Response to the Common Council’s Feb. 28 discussion of the FY2023-24 Budget Cap
As we wait for the Common Council to set a budget cap for FY2023-24, the Norwalk Board of Education and I want to address several lingering questions regarding our request for more funding from the City of Norwalk to maintain a level of operation that our scholars and our families have come to expect from Norwalk Public Schools.
First, we want to thank all the families and community members who have raised their voices in support of our schools and our scholars. Your time and passion have not gone unnoticed, and we appreciate you stepping up for your school district to insist on adequate funding.
We remain committed to finding ways to meet the needs of our scholars with the budget set by the city. We will always strive not to compromise the quality and accessibility of the programs we currently offer.
Our Scholars Rely on Our Personnel
Education is a people business, and our teachers and staff are the most important resource available for delivering a high-quality education to our scholars. Every staff position added over the last five years has been to deliver that high quality education to all our scholars.
Prior to the pandemic, Norwalk Public Schools added personnel to address an influx of multilingual learners as well as an increase in our special education population.
As has been pointed out and as shared in our budget books, since 2018, Norwalk Public Schools has added 383 full-time equivalent employees (FTEs). Approximately 80% of those were related to teachers (217) and paraeducators (86).
The addition of 217 teachers addressed the expansion of multilingual learning, helped to build capacity and stay compliant for special education students. This need was clearly stated during prior budget processes and our intent to add these positions for these services was always clearly articulated. Additionally, we recently provided our scholars additional academic supports from math and English/language arts improvement teachers. The 86 paraeducators also addressed the MLL expansion and special education compliance.
Throughout the years, NPS has been very clear in discussing this need and during each budget process, we have demonstrated and made the case for this need.
In his budget request for FY2020-21, former Superintendent Dr. Steven Adamowski asked for $216 million for the FY2020-21 budget to address the district’s changing demographics and growing high-needs population. The city ultimately approved a budget that was $8 million less.
The district’s high needs population had increased from 54% in FY2014-15 to 68% in FY2020-21. For Connecticut’s Accountability reporting, high needs students belong to one or more of the following subgroups: economically-disadvantaged, English learners (MLLs), or students with disabilities (SWD).
For the FY2021-22 operating budget, Norwalk BOE requested a 4.5% ($8.9 million) increase. On the eve of approving the budget, the city decided to flat fund the district “with the understanding that (the BOE) would use their American Rescue Plan funds to somehow compensate for the increase they’re anticipating.”
In response to the flat funding, the Norwalk BOE shifted funding for existing social workers and school counselors from the local budget to grants because these positions satisfied the federal guidelines for the use of ESSER funds. The governor’s executive order also stated that to receive the federal relief dollars, school districts were required to guarantee no employees would be laid off.
School counselors and social workers serve as our first responders for students needing social and emotional support. Over the last two years, they have helped our students transition back to being in school full time, surrounded by their peers, but the pressure of being a kid exists far beyond the impact of the pandemic. They still have to navigate the pressure of school, and friends, and family, and the many changes that come along with getting older.
These positions, currently covered by ESSER funds, will cost $6.6 million to bring back into the local budget and would account for 3% of the increased requested for the FY2023-24 budget.
With all of these actions, some are now insinuating that the Norwalk Board of Education misused its federal COVID-19 relief dollars by adding and maintaining positions that directly addressed the guidelines set by the federal government for the use of those funds.
The U.S. Department of Education stated the ESSER funds could be used “to develop or implement an innovative approach to providing instruction to accelerate learning and mitigate the effects of lost instructional time for students most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.” The district hired 16 math improvement teachers and 15 English/language arts improvement teachers to provide additional academic supports for our scholars.
We need to maintain all of our personnel to continue providing the mandated services for our scholars and addressing the challenges that remain with us.
Gradual Plans Nixed
Several members of the Common Council suggested a “gradual plan” be implemented to address the Norwalk BOE’s budget request over a period of time. It is important to point out that this is exactly what the BOE proposed last year. In light of the flat funding the prior year and in anticipation of the ESSER funds expiring, the BOE FY2022-23 budget included four scenarios to gradually address the expiration of ESSER funds over a three-year period to specifically to avoid the financial situation we find ourselves in today.
The city considered none of them and instead opted to only fund the BOE base budget of 4.5% and not address the expiration of ESSER dollars.
