in May of this year, titled “Norwalk Public Schools Comparison to Danbury Public Schools for FY 2013/2014.” (Ed.: Scroll down to Page 10 to find report)

The lesson we can draw from Dr. Rivera’s report is that improvement in our schools depends far less on the amount of money spent than how it is spent.  And how it is spent is often determined long in advance.  Bargains that look affordable today can drag down every other desirable expenditure tomorrow.  It pays big dividends in the long run to hold our municipal officials’ feet to the fire for the bargains they strike today.


19 responses to “Opinion: Rivera’s achievement”

  1. Norewalk Lifer

    Great Schools rates Danbury High at a 3, Norwalk High, and Brien McMahon are rated 4’s. New Canaan High, Darien High, and Staples are rated at 10.
    How about Mr. Rivera looks to see what the neighboring towns are doing right, instead of comparing only the money with Danbury?
    If this is only about the budget, I would say that’s not enough.

    Norwalk Lifer

  2. John Hamlin

    We should be paying teachers more than we do — all towns should — but not until the teachers agree to be held accountable, subject to meaningful performance evaluations, and subject to discipline and termination like employees in the private sector. As it stands, teachers are hired for life, they get automatic pay increases, and as long as they have a pulse they can’t be terminated. We should pay for performance, and when we are permitted to do that, we should increase compensation — until then, compensation should be frozen until Danbury teachers catch up.

  3. MarjorieM

    Has anyone calculated the price of new hires at central office? How about the cost of the three administrators who were relocated to central office? Add in future costs of assistant principals now funded from a grant that won’t last forever? Norwalk’s education budget is rapidly increasing if these costs are included for future years.

  4. Galen Wells

    We are not competing with Danbury for teacher hires. We are in the same market as New Cannan, Darien and Westport, all of which pay teachers the same or a higher salary than Norwalk. We need to boost Norwalk schools so they are rated as high as Staples and Darien High, not d
    drag them down to Danbury’s level.

  5. Piberman

    Bill Dunn’s thoughtful analysis helps explains the factor’s behind the City’s punitive tax rates, stagnant property values and unprecedented exodus of senior long time homeowners. Those self interested folks who claim teachers are underpaid need explain why our nation’s public schools under perform most advanced economies and why similarly paid teachers in surrounding towns achieve much better performance. Two parent families focusing on college rather than sports or bands may explain the differences. Long time retired residents seek affordable property taxes while short time/renters seek school monies. Little wonder Norwalk is fast becoming a city of renters amidst the senior exodus fearful of continued property stagnation. Parents seeking an Ivy admittance for their children always have the option of moving to a surrounding town where they can look forward to increased property values. Even our school teachers mostly avoid living in Norwalk. Even with 5th highest pay in the state.

  6. Jeff

    Like Danbury, Norwalk has experienced significant demographic shifts in the last twenty years. I would suspect that with the influx of first generation immigrants to the area and ENL (English as a non language) households, the writer finds it more suitable to compare to Danbury.

  7. Oldtimer

    Bill doesn’t mention how much of the difference in school costs is the difference in State aid to local schools,($16,000,000). He prefers to try to blame it all on the teacher’s union. His anti-employee bias colors everything he writes, and that is a shame. Norwalk should look at paying a bonus for living in Norwalk and get more of taxpayer’s money spent in Norwalk. His projections on what Norwalk could do with an extra 49 million include converting overhead power lines to underground, as if those lines belonged to the City. He should know better.

  8. Bill

    It is great to see the retired and current teachers are out in full force on this message board trying to argue that we should be paying Norwalk teachers 30% more than Danbury. You should be ashamed, that money should go to the kids, not the teachers.

  9. Hobbes the Calvinist

    Like a scared kid who insists that there’s a monster hiding under his bed, Bill Dunne is convinced that it’s the teachers’ union preventing Norwalk’s finances from getting a good night’s sleep.

    What a candidate for State Senate should be focused on is the disparity in state aid between Danbury and Norwalk.

    Danbury’s population is 6% smaller than Norwalk’s. Danbury receives nearly double what Norwalk receives from all state aid- the ECS disparity is a whopping $8,000,000.

