Every February, like clockwork, our City budgets meet in the Thunderdome in what regularly feels like a “battle for the soul” of Norwalk. The yearly ritual is ripe with build-up, posturing, editorializing, and ultimately a spreadsheet circus climaxing in the bowels of the Common Council. This piece is not designed to rehash any of that. The archaic and convoluted process by which we determine how to fund our children’s educational welfare, laced with equal parts distrust and skepticism, political charades and groupthink, seems as old and cyclical as time. And this is coming from two Norwalkers who have both lived here only under a decade. Even us relative newbies are exhausted.
It’s important we preface by noting we are both Democrats. But, we are not boilerplate party infantry. We, like many of our fellow citizens, demand a system rooted in logic, rational forethought, and transparent data. While we believe that politics will always be a dirty business, we also believe that everyone, regardless of party or creed, must be rowing in the same direction: to improve the lives of the constituents they represent. The ideas and priorities may be different, but the integrity and values by which they are devised cannot.
People of any party faction can violate these terms, and when it comes from our own party, we feel there is no choice but to call it out. We are doing so now:
The Kydes amendment, introduced in this past week’s Common Council operating budget vote, was a violation of the terms we expect in our representatives of Norwalk.
We are not naive, or immune ourselves, to the challenges of this past year. We both have known peers, friends, or family who have died or gotten tremendously sick. One of us lost their job. The other has a spouse working on the frontline. Both of us have had to help people we love dearly through tremendous hardship exasperated by the events of the last 12 months. And we understand that all of this translates into impossible choices – unique to this year – on the part of the city. Whether it be social programs, hiring and benefits, City services, community welfare, or any other line item a City must assemble to consider the working mechanics of a 90,000-person city, difficult decisions abound.
The budget presented by the Superintendent and Board of Education was, without political spin, lean. In fact, considering the influx of students and the physical, emotional, and financial challenges of the past year, coupled with the services our education system provides as a critical component for the welfare of our city, it was skeletal. Outside of immutable expenses, it included a 15% reduction in professional and technical services, a 6% reduction in other services, and a 2.4% reduction in supplies and materials. It included a significant cut (60%) and reorganization of supplemental funds for magnet schools. It included a continuation of cuts on SPED spending; choosing to hire internally to keep costs controlled versus expensive outsourcing. Later, in the interest of transparency and before a formal vote was heard, it was cut further: accommodating new data from the state on insurance costs. While some felt a 4.6% budget increase from last year was a windfall for BOE, it represented an adjustment of the cost of simply doing the business of education.
The City countered with a 2% increase; one that failed to see the forest through the trees, and its explanations regularly missed the context by which the numbers were devised. The City offer was entirely disproportionate with its own budget hike of 6%, triple that of education. Ultimately, of the 4.6% requested, 2.2% was required to cover the rise in health insurance costs for teachers, paraeducators, custodians, nurses and other critical staff, while the balance was to staff priority needs and meet contractual obligations to those same employees. It was to keep the business of education afloat in Norwalk, so the people teaching, protecting, and supporting our kids during the most difficult year education has experienced in four generations could simply work.
Tuesday night’s Common Council meeting, where the budget vote took place, invoked its usual budget season theatrics. Admittedly, we prefer the idealistic notion of mixed political opinions in a room; offering pragmatic ideas and constructive dialogue to add context and nuance to complicated topics. Sometimes this means robust investment, sometimes this means difficult cuts, but ultimately the lofty goal of government, however often unmet, is to make the most out of the citizens’ dollars. This meeting, like many others in government, lacked much of this aspiration and outcome, but that was not unexpected. This is what was:
Councilman Kydes introduced, without consultation with the Superintendent’s Office or Board of Education, an amendment cutting an additional $1 million from the City’s already short, and shortsighted, offer. After the initial shock and awe, apart from five Council members willing to at least hold to the original City offer (and a bold one Council member advocating detailed compromise), groupthink largely ensued and the rationale in the room was clear: it would be a prudent statement to the citizens that the Council was doing all it can to save Norwalk money. On the surface this seems to offer some merit; austerity in times of strife.
But, a quick glance past the headline of the moment reveals the reality. $1 million saves the average household in this city approximately $17. Seventeen dollars. Not a day, not a week, not a month: but for the year.
Councilman Kydes and the other nine Council members that voted for this amendment, ultimately leading to its passage, saved you maybe a meal or two at McDonald’s. It is a drop in the bucket in the City’s total budget; a meritless, negligible amount that feels very much like a political posture. Frankly, it’s one packaged perfectly for a campaign: a made-for-local-media slogan about tax cutting and saving the citizens from excessive BOE demands. It was remarked to these authors that those Council members who voted for its passage felt this was a “message that the Council was being fiscally responsible”. However, in our opinion, it’s a trite, one-sided message that came with a perfect round number; no itemized consideration of effects, no warning to the Board or Superintendent, no informed and considerate debate, and no tangible savings for our community. But, it does, in fact, come with a price.
The budget cut, now standing at approximately $6 million due to the additional passage of the Kydes amendment, presents our City’s education operations new and upsetting challenges. This reduction could go multiple ways. Do we cut almost $600 in per pupil spending, per student? Do we layoff at least 50 positions across the district, including salary and benefits? The latter bothers us in particular considering the throughline narrative of the Council meeting: preserving people’s livelihoods and jobs. These were both very predictable and very realistic potential consequences.
The Council argues that federal funds are coming, and they will provide a unique financial windfall the likes of which our district hasn’t seen. Except, even if/when our City receives some help, the law requires these funds be spent on yet to be determined COVID relief measures, and is wholly unrelated to the predetermined operating expenses of the BOE. In fact, it is not to be used as a supplement for local education funding at all. It’s meant to help issues we are still trying to figure out, still encountering and grappling with, and are financially unaccounted for.
This money may create temporary and necessary opportunities to help get our students’ livelihoods and learning potential back under them, to dig our kids out of academic, social, emotional, and mental holes no child should have had to bear, but it will not save permanent jobs.
We have great respect for the City’s administration and its investment over the last several years to make up for decades of lost opportunity. The Mayor and the Council should be unequivocally commended for that. But this is an annual chore, one where certain City officials are regularly revealed as surprised that adequate investing leads to better performance outcomes – an indubitable fact; ignorant to the reaches of a quality education system and the merits of the investment.
This is no ruse. It’s not just the academic metrics, or the property value benefits (that far outweigh the taxation), or the socialization opportunities. It’s more than the crime it prevents, the healthcare costs it saves, or the childcare it offers. It’s more than bridging economic and cultural divides, combating ignorance, or providing a launchpad to adulthood in whatever form a child’s imagination takes them. It’s a literal lifeline for our citizens.
Moreover this: it’s not always about getting all one side wants. Finances will never always work out exactly as planned. We don’t ignore that. But if we can’t compromise; if our City officials across sectors don’t start to trust one another and recognize all of the services our education system demands to meet even the very basic functions of family stability and security, and don’t remove political showmanship from the equation, then our city’s kids will suffer the ramifications. It is possible to lead empathetically for our kids, and not meekly for ourselves. And if some of those in charge cannot meet the basic requirements of the moment, then we, exhausted as we may be, will do what’s possible to find citizens willing to stand up for it, demand it, and run for office where just modest bravery is required.
Justin Matley & Sarah McIntee
Editor’s note: Sarah McIntee is a Chapman Hyperlocal Media Inc. Board member. She is expressing her personal opinion in this letter.