In addition to a scenario where the BOE increase was only 4.5% with an address of the expiring ESSER funds two years later, the BOE also presented a gradual phased in approach where the ESSER expiration could be addressed over a three-year period requiring incremental annual increases to level set for the flat funding rather than a huge increase after the ESSER funds had expired.
The Norwalk Board of Education proposed not one but four gradual plans to address the expiration of ESSER dollars, and the city did not heed our call. To implement a gradual correction today, after the ESSER funds have been depleted, cannot be accomplished without service cuts.
Transparency Is Imperative
Throughout this budget process, we have gone to great lengths to be transparent in explaining how our requested funds will be spent. We even approved the FY2023-24 budget on Dec. 23, a full month earlier than previous years, specifically to give everyone sufficient time to review and comment on the budget.
Every dollar committed to the Norwalk Board of Education will go toward ensuring all our scholars have the tools to be successful in the classroom, stay socially and emotionally healthy, and graduate future ready.
Chief Financial Officer Lunda Asmani gave several presentations to the Norwalk Board of Education explaining the budget breakdown. He has continued to answer questions and provide greater detail during subsequent board and Finance Committee meetings. His office also published the FY2023-24 Operating Budget book that provides all the numbers.
The BOE Finance team and others have responded to many of the questions coming from the community, and we’ve tried to provide those answers in one convenient location on the Norwalk Public Schools website.
Assistant Superintendent of Schools Rob Pennington gave a presentation specifically addressing the increasing costs of our higher needs students and our efforts to keep more of them in the district to receive their education.
Upon my arrival to Norwalk Public Schools, the Board of Education and I requested quarterly meetings with the city to review the budget so we could address any and all concerns year round rather than at the height of the budget season. We have not seen interest from the city to meet once the budget season is over, but we believe it is important that the Norwalk Common Council stay actively involved and informed beyond the typical budget cycle.
Our CFO delivers monthly financial reports at each Board of Education regular meeting. He also provides greater detail of those reports at the monthly Finance Committee meetings.
The Work Continues
The true impact of next year’s budget will only come once the city finalizes the cap on the FY2023-24 Operating Budget. As always, we will strive not to compromise the quality and accessibility of the programs we currently offer.
Our scholars and our families have shown over the last few weeks that they deeply care for their schools and their community. We want to ensure them that we can and will continue to offer the services that they rely on and will produce scholars that graduate future ready as global citizens.
John O'Neill March 2, 2023 at 5:12 pm
My Dad who recently passed away used to have a saying ” That’s a Bunch of Baloney” ..Sadly, as his generation has passed on many crude phrases have subverted that phrase. Although I prefer to use those more modern phrases to describe the letter above I’ll stick to “That’s a bunch of Baloney” as a shoutout to my Dad who was raised in the tenements of New York City.
For the umpteenth time EVERYONE knew the Covid Funds were temporary, AND to be used accordingly. For ANYONE to sell anything else is disingenuous at best.
Skip Hagerty March 3, 2023 at 4:41 am
“an influx of multilingual learners”. In non-academia speak, she really mean a wave of students that can’t speak English. So, among many other things, interpreters are needed in classes and they probably aren’t cheap. But, as a sanctuary city, it’s clearly Norwalk’s moral duty to shoulder this type of financial burden.
Alicia Orabuena March 3, 2023 at 7:16 am
It looks like Mr. O’Neill failed to actually read the article. Yes the BoE and NPS knew the funds were temporary. They were forced to use them for two reasons. The first being that they weren’t given funding that they needed from the city. The city said go ahead and use Covid dollars that year instead. The second, they weren’t eligible for the Covid funding if workers were laid off.
And this is why it’s so important to keep funding education. So many in our community were missed in the past and lack adequate reading comprehension skills.
Johnny cardamone March 3, 2023 at 9:34 am
I am trying to understand this term scholars ? I assume was referring to students!? it’s a bit peculiar. I guess it’s built around the concept of the power of positive thinking.!? I got a master of divinity degree many years ago, but I still never consider myself a scholar! That’s a term of respect that I would reserve to those with Higher and earned Doctorate scholastic credentials! Telling every kid he’s a scholar is disingenuous at best and don’t forget the emperor who had no clothes!
I wish I could use my emojis!
Deanna Hiller March 3, 2023 at 1:15 pm
Dear Dr. Estrella and Norwalk Board of Education,
I am a tax payer and resident in Norwalk. In light of the very large request of 12% for the 23-24 school year budget, I have a question for you.
