NORWALK, Conn. – The “us vs. them” mentality wasn’t present in an unusual meeting of Norwalk leaders Monday night.
The special meeting of the Common Council Finance Committee and the Board of Education gave 11 council members a chance to query BOE Finance Committee Chairman Mike Barbis, Interim Norwalk Public Schools Superintendent Tony Daddona and NPS Chief Operating Officer Elio Longo about their 2013-2014 budget request.
The Common Council is scheduled to set the budget cap Feb. 26.
“There’s never really this kind of back and forth. It’s always them vs. us,” said Council Finance Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large), who arranged the informal get together.
Questions concerned the cost of special education — which Longo described as a “Catch 22,” as an investment must be made in programs before the expensive need to send students out of district can be eliminated — the achievement gap and the specific reasons Dadonna and Longo were calling for adding intervention specialists and a building coordinator.
More important were questions concerning the inclusion of Common Core Standard expenses into the capital budget. The mandatory switch to a nationwide common standard for educational results is the reason for a $1.27 million request in the 2013-2014 capital budget and $700,000 for WiFi and tablets in the 2014-2015 capital budget.
Dadonna explained most of the books in Norwalk schools are fiction, but the common standard mandates the use of nonfiction. Longo said it isn’t the first time textbooks have been put into capital budget, but Councilman Bruce Kimmel (D-District D) said that was risky.
“Once it is in the capital budget, things happen that are out of your control,” he said. “Besides the philosophical – what’s a capital expense and what’s an operating expense – I think you lose some control over it.” He checked with Hempstead, who agreed that the council would have line item supervision over the capital budget, not the BOE.
Longo and Dadonna said they put the expenses in the capital budget in part because they expect a very difficult budget year in 2014-2015. They want to make sure the materials are in place as the switch to Common Core Standards is mandated, and they don’t want students to fall behind.
Longo explained that next year will be difficult because the freeze on teacher’s salaries will be over, meaning a 4.3 percent increase, or a nearly $3 million addition to the budget. Health care costs go up about 5 percent a year, which will be $1.5 million, even though, he said, the board “sidestepped $2.8 million in costs by restructuring health care.” So the budget is expected to be 3 percent higher “straight out of the gate,” he said.
Councilman Jerry Petrini (R-District A) asked when the state would deliver an answer on the ECS (Educational Cost Sharing ) recalculation.
“It’s completely unrealistic to think we’re going to be getting our fair share of ECS funding,” Barbis replied.
But Hempstead and others said the budget numbers themselves are “realistic.”
“At least I feel we had a good dialogue,” Hempstead said after the meeting. “Everybody got to ask their questions. That’s the most important part, what we had here tonight. How individuals take away from this (I don’t know) – but I think when we get into our cap discussions over the next four weeks, we collectively have enough information that we all kind of hurt together.”
He said thought the board has presented “a budget that’s in range” vs. “a seven-course dinner,” making a “a world of difference,” in the council’s response. That is, in part, because the board finally has a chief financial officer, he said.
Still it’s going to be tough, he said. Without any official numbers coming out, he has heard that, if every city department gets what it wants, taxpayers would be looking at a 6 percent increase. “I think everybody is concerned about what the overall impact is going to be if everybody gets what they’re looking for,” he said.
The inclusion of Common Core in the capital budget is a problem, he said. “I think the most difficult choice out of all this is going to be is there a way of funding this core curriculum the first two years, keep it outside operating budget or not,” he said.
What about the feeling on the BOE budget, overall?
“I didn’t hear anybody tonight coming out single-handedly saying I support your budget 100 percent,” he said. “Last year you had a couple of members just saying ‘Give them everything they asked for.’ Maybe I’m reading too much into it, maybe they’re a little closer to the vest, I don’t know.”
Council members attending the meeting were Carvin Hilliard (D-District B), Warren Peña (D-At Large), John Igneri (D-District E), Jerry Petrini (R-District E), Doug Hempstead (R-At Large), Bruce Kimmel (D-District D), Sarah Mann (R-At Large), Michael Geake (U-District B), Matt Miklave (D-District A), David Watts (D-District A) and Michelle Maggio (R-District E).