Despite assurances to the contrary, and notwithstanding that families have already entered into contracts for the Brookside Preschool Program for the 2017-18 school year, Superintendent Steven Adamowski has, once again, unilaterally offered the Brookside classrooms to a consortium (known as “ELLI”) which includes a for-profit partner. This decision is being made despite the costs of the privatized program far exceeding the net costs of the Brookside program which is operated by the District and staffed by fully-certified teachers holding masters’ degrees. Now, rather than being honest with the families who will be negatively affected when their children’s preschool program is cancelled, the Superintendent has decided, instead, to include the cost of the Brookside program on his “cut-list” under the guise of needing to save its net cost of $42,000. Of course, the fact that replacing the Brookside program with the costlier ELLI program will require far more funding than is being saved is an inconvenient truth the Superintendent and his minions on the Board of Education must hope taxpayers will overlook. Given that the Board of Education’s Finance Committee approved the elimination of the Brookside program without any debate or discussion as to its impact on the students already registered for it, one can only conclude that providing a financial boom to the politically-connected leaders of the ELLI consortium is far more important than budgetary transparency or fiscal responsibility.
Not only does ELLI receive all-expense paid space in select public schools, but it also receives reimbursement for its start-up costs and advertising costs, repayment of its daily expenses, a stipend to cover a portion of its administrative costs and the free services of the school district staff to collect student tuitions and handle its receipt of state School Readiness Grant money. In the budget to be voted on June 27th, the District is providing $161,286 to ELLI in reimbursements (not counting the value of the in-kind services being paid for by the taxpayers). However, the budget does not include the additional expenses of adding the two Brookside classrooms to the ELLI gravy train. When that happens, rather than realizing the net savings of $42,000 attributed to the elimination of the Brookside program, the BOE will need to find another $80,640 to realize its plan to give that space to ELLI.
In a budget far in excess of $160,000,000, one would think that $42,000 could be found in any number of non-classroom areas – like the $115,000 increase to spending on recruitment, or the $110,000 increase to fund to new positions in the communications department, or the budgets for central office paper clips that remain unscathed through the current fiscal “crisis.” But, to actually find the $42,000 so that Norwalk’s young children could have a quality, nationally-accredited pre-school of their choosing (which has already been promised to them), one would need to be willing to look for it. And, that is a willingness sorely lacking given a Finance Committee more committed to nodding in agreement with the Administration, gnashing of their teeth at the prospect of having no choice but to make cuts, and convincing the public that the teachers, and not they, are to blame.
Last year, the Administration played a shell game when it was revealed that payments to ELLI were being made by the Superintendent without any approval by the Board of Education and without any budgetary appropriation to pay the stipends and reimbursements provided in the ELLI contract. Then, we were told that the ELLI program was cheaper than the District’s own program (a claim made without any evidence and which has since been debunked). We were told that measures from one literacy test showed that the ELLI students performed better; yet, upon closer scrutiny of the “data” it appeared that the Brookside preschool classroom data included test results from the special education program preschool and that the ELLI data was enhanced by including students from the full-year program. Under this intense scrutiny, the Administration reneged on its intended dissolution of the Brookside program and promised to support it. Relying upon this promise, a number of families registered their children by entering into a contract with the District for their children’s placement at Brookside next year.
But the Brookside program mysteriously appeared on a secret budget cut list manufactured by the Administration. Of all the areas where $42,000 could be saved, the Administration chose the one program which would negatively impact 40 young children.
The Administration has certainly gone to great lengths to eliminate the inclusive Brookside Preschool Program. The program to replace it does not employ State Department of Education certified teachers (ELLI only requires an associates degrees which does not qualify for teacher certification), does not allow students who are not potty-trained to enroll (which, arguably, would be the type of students most in need of a quality preschool program) and has not received national accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (Brookside received its re-accreditation last year). Once again, Norwalk’s taxpayers will underwrite a lucrative favor for a politically-connected group, and Norwalk’s most vulnerable students will pay an even greater price.
It has been said that a good politician will never let a good crisis go to waste. Sadly, that maxim appears to be embodied by the handling of the budget crisis by Superintendent Adamowski and the Board of Education.
Steven Colarossi is a former Board of Education member, whose wife teaches preschoolers at Brookside Elementary School.