Q&A: Council’s Kimmel questions BoE about proposed school budget

Council Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel vets the school budget request with BoE's Rich Rudl.
Council Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel vets the school budget request with BoE’s Rich Rudl.

NORWALK, Conn. – (Editor’s note: The following is a question-and-answer exchange between Common Council Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) and Board of Education Finance Director Rich Rudl, provided to NancyOnNorwalk by Kimmel with Rudl’s consent. The Q&A focuses on the whats and the whys of the BoE budget request for the upcoming 2015-16 cycle. Kimmel’s words are in normal type; Rudl’s responses are bold italic):


Although Norwalk residents have been preoccupied with the resignation of Superintendent Rivera, it is important to note that the school system has continued to address a variety of serious issues. This is reflected in areas related to curriculum, facilities, and technology. But what sometimes goes under the radar is the excellent job the BOE’s finance department has been doing in relation to budget issues; how that department has consistently found ways to save taxpayers money.

As the chair of the Common Council’s Finance Committee, I regularly send the BOE budget related questions. Below are a set of questions I recently sent to Dr. Rivera, along with the answers provided by Rich Rudl, the BOE finance director. I commend the entire BOE and its staff for the hard work they have doing and for the excellent budget document they have produced. I believe the public will find these answers interesting.

  1. While I and others are pleased with the 2.74 percent increase in spending, I was somewhat surprised because, if I remember correctly, last year your long term estimates called for a larger increase this year. What happened? I had thought that the board would request somewhere between four and five percent.

During the FY 14/15 budget presentation we produced a multiyear model that made a number of assumptions. These assumptions brought a projected budget of 4.7 percent from FY 14/15 to FY 15/16. This gave us an opportunity to zero in on areas we felt could make a significant difference in our recommended operating budget for 15/16. The following areas are changes that allowed us to bring forward a recommended budget of 2.74 percent vs. 4.7 percent.

  • The insurance trust fund now has a surplus as opposed to a deficit. This surplus in the insurance trust fund now allows us to remove the margin within our 212 account that was previously forecasted in the multiyear model as the funding is available within the insurance trust fund. This is a reduction of approximately $1.2 million.
  • Through collectively bargained contracts we have transitioned all employees (except food service) starting 1/1/2015 to the HDHP. This has resulted in significant savings as we have seen favorable claim experience and a lower trend rate over the last 18 months. Additionally, through collective bargaining premium shares have increased resulting in additional net income in the insurance trust fund. This has resulted in savings against the projection of approximately $1.4 million.
  • The NFT Re-opener restructured the existing teacher salary schedule to grandfather all +15 columns, reduce the amount of steps from 33 to 22 and eliminated longevity. By doing this it smoothed out the salary schedule. This re-opener saved approximately $1 million.
  • The Norwalk Public Schools has generated additional Medicaid revenue through the filing of the annual cost report and monthly reimbursements. This has been done as a result of having 1 individual person whose sole responsibilities is to work on the cost report and submit monthly claims for reimbursement. We are going to be recommending shortly a change in vendor who support our Medicaid Billing process, which we feel can further improve our revenue intake. This has yielded additional revenue above projection of $700,000.
  • Creation of an in-district special education program where we are electing to create a Middle School Therapeutic classroom and hire 22 ABA Therapists and 3 BCBA Professionals to better serve students in district has resulted in a savings against projection of $350,000 (due to savings on sending special education children to expensive outside programs).
  • Contracting out custodial services has yielded a savings of $270,000.


  1. While I do not believe there should be negative consequences for success, this question is probably in order: Last year, the board had a surplus of almost $3 million. That money is currently being spent and, in my opinion, spent well. We are more than half way through the 14/15 budget; at this point, do you again expect a surplus at the end of the budget year? If that is indeed the case, one might conclude the 15/16 request, with its 2.74 percent spending increase, will end up around 4 percent or 4.5 percent over actual spending, which I believe is closer to what was projected last year. Could you elaborate on this issue?

