NORWALK, Conn. — Both sides need to do some soul searching when it comes to the Norwalk Board of Education’s budget request, Mayor Harry Rilling said Thursday.
“I know and I recognize, as I know all of you do, the importance of putting together a budget that is not going to tax the people out of the city of Norwalk,” Rilling said to the Common Council Finance Committee, in a joint Council/Board of Education Finance Committee meeting focused on the budget request.
Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski is advocating a $14.3 million increase in the Norwalk Public Schools operating budget, a 7 percent hike, after years of NPS budget hikes.
“Both sides need to do some soul searching and determine all the things that are absolutely essential and all the things that perhaps could wait or be put on hold,” Rilling said.
The recommended budget
Enrollment is expected to jump by 406 students, Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton said. If you multiply that by the per pupil direct cost of $8,193, you’ll see that NPS needs an additional $3.3 million, according to the Board.
Council member Tom Livingston (D-District E) pushed back on that, asking about children being added to existing classrooms. Hamilton explained the concept of student-based budgeting – the money follows the child – and BoE Finance Committee Chairwoman Barbara Meyer-Mitchell said there are contractual caps to class sizes.
The projection comes from Milone & MacBroom, Hamilton said.
The Council sets a cap in February and, “Once we set that cap, we can’t go back so I really hope that that that Milone study as accurate as possible, because I found that my experiences that sometimes those facts aren’t,” Council member John Kydes (D-District C) said.
The major NPS budget driver is $5.6 million in contractual obligations to employees; of that $2.3 million goes to Norwalk Federation of Teachers members and $2.6 million to benefits for all collective bargaining groups.
“By paying employees correctly, we gain stability in our system that serves our students and taxpayers well,” NFT First Vice President Joe Giandurco said at the outset of the discussion. “It’s important that teachers continue to participate in our community by living locally, to the extent possible, and taking part not just in our school activities but in the work of our city.”
Adamowski, who was not present, also seeks $1.85 million to expand the English Language Learner (ELL) program in response to an unexpected influx of ELL students, a one year jump of 300.
“We certainly want to do the right thing. We want to educate all our children, but we also have some laws, federal requirements in this area that we have to be aware of and have to make sure that we are complying with,” Hamilton said.
“Helene Becker, who has this department, has literally written the book on how to do this,” Meyer-Mitchell said. “Norwalk is leading the state and possibly the country in this area, and the recommendations are from her department. This is a three-year phase-in so we are not asking for everything that we legally need.”
The budget covers the students currently enrolled in NPS and possible “normal fluctuations,” not another surprise 300 students next summer, Hamilton said, in response to questions from Council Finance Committee Chairman Greg Burnett (D-At Large).
Council President Barbara Smyth (D-At Large) asked if anyone was seeking federal funding to help with the situation.
“There has been some outreach. I know that Barbara (Meyer-Mitchell) has been spearheading this or working on this, to our congressional delegation,” Hamilton said, commenting that funding is possible but, “I don’t think we can count on that sort of being the savior.”
Meyer-Mitchell suggested a joint Council-BoE statement and a legislative breakfast but “we can… hope that it pays off, but we can’t count on it.”
The projected 406 enrollment increase includes this year’s 300 ELL students, NPS Budget Coordinator Kristen Karzcmit said. However, Hamilton noted that last year’s Milone & MacBroom projection fell short because of the influx.
Another requested expenditure over and above last year’s cost is $337,000 to transition before- and after-school programs to the Carver Center.
“Carver can partner with other federal programs or maybe other grant donors to help fund and provide robust after-school learning for our students,” Karzcmit said.
“One of the things we heard from our stakeholders was with the high cost of living in Norwalk we have families who are working two and three jobs and their childcare is a serious concern, especially as it relates to the Healthy Start Time change,” Meyer-Mitchell said. “We also have a large number of single parent households. So we need to be respectful that we’re providing an efficient, effective poverty enrichment program so that our parents can be at work and be able to pay their taxes,” Meyer-Mitchell said.
Then there’s $165,000 for American Sign Language.
“This has also become a new major at ‘UConn’ and it’s very desirable for our dyslexia population. One in five students has dyslexia,” Meyer-Mitchell said.
‘A small ask’
Adamowski’s recommended budget is $3 million less than requested by the various NPS departments, Meyer-Mitchell and Hamilton noted.
Although $14 million “sounds like a huge number,” all but $3.5 million of it is due to contractual and legal obligations and increasing enrollment, BoE member Colin Hosten said, calling it “actually a really small ask.”
Rilling spoke at the beginning of the meeting.
“This is a very ambitious budget put together by the Board of Education, certainly a bit of a surprise, compared to what we were told last year would be this year,” Rilling said. “But we also recognize that things have changed and there are some greater challenges.”
Rilling said he’d asked City-side department heads to “come in flat,” to only seek to cover contractual mandates, something he also said during last year’s budget cycle.
“We read all too often about people leaving the state of Connecticut, we read all too often about the regressive tax that a property tax is, it’s income and profit blind,” Rilling said. “Your property taxes are due whether or not you have a job, or whether or not your business is making a profit. So we have to be very cautious because, quite frankly, people are leaving the state of Connecticut but fortunately, people are moving into Norwalk. And we want to keep it that way.”
Yes, “Norwalk has the largest Rainy Day Fund in the state of Connecticut,” but, “that’s not a bad thing because a lot of people are talking about the potential for a recession,” he said. “.… So, raiding the Rainy Day Fund is not the best option.”
He concluded, “Let’s do some soul searching put together a budget that’s not only fair and gives us a world class education, but a budget that’s fair for the taxpayers of the city of Norwalk.”