Why do you say that necessary funding for our students will not be there if the budget is not approved, but are allocating an extra $32,000 to the wage account 111 titled “Superintendent?”
This amounts to a 10% increase. You have many lawsuits pending against NPS which affects all of us as taxpayers. Many of your employees are either resigning or being terminated causing town hall and our schools to be a revolving door. Yet you believe you deserve a 10% raise?
If it is a 10% raise for you, I would like to know the other hardworking educators, who will also see a 10% increase in pay. It is not fair to the taxpayers, to the parents, and to your staff to neglect to share this information beyond the one line in a hundred page document.
No other position in Norwalk Public Schools is seeing that same percentage increase.
I believe the residents need to be informed of this as the Board of Education is not holding you accountable.
John O'Neill March 3, 2023 at 3:47 pm
@Alicia – Thank you for your note. I agree that we should give our kids the best education we can afford to. However, the temporary Covid funding allowed Norwalk to add teachers/programs to deal with a temporary Covid learning loss. Covid has been declared over by our President. Thr funds for those temporary programs are no longer available per the law as it was written. Any temporary programs that were instituted were just that – Temporary….Why should local taxes fund programs that were deemed temporary by the Feds? Should we assume any ‘temporary” program put forth by elected leaders really should be viewed as permanent. In effect a slick bait and switch technique? That’s what this seems like to me..I’m just not smart enough to figure out who to blame…Maybe that was the plan all along?
Tysen Canevari March 3, 2023 at 9:25 pm
Please Mrs Estrella. Can you explain why we must pay out annual lawsuits to cover up for your blunders and cover that? Perhaps, you can cover those with your hefty salary? Maybe we could fit under budget if you didnt hire all your NYC friends that give sub par results including yourself. On what basis does the board justify giving you the highest paid salary in the state of CT? You dont even have the best district within a five mile radius. I know, I know, you will cut band, theatre, and sports. Same old bs you always preach. So creative of your team
Sarah LeMieux March 4, 2023 at 9:02 pm
John, the flat funding of the NPS budget forced the district to use ESSER funds for positions that weren’t intended to be temporary or special. Because of the entire system of how public education has developed in the United States in tandem with capitalism, local school budgets will go up every year, even in the absence of adding positions or programs. Budgets for every large enterprise go up every year. It is possible to know by how much to expect them to go up by looking at contractual increases, inflation adjusting expenses, and estimating how many more children a system will take on over the course of a year, and I would encourage people to look at those numbers, which are public. NPS and the city went through a lengthy audit process, where the NPS budget was found to be lean. 12,000 kids go to school in Norwalk. Private school tuition in our area averages out at about $40K a year, our surrounding districts all spend above 22K per student, and NPS makes do with $17K per year per kid. I wish people would look to more data for context. It’s out there.
John O'Neill March 5, 2023 at 9:15 am
Regarding Tuition: Right here on West Rocks Road All Saints Tuition is $8,000. I’m guessing if there was Real School Choice and voucher system was in place that school would be at capacity. Maybe that’s what’s needed.
On a slightly different note: It looks like Estrella is saving the district money by having Math Coaches give self defense demonstrations to elementary school students.
Terrence McNicholas March 5, 2023 at 11:23 am
@Sarah The district was not FORCED to do anything, they CHOSE to use temporary funding for permanent costs (both new and existing items). They even moved costs from previous budgets over to ESSER funding. Instead of making the tough choices then, it has snowballed and now the options are even more challenging.
Private school tuition is about $40k a year… so what?
Bryan Meek March 5, 2023 at 10:04 pm
6 students for everyone on the payroll. This isn’t that hard to figur out and fix.
Drew Todd March 6, 2023 at 9:39 am
Can someone please explain why Estrella is going to be receiving an over $32K Increase in her salary!?!? Also, maybe just maybe if Estrella would cut her 7/8 Superintendents, The Family Center and all of this Garbage “Diversity” training like the 4 hours today teachers need to endure titled..How to handle conflict with regard to White Supremacy…How much are we paying for this garbage? Why do we have a separate DEI Person and can’t share the useless one the City hired and is wasting our taxes on? Oh and if anyone thinks this post is not accurate? Let me put your mind at ease. It all comes from teachers & Staff that are Micro Managed to death!
Oh BTW, anyone hear about the 2 8th graders beating the crap out of each other at school and their consequences?!?! I’m shocked we didn’t but not to worry bloody lips and all they were right back in the classroom the next day! Welcome to NPS!!