    All that extra money has allowed Danbury to create some efficiencies (especially in developing local special education) which creates tremendous savings.

    Perhaps if the speechwriter were a demographer (or someone who could use google to access the state’s database on the Department of Economic and Community Development– or Zillow for that matter), he would know that greater Danbury area has much lower property values, which allows for lower municipal salaries. Just look at average home values in Bethel compared to any town that borders Norwalk.

    If his objection is to the teachers contract, he needs to ask the Republicans on the Board of Education why they have consistently voted to approve every teachers’ contract that has come before them for a vote. Then again, if that’s the pressing issue he intends to focus on, he should be running for the school board and not state senate.

  10. David

    @Norewalk Lifer: They’re richer, thats what they’re “doing right”. The single biggest indicator of academic success in this state is family income.

  11. Every critic’s a teacher?

    That kind of response to differing opinions isn’t what Norwalk needs in Hartford.

    With the extreme Republican minority in the state senate, an effective GOP senator will need to cobble votes from both sides of the aisle to get Norwalk the help it needs. Mr. Dunne can joust at windmills from the safety of his kitchen table. But, sending him to Hartford? Come on- I think even fiscal conservatives know we can do better.

  12. Lifelong Teacher

    I’ve worked closely with Norwalk teachers for nearly 30 years. I have watched so many of the senior staff retire, and helped newcomers into the profession. I have seen them marry, buy houses, and start their families. As they looked for their homes, they moved farther and farther away. They didn’t do this by choice: a commute from Trumbull, Newtown, or even Fairfield isn’t fun. It puts them in horrific traffic and danger during rush hour twice a day, and takes hours every day away from their families. They do it because they cannot afford to live in Norwalk.

    I am sure he will find a way to twist this around, and somehow blame it on salaries – he always does. But I must take exception to Berman’s claim above that ‘…even our schoolteachers mostly avoid living in Norwalk…’ Mostly, they have no choice.

  13. Taxpayer Fatigue

    The ironic thing is that even teachers don’t buy houses in Norwalk for the same reason no one else does – our school ratings are so poor that real estate is a bad investment here.

  14. The problem with most of these comments is they are off-message. The writer is simply trying to make a comparative study of two towns of similar proportions. For the benefit of those who have attacked the writer personally, the towns have about the same number of people, the exception being there is a somewhat higher proportion of whites in Danbury and a somewhat smaller percentage of blacks. Most other figures are about the same. His use of Danbury was arithmetical and a town that is familiar to most of us. Who among us hasn’t been to their mall, and for the old timers the Fair Gronds, or even the old airport. C’mon guys, stay on message and stop attacking Dunne personally. And, besides he is running for office and he is pointing out the differences he has with his opponent. If you agree with his politics then support him and vote his way, if you support the Duff party, then do as you wish.
    Remember, a lot of money is at stake. Dunne raised some very important questions, and if you agree with some of his comments, then give his candidacy serious consideration. It is time to throw out the old and bring in some new thinking. Remember, more than half our town taxes are allocated to education and about 50% of our people don’t have any kids in the school system. It is time for a reality check.

  15. MarjorieM

    I came to the conclusion a long time ago that taxpayers who blame ‘highly paid lackluster educators’ will never change their minds about what is wrong in the public schools. No matter what the evidence, no matter what the argument, the educators are at fault. Berman et al will not and can not accept any other evidence than that which they choose to see. Our brightest and best students continue to be accepted to Ivy League colleges, but that must be an anomaly, according to ‘those people.’ Our educators continue to do their best and beyond even while ‘stones’ are hurled at them by the people who have never witnessed these teachers in action. Does anyone care to ask if the teachers, curriculum specialists or administrators have been given adequate instruction to implement the new curriculum? Is everything going well for staff in the schools? No one seems to include staff in evaluations of the higher ups, but the staff keeps doing their best. NoN, how about some responses from the staff and not just Mike Lyons…..