Currently we are tracking well below budget in the current fiscal year and I do anticipate having a surplus. While it is still early in the current fiscal year as we only have 6 months closed, when factoring in our year end accruals (pending 1 time expenses that are scheduled for the end of the fiscal year) we are running about 1.5 percent below budget, which would translate to approximately $2.5 million in surplus dollars. One of the main reasons we are tracking below budget is we have begun implementation of position control and each position that is posted is signed off by the finance department before any posting can occur. This prohibits using any funds earmarked for an existing but vacant position for new positions. Additionally, I will implement a purchase order freeze at some point during the fiscal year, which I believe is good financial practice. While we are projected to see $2.5 million at this current stage as a surplus, I do anticipate sitting down with our facilities department to utilize some of those funds to accelerate projects that are in the pipeline to make additional progress in addressing long-deferred building maintenance issues.

I would not characterize the use of surplus funds as having a budget in the 4 to 4.5 percent range, for the primary reason being we do not utilize surplus funds for re-occurring expenses. This allows us to make strategic decisions to move the district forward without adding to our base budget, which would then compound increases in outer years. As you know, previous years’ surpluses have been directed to capital projects or system improvements, not base-budget funding.

  1. As you recall, last year the Council and the BOE discussed differences between Norwalk and Danbury, two cities with similar demographics. Apart from the unconscionably large difference in ECS funding between the two towns, as well as the different number of high schools, have we implemented any cost saving reforms related to that discussion?

One of the primary reasons for differences in Norwalk and Danbury is our contractual agreements. During the recent NFT Re-opener negotiations we successfully negotiated an NFT contract which is much more in line with the structure of other Fairfield County districts, which includes the removal of +15 columns, elimination of longevity and reduction in steps.

Another area we have focused on is our custodial contract. Our current custodial contract puts many constraints on the use of our staff such as sq. footage maintained, which increases cost. Additionally we have a custodial union that is near the top of CT in terms of pay for equivalent work. We have begun the process of contracting out services through attrition at two of our elementary schools with plans to gradually extend that to additional sites.

Finally, special education costs are greater in Norwalk, heavily contributed-to by out-of-district tuition payments. As noted above, this budget begins the process of bringing our children back in-house, by providing the services not previously available. Although this increases the size of our staff, it nevertheless reduces costs by reducing outside placements that often exceed $100K per year per child to fund.

  1. Last year, we approved $870,000 for the superintendent. Much of that has been spent. Could you provide what that money was used for, what are the plans going forward? Has any of this money been allocated in ways that will ultimately reduce our out-of-district tuition costs?

The $870,000 was earmarked for a variety of items to redesign many of the areas seen as in need of critical improvement in the district.

  • $350,000 was invested into our Human Resources Department to better serve the district. This included two additional HR Specialists, a Benefits Coordinator and a Director of Labor Relations.
  • $200,000 was invested into Special Education to allow for additional special education supervisors and professional development.
  • $175,000 was invested into our Curriculum Department as a Chief Academic Officer (though this position is yet to be filled).
  • $45,000 was invested into communications.
  • $100,000 was set aside for a facility utilization study, which was approved by the Board this week. The bids for the study were more than double the set aside so we have used available unencumbered funds to fully fund this study.

The funds set aside to help invest in Special Education (by providing more resources to attend PPT and monitor Special Education placements) are designed long-term to help reduce our overall out of district cost.

  1. We have read that the request for 22 additional behavioral counseling and analyst positions will actually save the city money in the short term because we will not be paying outside consultants. This has raised questions because consultants do not require benefits, etc. Could you explain in some detail how those positions will lead to savings?

The Board Approved Budget calls for the hiring of 22 ABA Therapists and 3 BCBA Analysts. Currently the Norwalk Public Schools contracts out for services at a variety of agencies for ABA Therapists and the costs of these therapists runs anywhere between $70,000 to $100,000 paid to the agency. Our proposal is to hire the 22 ABA Therapists at Group 5 in NFEP at a full time rate, which would include benefits. The cost including benefits is approximately $60,000 per ABA Therapist. Many of the ABA Therapists who work at these agencies do not receive benefits from their employers and receive either lower wage rates or comparable wage rates to what we propose. We have had discussions with some firms that specialize in this area and they are very confident in our ability to attract quality ABA therapists at an NFEP Group 5 rate with benefits. The savings would materialize through not continuing to contract out with the highest-rate consulting firms for ABA Therapists.

  1. In relation to #5 above: On page 15 of the budget summary, the projected out of district tuition and special education consulting costs are projected to decrease by $1.2 million. Is this because of the additional 22 positions? Are other factors, such as the Roosevelt School project, part of this?