  16. Norewalk Lifer: “How about Mr. Rivera looks to see what the neighboring towns are doing right, instead of comparing only the money with Danbury? If this is only about the budget, I would say that’s not enough.”
    Dr. Rivera did the comparison with Danbury at the request of the Common Council, which asked for it because of the demographic similarities between the two cities. Our demographics are so different from the surrounding towns (like Darien and Westport) that a comparison with them would have been apples to oranges.
    John Hamlin: “We should be paying teachers more than we do — all towns should — but not until the teachers agree to be held accountable, subject to meaningful performance evaluations, and subject to discipline and termination like employees in the private sector.”
    I would fully support changes in state law to allow us to tie salaries to performance; we can’t do that under the present collective bargaining statutes. I do note that last month we approved new evaluation policies for teachers and administrators that for the first time will base their performance evaluations 45% on student achievement – a step in the right direction.
    Hobbes: “If his objection is to the teachers contract, he needs to ask the Republicans on the Board of Education why they have consistently voted to approve every teachers’ contract that has come before them for a vote.”
    Not entirely accurate, Hobbes. In the 2012 go-around, the Republican Board of Ed majority did NOT vote to approve the teachers contract – we sent it to arbitration instead, and won a wage freeze. At least the current Board has tried to rein-in costs, has succeeded in getting employees to switch to less expensive health insurance, and is implementing better evaluation systems to make sure we’re getting the quality we’re paying for.
    Fatigue – “[R]eal estate is a bad investment here.” Lord knows the real estate market hasn’t improved much in Norwalk since the Great Recession allegedly ended. But the fact is that real estate in Norwalk is much more expensive than in most parts of the State, and its value has gone up over the long haul. For instance, Norwalk’s mean home value is $406,204, while Danbury’s is $292,371 (for context, mean value in Waterbury – $140,307; in Norwich – $171,721; in Meriden – $175,672). If Fatigue is right that “even teachers don’t buy houses in Norwalk for the same reason no one else does – our school ratings are so poor”, how does he account for the fact that our home values are 39% higher than Danbury’s? Admittedly our schools outperform Danbury’s on most measures of student achievement, but enough to generate a 39% housing price difference? I think people oversimplify the various causes of housing price differentials; there are a lot of factors that go into it (school quality, tax rates, crime, amenities, proximity (e.g., to NYC)).
    I recommend an interesting site with searchable data about these factors – http://www.neighborhoodscout.com (just type in “Norwalk, CT” in the search box). For instance, the data shows that since 1990, home values in Norwalk have risen 84%. Not great compared to Westport (128%), but about the same as Stamford’s (88%). Notably, our home values have risen faster than any of the eight largest cities in Connecticut (except slightly behind Stamford); the other rises were (by city by size) Bridgeport (69%), New Haven (79%), Hartford (51%), Waterbury (18%), Danbury (74%) and New Britain (31%). Just some numbers to put our housing values in historical and geographic perspective.
    P.S. to Marj – I know you’d love to have NON censor me, but fortunately the First Amendment is alive and well on this site …

  17. Marj – “Has anyone calculated the price of new hires at central office?” Sure, we have those numbers. To put the budget magnitudes in perspective, adding up all the administrators in the NASA union together gives a total annual cost of $8.8 million. Added together, the teachers cost $78.0 million (almost 9 times as much as the administrators). There are, of course, many more teachers, but a 1% increase in teacher salaries adds 9 times as much to our budget as a 1% increase for administrators.

  18. MarjorieM

    Mike Lyons, I would never want NoN to censor you. You are the one who can pontificate at times, but you are also the one who holds the most intelligent dialogues at other times. I enjoy debating with you. By the way, my budget comment concerns the future budgets that will have to accommodate all the new salaries. We have quite a few new appointees in central office as well as three administrators relocated there. Then there are the curriculum specialists/ assistant principals in each of the schools whose grant funds will dry up eventually. I speak for the budgets three to five years down the road.

  19. Valid point, Marj. This is one of the reasons we’ve adopted three-year budgeting, so we can plan well in advance for any significant changes (e.g., planned end of grants) and smooth the adjustment process. Under the old one-year budget approach, a change like that would be unplanned for and disruptive.

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