Yes, this is a direct result of a reduction in contracting out with agencies for ABA Therapists and hiring them directly through NFEP. The reduction of $1.3 million in professional and technical services is, however, offset partially with the cost of hiring these ABA therapists. Some of these ABA Therapists would be located at Norwalk Early Childhood Center (Roosevelt).

  1. Again in relations to #5 above: Is the addition of those 22 positions part of the overall plan to reduce out of district special education costs? If so, explain how this would happen. Also, could you elaborate on other items in the budget related to reducing our out-of-district tuition costs?

The creation of a Middle School Therapeutic classroom is designed to create cost avoidance for out of district placements. The expectation is that through creating such a classroom with the right resources and environment we could see a reduction of approximately 8 students for a cost of $496,000. It is important to know that tuition doesn’t stay flat year to year. So those students still out-placed would see increases in their tuition bills, which is what causes more of a cost avoidance scenario in year 1.

  1. On page 12 of the summary, a graph appears that indicates our free and reduced lunch eligibility has been increasing and is currently at 51 percent of students. My concern: What percent of those eligible for free and reduced lunch have submitted the paperwork to ensure that the city receives funds that match our demographics. Do we have schools where the number of students on free and reduced lunch is less than what we would expect from the demographics? Perhaps a small question, budget wise, but years back I believe we missed out on a fair amount of federal funds due to local paperwork issues.

We do provide paperwork for all students to submit for free & reduced lunch. The one school that has trended downwards in terms of free and reduced lunch given their high population of 99’s is Wolfpit. But given their current demographics a 40 percent free and reduced rate is somewhat expected.

  1. Another small (budget-wise) question: On page 17 of the summary, it seems to indicate that Norwalk and BMHS do not currently have a bilingual receptionist? Is this true? If so, how have these and perhaps other schools been handling language issues with visitors?

Currently there are no bilingual receptionists at the High Schools. We have commissioned a study of the clerical and administrative support positions at both the High Schools and Middle Schools through Blum Shapiro to study the need of whether or not our current set up is effective. We have set aside in the 15/16 budget funds to redesign our clerical support staff at these locations pending the results of the study, which should be completed by the end of January.

  1. Page 10 of the budget book has a large decrease in professional and technical services. While I assume much of that reduction is due to the additional 22 positions, the description also mentions (or implies) a reduction in legal services. Is that accurate? What are the BOE’s outside legal costs, and how are they trending? Would it be prudent to begin discussing ways to bring some of these legal costs in house, either in a separate BOE department, or as part of the city’s corporation counsel’s office?

The reduction in professional and technical services relates to the change from contracted ABA Therapists in SPED to hiring our own ABA Therapists.

In terms of legal services, we have budgeted $490,000 for legal services for the district and special education, which is 0.3 percent of our operating budget. While we make use of corporation counsel as best we can, response time from corporation counsel tends to be limited by its relatively small staff, which can end up costing the district more as cases take longer to resolve, grievances that go to mediation are not resolved, and contractual negotiations are not as strong. In addition, of course, there are highly specialized areas of education law requiring expertise not found in the corporation counsel’s office. We have retained Tom Mooney for our contracts negotiations and education-related legal work, and as a result have netted the district savings well into the millions for NFT, ESG, NFEP, Technicians, Nurses and NASA. Moving to an in house legal service would likely reduce our legal fee line item but cost the district in other areas far more, resulting in a net increase to our base budget. We note that corporation counsel (through Jeff Spahr) provides very high quality representation for NPS in municipal law areas we share with the City, such as FOIC, CHRO and employment matters.

  1. In several places, the budget documents mention “carryover funds.” For instance, on page 125 of the budget book, under state revenues for the alliance district set aside, the notation at the bottom of the page says that the carryover funds are excluded. Then, on page 126, under grants for adult education and the alliance grant, it states at the bottom of the next page that the carryover is included. Does all this mean we did not use the full grant this year, and it is somehow being projected for next year? Could you explain this, what it is, how much, etc.? Sorry if I missed something obvious.

We have made the strategic decision to utilize alliance in a way that allows for carryover of funds. When Norwalk was first awarded alliance funding we primarily funded coaching positions with this grant. In many instances strong candidates could not be found, which resulted in vacant positions and thus carry over. The quality of the person hired was far more important than just making a hire (which, in some cases, can delay hiring and result in carry over or in no candidate selected). Last year we made the decision to fund 7 Common Core Instructional Site Directors with Alliance, Funding for a K-5 Coach, and Funding for Briggs. When we decided to go this route it meant freezing spending in the grant more than a year ago so that we could utilize the grant as well as additional carryover funds to fully fund these programs and positions not just for 1 year but continually in the future. As a district we felt utilizing these funds to help with our early literacy and alternative programs was the best use of these funds, but in order to maintain these programs past 1 year it meant utilizing carry-over on a year to year basis. When we fund a program we draw down on the carry over first and then draw down on the award. By doing so it allows each budget to have a limited amount of carryover each year.

  1. Capital budget question: Under capital budget improvement projects, summary page, there are 16 items for a total of $1,032,800 for tech stuff. When the BOE approves these projects, it is really only improving the general intent of the purchases and the dollar amounts. Next year, unless the board creates a technology committee, the actual bid results will have to be approved by the Council’s Land Use and Building Management committee, and then the full Council. We have always been uncomfortable dealing with these detailed bidding documents knowing the full Board has not weighed in on the details. Is it possible to change the procedure so that the board first approves the details, then the city’s technology committee, and finally the Council?

Ralph Valenzisi, our head of Technology, Innovation and Partnerships has brought the idea of an ad hoc committee for Technology with a Board Member being the chair. This would allow a committee to review all capital purchases before it goes to Land Use and the Counsel for approval. The hope is for this technology committee to be up and running in the next school year.

  1. Capital budget question: West Rocks window replacement, which includes abatement, is $800,000. While that’s high, something tells me it’s not going to be enough, that the abatement costs will push the amount higher. Since funds cannot be moved around so easily for capital projects, is the board confident in this number?

We are relatively confident in our projections for the window replacement. Our Facilities Director, Bill Hodel, did speak with some vendors to gauge cost of a project such as this and based on those discussions the budget was built.


6 responses to “Q&A: Council’s Kimmel questions BoE about proposed school budget”

  1. piberman

    NON has performed a very major public service in reporting this detailed exchange. Those who have long argued for appropriate financial expertise within the Central Office can readily appreciate the fine exchange. And kudos to Councilman Kimmel for submitting the detailed questions to Mr Rudl. The transformation of the BOE in recent years into a fully credible City Board capable of exercising prudent financial management is remarkable and an example for other City agencies. We look forward to a detailed set of questions by Councilman Kimmel and his Committee to Department Heads on the forthcoming City budget. Hopefully other Council Committee Chairs will follow Councilman Kimmel’s fine example of doing ones homework.

  2. anon

    @Berman, agree, great job all around.

  3. Taxpayer Fatigue

    Kudos to Rich Rudl for finally implementing some fiscal responsibility into the Education Budget. However, a 2.74% increase still translates to an additional $4,560.206. With the BOE budget at 53% of of the overall budget, even if the City departments comes in with a flat budget, property taxes will still have to be increased.

    It also sounds like the BOE is now budgeting to run a surplus, which is a good political strategy but does not serve taxpayers. Why not keep the budget flat as a goal and authorize additional funds if needed, or maybe just a 1.5% increase, which is still an additional $2.5M?

  4. Bruce Kimmel

    The Council generally addresses city-side budget requests at the committee level.

    For instance, we have had several discussions with DPW regarding the requests for a permit engineer and a civil engineer. In finance, we’ve discussed the costs versus savings of bringing risk management in house. And a number of capital budget requests have already been discussed in the Land Use and Building Management committee.

    The Finance Committee of the Council is scheduled, weather permitting, to have a special working meeting with the BOE on its budget requests this Wednesday evening. The full Council and BOE have been invited. Of course, the public is also welcome, though it is more like a workshop and there will be no public participation.

    The public can way in on the budget at the Finance Committee’s next regular meeting on February 12, at the public hearing that will take place February 19, or at the full Council meeting, when a spending cap will be adopted, on February 24. The Board of Estimate and Taxation will soon announce its schedule of budget meetings.

  5. Kathleen Montgomery

    Nice job NON!

  6. MarjorieM

    Great questions. Great answers.

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